In ancient Syracuse, or so the story goes, the Greek philosopher Archimedes had been charged with figuring out how to ascertain whether a gold crown was indeed made entirely of gold, and not mixed with another, less precious, metal. (Melting it down was not an option.) He was pondering the problem one day as he was settling into a bathtub. Inspiration suddenly struck; he noted that the water rose in accord with his getting in. He surmised that he could use a container of water to compare the crown’s displacement with that of pure gold. This was the basis of “Archimedes Principle.” Excited by his discovery, he immediately ran into the streets of Syracuse, naked, yelling “Eureka!”
I recently had a “Eureka!” moment at a teaching conference. While I did not end up running naked through the halls shouting the word, I had a similar sense of inspiration and discovery. This had come in a plenary presentation on the subject of rapport in the classroom. For me, this clearly defined a long-held but ill-defined interest while providing a research focus, one that I believe has some significant implications for how we teach.
The “Great Lakes Conference on Teaching and Learning” took place this last May at Central Michigan University. As I mentioned in a preceding blog entitled “Road Trip,” CMU did a great job hosting it. The best part was the plenary session, which featured William Buskist, a professor of psychology and a faculty fellow at Auburn University’s center for teaching and learning. He presented on the topic of instructor-student “rapport” in the classroom and its role in effective teaching and learning.
Before addressing the topic, I have to say that Dr. Buskist is one of the best people I’ve ever met at a conference. He was comfortable, engaging, and responsive in his presentation. Afterward, I (along with a number of others) went up to chat with him. I wanted to give him card, which I’d left in my bag. By the time I returned with it, I was at the “end of the line”-which turned out to be a blessing. With no one behind me, I was able to talk with him at length. As it turned out, we had a mutual acquaintance; an old friend of his had been a faculty colleague of mine over a decade earlier. We ended up having a long discussion about the topic of rapport, amongst other things. It only ended when we went to lunch an hour later. Considering that he had just finished a plenary session in front of a few hundred people, I’m still amazed he was willing to talk. It might have been a good way for him to “de-stress” after being in front of a large group, but still…Since then, he has been kind enough to exchange a series of emails with me and connect me with people who are studying this topic.
At the start of his presentation, Buskist asked the audience what “rapport” meant. Likely, your answer would match one of those offered there. With that established, he got into the “meat” of the presentation, which was the significance of student-instructor rapport in the learning experience. In brief, the ability of the instructor to establish a rapport with the students in a given class will have a measurable effect on the academic success of those students. The better the rapport, the better the learning experience of the students, both real and perceived. This is borne out in some statistical research, especially in the field of psychology. In addition to an impressive array of numbers, Buskist offered a number of insights. Amongst these were the pivotal nature of trust in rapport, and the need to establish and maintain trust through clearly stated and enforced class expectations of both student and instructor. Also, rapport needs to be established the first day of class, and reinforced thereafter. Finally, rapport does not require the instructor have a certain personality type, nor does it necessitate being so “open” with students as to cross appropriate professional boundaries. Outside of the “how-to” of establishing rapport, Buskist asserted that rapport is an overlooked element of classroom performance. He noted the well-known problems with the “content-focused” approach to teaching of yesteryear, yet he added that recent emphases in college pedagogy often have just replaced the content of content with the content of pedagogy. In essence, college professors now learn classroom techniques much as they had classroom content, without any more connection to their students. Simply using teaching tricks will produce results that are little better for student learning if instructors do not first learn to connect with students and help generate an interest in the content and activities in the class. Thus, rapport is a most critical subject for pedagogical study and application.
I won’t pretend the above paragraph does full justice by his presentation. That said, it was definitely a “eureka” moment for me. In part, this is because I had always sensed this, but my understanding had been ill-defined. I have written and presented on topics such as having a classroom persona and the importance of the first day of class to the rest of the semester, and I’ve understood them to be linked. “Rapport” now gives me a conceptual framework for these topics. I also found this experience inspiring because the case for it is so compelling. The statistics and insights validate the idea that there is something here worth studying, and that others see it is well. In short, there is strength in numbers—both in terms of statistics and fellow scholars with like interests. Finally, it has given me a focus for research—literature to read, ideas to explore, and insights to discover.
Of course, the question is: where will the research lead? I’m not entirely certain, as I’ve hardly a complete understanding of the topic, despite Buskist’s kind help and some reading on my part. At this point, I do see some possible avenues of approach. For one thing, much of the research to date has been linked to the teaching of psychology; this research obviously has applicability for a broader audience. Furthermore, as the research has been largely in this field, it is generally statistical in nature; there is a need for “translating” this into a narrative for other audiences. Wherever these avenues lead, I’m anticipating a lot more work on my part to learn about this topic, and more blogs as a result. Keep your eyes open—and don’t worry, you won’t see me streaking through the streets…