This is what happens when professors show they care about students
Students appreciated more feedback from professors, a recent study found. Source: Shutterstock

College can be a stressful ride for students, but a new report has found that small steps professors take to show they care about students can have positive results.

By emailing individual economics students at the University of California Davis – with the email promoting self-efficacy and help-seeking behaviour – students responded by spending more time on their homework and getting a better perception of the course and professor. They scored higher in exams too, according to the results of the pilot study conducted by professors Michal Kurlaender and Scott Carrell.

While there was no significant improvement in overall course performance or the rate of course withdrawals, students certainly appreciated the emails.

In one example, a student replied to a professor: “[I’d] like to thank you for offering your help in such a kind manner, I’ve rarely seen teachers at this school respond to missed assignments the way you have.

“I’ll be sure to complete future assignments in a timely manner, the first practice homework was indeed pretty helpful.”

In many colleges and universities across the country, especially large ones, it can be easy for students to feel like just another number. And though both professors and students want to know and engage more personally with each other, it can be hard. Many may not know how to do it; professors face many time constraints and for international students, there may be additional cultural and language barriers.

Yet, feedback from professors was found to be the top trait international students would like to see more. According to another survey by ELS Educational Services, which sought responses from 662 international students at 23 colleges and universities, many international students said they want their professors to provide more feedback (35 percent), something they desired more of than even understanding international students’ perspectives (33 percent), or making classroom materials available after class (32 percent).

Where more engagement is needed

In a larger study at a university where students were more in need of professor engagement, Kurlaender and Carrell saw the same positive results, albeit with the exception of course performance. At a less-selective University of California school, researchers got professors to send three targeted emails – a welcome email, followed by a mid-semester performance review and one before the end of semester – to more than 2,000 students in spring 2016 and fall 2017. Professors gave feedback on ways to better understand classes and tasks, as well tips to do better in class overall.

The emails are only around five sentences, but the tone in each one was encouraging and well put together.

Professors said the range of student responses to their emails range from being curious and concerned to the more positive, with some even thanking their professors and promising to do better.

One student replied to a history professor: “I attend every class, go to the review sessions, and have turned in the extra credit so I am defiantly [sic] trying to do well but I am still struggling.

“I will come to office hours and try to meet up with our TA as well. Let me know if there is anything else I can do. Thank you!”

It’s easy to feel like just another number in a large college ot university. Source: Shutterstock

Some professors noted that such a reaction would likely come from students who were already engaged, rather than those who weren’t. A survey on students found that positive results mostly came from Latinx, female, first-year students and more prepared students, based on high school transcripts.

Regardless of this, professors reported being surprised at the gratitude students felt  for the emails. A number also spoke about the importance of interacting with students outside of the classroom.

Co-author Kurlaender said to Inside Higher Ed: “Everything we know from K-12 education is that teaching matters.

“Yet somehow we’ve left the college classroom alone. We have wraparound services for students, but the classroom space is considered sacrosanct and faculty can do whatever they want.” A bigger study is planned with more emails per semester or even a face-to-face meeting, which could answer why the emails did not lead to better course performance.

“Maybe this was too light-touch, but we wanted something scalable but that wouldn’t take too much time,” Kurlaender told Inside Higher Ed.

Either way, she said of faculty engagement, “This is an untapped space where we should think about moving the graduation rate.”

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