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Pattison, P et al --- "Mind and soul: connecting with students" [2011] LegEdDig 28; (2011) 19(2) Legal Education Digest 41

Mind and soul: connecting with students

P Pattison, J R Hale and P Gowens

Journal of Legal Studies Education, Vol 28, No. 1, 2011, pp 39-66

Excellent professors are not born with teaching ability, nor does success depend on particular personality traits or characteristics. Many scholarly journal articles have attempted to identify and define teaching excellence. Many of these articles include examples of characteristics or personality traits associated with excellent teachers.

The Varca and Pattison article identified four critical performance dimensions necessary to attain excellent student teaching evaluations: administration, classroom delivery, student interactions, and teacher motivation.

Critical incidents are examples of particularly effective, or ineffective, performance. To be most effective, three pieces of information should be included when recording a critical incident: the context of the behaviour (what led up to the behaviour), the behaviour itself, and the consequences of the behaviour. It is important to note that critical incidents are centred on behaviour, not personality.

The critical incident technique was used in the studies reported in this article to identify the teaching behaviours that will guide professors in connecting with students. By identifying key events that students associate with respect and caring, or disrespect and lack of caring, professors can learn how to modify their behaviours. There is more potential for improvement if examples of desired behaviour items are used, instead of abstract, general characteristics. Feedback can come from student evaluation, peer review, or administrative review; the resulting behavioural profile of critical incidents allows professors to build improvement programs. Expanding on the 2001 Varca and Pattison study, the present studies identify teaching behaviours that should be eliminated in order to avoid unacceptably poor teaching (disrespect and poor interaction) and behaviours that should be cultivated in order to become part of the small group at the other extreme (respect and high level of connectedness).

There is a causal relationship between student satisfaction, student learning of course content, and student motivation for further learning. In general, the student evaluation literature indicates that there are positive correlations between the ratings of instructors and how much students learn in a course.

Studies have come to conflicting conclusions on whether the size of the class, the gender of the students and the instructor, the status (requirement or elective) of the course, or the time of day the course is offered affect student ratings. Research indicates that there is no significant difference in ratings based on whether students are majors or non-majors, the level of the course (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, or graduate), the rank of the professor, or the anticipated grades of the students. Contrary to intuition, students give higher ratings in difficult courses where they have to work hard.

The questions on many teaching evaluation forms seem to elicit student comments based on personality characteristics or traits. However, empirical research indicates a marginal relationship between high teacher ratings and personality traits. Only three personality traits – positive self-esteem, energy, and enthusiasm – tend to correlate with student ratings.

One interesting and informative study was undertaken in 1988 with 144 of the most effective marketing ‘master’ teachers. The study reinforced the concept that master teachers view their students first as people and second as learners. One of the respondents said, ‘I do not see the people in my classes as “students”, but as “equals” who just don’t happen to know as much about marketing as I do. I also respect my students and demonstrate my understanding that my classes aren’t the most important thing in their lives!’.

In order to establish and maintain rapport with students, master teachers have responded that maintaining a friendly demeanour is the most important characteristic. Translating this characteristic into observable behaviours, they further commented that they individually greet students using their names, respectfully listen to questions and concerns, and ask about career plans. Excellent teachers are perceived as coaches who want ‘to help students learn things that will be useful to them in their personal and professional lives’. One master teacher advised, ‘Never, never put them down – they are never dead wrong anyway’.

Eleven years later a second study questioned well-regarded educators in marketing. When asked to reflect on the changes they had made in their teaching, many focused on the change in their professional roles. One respondent commented that faculty roles have become more inclusive, ‘part parent, part entertainer and part consultant’.

In 2003, a third study involving marketing professors determined that many of the fundamentals associated with master teaching remained the same as those from the 1988 study. Strong communication skills, use of interactive styles, and thought-provoking questions remained major characteristics of excellent professors. The general differentiating characteristics associated with master teachers included a ‘real-world perspective (discussing current events, linking theory to practice), caring/empathy (listening, individual sensitivity), and an involvement orientation (requiring students to participate in the learning process)’.

The present studies were conducted over a two-year period at a large southern state university. They were conducted with several goals in mind. Updating and building on the 2001 Varca and Pattison study was primary. A second goal was to use a broader sample of students, and the third was to differentiate undergraduate student responses from graduate student responses.

Using the critical incident technique discussed above, data were collected from university students in 28 different business classes in a large state university. The class sizes ranged from 30 to 94 students, and student majors reflected a broad constituency of all university students.

Fifteen hundred-nine critical incidents were collected from predominately undergraduate students; it will be referred to as the undergraduate group. Four hundred twenty-three responses were collected from graduate students enrolled in the MBA and Master of Accountancy programs; it will be referred to as the graduate group. Initially, the critical incident cards were reviewed by the researchers for accuracy and behaviour orientation. Continuously reviewing for content, we read each critical incident and sorted them into categories of similar statements.

One of the most interesting results of the study was the realisation that students will perceive almost everything a professor does as a reflection of the professor’s level of caring and respect for students.

In the undergraduate group, the sorting method for each student response produced a profile suggesting that student interactions could be partitioned into four somewhat distinct dimensions: affirmation of students as persons (approximately 35 per cent of the responses), teaching task (approximately 29 per cent of the responses), taking time (approximately 21 per cent of the responses), and communication techniques (approximately 15 per cent of the responses). In the graduate group, the students’ perceptions differed in that affirmation of the students totalled 28 per cent, teaching task totalled 42 per cent, taking time totalled 16 per cent, and communication techniques totalled 14 per cent. The graduate students placed slightly more emphasis on the teaching task than the undergraduates and apparently placed less value on the affirmation behaviours.

Affirmation of students as persons refers to recognition of and respect for students as individuals. The undergraduate group of responses, representing approximately 35 per cent of the total number of responses, can be further divided into five subgroups. The behaviours associated with this dimension are valuing student opinions (approximately 28 per cent of the responses in this dimension); knowing student names (20 per cent); taking a personal interest in students (20 per cent); treating students as equals (18 per cent); and acknowledging good work, empathy, and fairness (14 per cent). Twenty-eight per cent of the graduate student responses were in this category. Their responses were further sorted into the following subgroups of behaviours: taking a personal interest in students (41 per cent), learning names (22 per cent), treating students as equals (17 per cent), empathy and fairness (15 per cent), and respecting opinions (5 per cent).

Positive comments regarding student opinions were ‘Willingness to listen to students’ concerns and issues’ and ‘Listens to my opinion carefully’. In the undergraduate group, 80 per cent of the comments were negative, such as ‘Arrogant towards students by insulting their questions and constantly reminding them of his PhD’, ‘Total disregard for students’ opinions and questions’, ‘Unwilling to listen to students’ ideas’, ‘Makes students feel dumb for not sharing same beliefs as teacher’, and ‘Teacher humiliated students in front of class’. In the graduate group, five per cent of responses selected this subgroup of valuing student opinions; 11 per cent of those responses were phrased negatively.

Taking a personal interest in students is also recognised in a strong, positive way by both undergraduate and graduate students. Typical responses include, ‘Tried to get involved in what’s going on in students’ lives’, ‘She was curious about our lives’, ‘Asked questions about what was happening in students’ lives’, ‘Kept class lists of photos to give letters of recommendation after they took his class’, ‘Teacher can pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses and give you feedback’, ‘Was concerned about my success in and out of the classroom’, and ‘Observed changes in my character and asked me if everything was okay’.

Professors who treat students as equals are highly regarded. Students appreciate professors who acknowledge them as friends and colleagues, both in class and outside of class.

Empathy and encouragement were both positively listed, but lack of fairness was a significant negative factor. Typical positive statements included, ‘The instructor made students feel as if we all belonged to that class’; ‘Could talk to students at students’ level’; ‘He always pushed me and because of him I’m in college’; ‘Inspiring and encouraging; expected every student to perform better’; ‘Comfortable to be with. Easy to talk to. Answered questions. Did not think less of me because I was struggling. Encouraged me’; and ‘Paid attention to everyone in the class’. On the negative side, these comments were also recorded: ‘Teacher sold note cards in class for $10 that were needed to pass the exam’ and ‘Rude and ugly to students with different backgrounds’.

It appears that students do want feedback and do want to be challenged by their teachers; faculty who can do this well are highly regarded. However, when the dialogue is threatening or viewed as abusive, students see this as inappropriate and appear to dismiss the feedback along with the teacher. Teachers who personalise materials (use stories that relate to the instructor’s experiences), relate concepts to real life, or somehow bring relevant real-world experiences into the classroom are highly regarded. The negative behaviour responses suggest that students strongly dislike mechanical presentations of materials. In the graduate study, students were quite vocal in this category, especially when describing the negative teaching techniques (59 per cent of the comments were stated as negative teaching techniques).

Overall, the most frequent positive response in the Teaching Task dimension described behaviours in the classroom learning environment. Outstanding teachers are knowledgeable and see the big picture, put material in context and offer clear examples or work example problems to reinforce the material, are structured and organised, stick to the syllabus or class calendar, integrate material from other courses, make assignments that reinforce class lectures and reading assignments, and encourage and answer questions. Ineffective faculty often entertain without covering assigned material, are impatient, employ unfair or prejudicial grading practices, tend to make the course harder than necessary, are not concerned about students, offer few explanations, do not return assignments or exams in a timely fashion, and do not provide constructive feedback.

The second most frequent positive response related to preparation and organisation. Students indicated that outstanding faculty devoted significant amounts of time to structuring their courses, preparing well-organised lectures, developing supporting materials that reinforced learning goals, and providing out-of-class group review sessions or one-on-one assistance during office hours. On the other hand, ineffective faculty were frequently unprepared for class, were unorganised, did not communicate effectively, made assignments that were little more than busywork (did not reinforce learning goals), did not work sample problems or provide examples that reinforced concepts, and simply read from PowerPoint slides or publishers’ slides. Rather than engaging students in the teaching-learning process they delivered dry, boring lectures straight from the textbook with no supporting examples or sample problems.

In the graduate group, 59 per cent of the responses were stated as negative teaching techniques. Graduate students’ responses include: ‘[the professor] got irritated when we asked questions’, ‘[the professor] wasted our time in class and never really addressed topics addressed in the syllabus’,’and ‘[the professor] was poorly prepared and read from the book ... we didn’t learn anything’. The graduate students have high expectations that the professors will perform well.

Of the 1,509 total responses gathered from students in the undergraduate study, approximately 20 per cent fell in the dimension of taking time. Student comments noted that respectful behaviour from professors included communicating one on one, spending extra out-of-class time, having quality in-class interaction, being present for office hours, responding to emails and calls, and listening. Students have clear expectations about a teacher’s minimum responsibilities, such as meeting class on time, having regular office hours, and responding to emails.

The most frequent emergent subgroup in the Taking Time dimension was a general category (29 per cent in the undergraduate group and 37 per cent in the graduate group) of the responses in this dimension. Students stressed the importance of professors spending individual time with them. Among the negative comments were that the professor was ‘not available to help students on the subject’ and ‘never had time for students, always involved in something else or had someplace he had to go’.

The second most common emergent theme (27 per cent in the undergraduate group and 14 per cent in the graduate group) was of those professors who took ‘extra time.’ Instructors who helped with resumes, wrote letters of recommendation, sponsored student organisations, and attended student events were applauded, as were those who ‘stayed extra hours to help us’. Negative entries reflect professors ‘being unavailable for out of class meetings/unwilling to make themselves available for any extra meetings/time’.

A third theme emerged (with 14 per cent in the undergraduate group and 40 per cent in the graduate group) dealing with in-class issues. Of these, 72 per cent were negatively worded with the undergraduates and 59 per cent with the graduate students. Students stated that disrespectful behaviour included professors cancelling class or tests without notice and missing class constantly.

The fourth emergent theme concerned professors responding to students’ calls and emails (13 per cent in the undergraduate group and 5 per cent in the graduate group). Over half of these responses were worded negatively; ‘[Professor] took a long time to respond to an important email or call’ was a recurrent comment. Students took special note on the positive comments when professors gave home and cell phone numbers for emergency contact information.

A fifth emergent theme dealt with office hours, which represented 12 per cent of the undergraduate and 4 per cent of the graduate responses. Most of the comments in this category were stated positively, including ‘always available with lots of office hours and always there’.

The final recurrent theme centred on time spent listening in general (5 per cent of the comments in this dimension in the undergraduate group while seldom cited in the graduate group). A majority were positive comments, like ‘he was a great listener who was still willing to learn himself’.

The Communication Techniques dimension centres on presentation style and the manner in which information was delivered in the classroom setting. Students commented on nonverbal communication such as eye contact, smiling, humour, and motivation. Approximately 85 per cent of the comments on nonverbal communication were negative; students strongly dislike a monotone voice, a condescending tone, yelling, scowling, and throwing objects.

Students made very favourable comments about professors who are enthusiastic or passionate about their topic or about teaching in general. In contrast, they are strongly negative about professors they characterise as having a bad disposition or attitude. Rudeness, impatience, short tempers, combative, disgust, and grumpy were terms used to describe negative characteristics. ‘Likes to dominate the classroom by using fear’ is an example of a negative attitude.

The present study adds to the literature by presenting results from a much larger group of students and by differentiating between undergraduate and graduate responses.

Focusing on student–faculty interactions, we suggest that students are more likely to be satisfied and successful in classes where they perceive that their professors primarily care about them as individuals rather than merely concentrate on the transfer of knowledge as the most important criteria in teaching. One behaviour that emerged in the present study was the students’ appreciation of the professors who will also permit the students to know them as individuals.

The combination of mind and soul is the key to achieving excellence as reflected in student ratings of teachers. The studies reported in this article describe the behaviours of professors who are perceived to care about their students as individuals. There are four identified categories of behaviours that reflect excellent, connected professors: affirmation of students, taking time, the teaching task, and communication techniques.

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