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Ties that bind a higher ed campus together

Tools and tactics for strengthening faculty-student relationships
University Business, August 2018
  • MOUNTAINEERING IN MOAB—Rollins College students and faculty often participate in service-learning projects. A 2016 alternative spring break trip featured camping in Utah while helping to remove invasive plant species and restore native desert habitats.
  • EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING—The occupational and physical therapy departments at Quinnipiac have co-facilitated programs in Guatemala and Nicaragua, where students and faculty engage with local healthcare providers. Interprofessional teams prepare throughout the semester and then travel over winter or spring break, often forming lifelong connections. Alumni have also participated in trips.
  • CENTRAL PARK EXCURSION—Dean Robert Parmach, faculty director of the Manresa Scholars Program at Fordham University, took a group to explore Central Park. Such day trips strengthen relationships among students who live together as well as between the scholars and their professors.
  • BACK TO NATURE—Rockefeller State Park in Pleasantville, New York, is the setting for a “Nature Exposed” course trip at Pace University. Using a list developed by instructors, students trek all over the park finding images to capture.

Better academic performance.

Increased student retention and graduation rates.

Improved sense of campus community.


Online exclusive: Edtech providers on student/faculty ties


These are just three benefits that closer ties among faculty and students can yield. Here are nine places to foster such connections. 

Service-learning sites

Tactic: Engage with the community through formal and informal service-learning projects.

Model to watch: Rollins College in Florida puts faculty and students together in student-led service-learning courses, with 50 such opportunities offered in 2017-18.

The Immersion: Citizens Take Action initiative, for example, allows students and a faculty advisor to participate in service-learning programs around the world. Projects have included helping to purify water in the Dominican Republic and teaching in underserved communities. Locally, Rollins has Community Engagement courses, such as “Taking Care of Others” offered in spring 2018, in which community partners serve as co-educators with faculty. Academic courses involve work with hundreds of organizations, such as Central Florida Coalition for the Homeless and Junior Achievement of Central Florida.

Number to know: Since 2006, more than 74 percent of all Rollins faculty have been involved in at least one aspect of community engagement activities, including service learning.

Administrator insight: “When you’re engaging in the community, the community becomes the expert, and faculty and students become learners. That opportunity for faculty and staff to work alongside each other on issues that face our world produces some powerful relationships, because students get to see their faculty in a place of vulnerability in learning and faculty get to see their students in a place of knowledge application.”

— Michele Meyer, assistant vice president for student affairs

Research labs or field locations

Tactic: Encourage student/faculty research opportunities.

Model to watch: Since 2013, Manhattan College in New York City has had a summer research program in which students live on campus while working on independent research projects that are closely monitored by a faculty expert in the field. Cohort groups meet four times during the summer. In the fall, each student presents a final project to an audience of faculty, their fellow students, alumni and family and friends, and some present at national conferences (with travel costs covered by a student conference funding program). For example, recent grad Shaina Colombo presented on an analysis of economic regulation at the Midwest Economics Association’s annual meeting in Evanston, 
Illinois, in March 2018.

Numbers to know: Approximately 70 students and 40 faculty members from a variety of disciplines—engineering, science, business, education and the liberal arts—participate in the research program each summer.

Administrator insight: “One of the most important things is for students to feel a connection to a mentor, and it helps them think about their academics and their discipline in a different way. Without the added stresses of classes, this program provides a way for students to explore more deeply a particular area. ... This isn’t a term paper. Students gain a different kind of understanding in their knowledge or discipline. It gives them the actual tools and skills to analyze problems, approach questions and think critically.”  

—Rani Roy, associate provost, Manhattan College

Outside campus boundaries

Tactic: Plan outside-of-class activities as part of coursework.

Model to watch: At Pace University in the New York metropolitan area, students must enroll in at least one Learning Community experience. Consisting of two or three courses organized around a common theme and looked at from the vantage point of different disciplines, the learning communities allow for increased interaction with faculty. About one-third of each course takes place during shared activities such as walking tours and museum visits. For example, during the Learning Community “Nature Exposed”—which combines a course on naturalists with a course on photography—students travel to Rockefeller State Park to take photos of certain aspects of nature.

Numbers to know: Approximately 60 to 65 Learning Community courses are offered each academic year, with close to 1,000 courses offered since 2003.

Administrator insight: “Removing some of the formalism of the classroom setting can promote a more shared sense of learning together, overcome the timidity of some students to speak in class, and build personal bonds that persist long after a particular course has ended.”

—Sue Maxam, assistant vice president for student success, Pace

Mobile devices

Tactic: Help faculty incorporate texting into student communication.

Model to watch: At Oregon Institute of Technology, what began as a retention office effort to reach students who weren’t registering for classes in a timely manner, has evolved into an initiative involving faculty texting new students. Both instructors and student services staff contact students this way, and data is being collected to see how much of a difference texting makes with student success.

Numbers to know: A handful of faculty members and a dedicated staff member sent 1,250 text messages to newly admitted students in the 2017-18 academic year. For the upcoming academic year, 1,400 text messages have been sent.

Administrator insight: “Text is exactly how students want to communicate—moving in that direction is smart. We have learned so much about our university and our students’ desire to talk to faculty rather than staff.”

—Barb Conner, director of retention, Oregon Institute of Technology

7 more ideas for improving student/faculty ties

1. Ask faculty to serve as student organization advisors.

2. Increase opportunities for faculty to interact with students in volunteer and internship settings, on and off campus.

3. Encourage nontraditional office hours and online office hours to accommodate students who aren’t available during the day.

4. Tweak internal grant criteria and faculty awards to incentivize professors to include students in their research.

5. Create a fund dedicated to covering the costs of faculty/student meals or discussions over coffee.

6. Fund a program at a local food or coffee shop for faculty/student mentoring.

7. Partner upperclassmen with faculty to co-teach first-year seminars.

In the classroom

Tactic: Assist faculty with student name pronunciation.

Model to watch: One of the first interactions between a faculty member and a student is saying a student’s name, and pronouncing it correctly can help foster a sense of inclusion for students—particularly those with difficult-to-read names. A low-tech approach of directly and respectfully asking students how they should be addressed can be effective, but it isn’t the only option. Foothill College in California is one community college that’s using technology to help ensure professors get it right. NameCoach, which integrates with Foothill’s Canvas course management system, was the tool of choice. Students record their names, and both faculty and other students can listen (and re-listen) to the correct pronunciation. Students can also include the origin, meaning and story behind their names, photos, and their preferred pronoun.

Numbers to know: There are more than 1,800 student recordings being used (1,591 Canvas recordings and 242 for commencement) and about 6,981 playbacks from faculty and staff so far across over 200 courses.

Administrator insight: “Correct name pronunciation can help avoid embarrassment for both students and faculty, but more importantly, the effort demonstrates respect and caring as well as nurtures inclusion and community among classmates.”

—Judy Baker, dean of online learning, Foothill College

Destinations abroad

Tactic: Get faculty partners directly involved in study abroad.

Model to watch: Nearly 350 students at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut participate each semester in faculty-led study abroad programs. Some of the experiences are led by multiple faculty from different disciplines, who develop the program together. This allows students to meet and work directly with faculty they may not otherwise encounter. Quinnipiac’s occupational and physical therapy departments have co-facilitated multiple experiential learning programs abroad each year for nearly a decade. Programs in Guatemala and Nicaragua in particular allow students to learn from one another, about each other’s profession and also engage with local healthcare providers.

Number to know: There are approximately 10 interprofessional faculty-led programs abroad offered each year that combine fields such social work and journalism, education and biology, as well as occupational and physical therapy and nursing.

Administrator insight: “By traveling, learning and sometimes even livingtogether while abroad,students are able to have more direct contact with their faculty as they engage in experiential learning. These experiences allow for evening reflection sessions, immediate feedback from professors, and more intensive and immersive learning.”

—Erin Sabato, director of international and service learning, Quinnipiac University

Residence halls

Tactic: Strengthen faculty links in living/learning communities.

Model to watch: Freshmen at Fordham University in New York take classes in their residence hall as part of the Manresa Scholars Program, an integrated learning community. Their assigned faculty member also serves as academic advisor and mentor, participating in course-related programming in and outside the dorm. While the class is a single semester, the faculty member is committed to that student cohort for at least an additional semester. For the fall 2018 Manresa seminar, “The Mind-Body Connection: An Introduction to Behavioral Health,” outside activities will include dinner and a movie (a film that will launch discussion on ethical considerations in research), as well as a community service outing such as a Bronx neighborhood cleanup.

Number to know: Every year, Manresa has been at 100 percent capacity with a waitlist.

Administrator insight: “I feel like I can be a better advisor because of all the time I’ve spent with students in class and outside of class. It’s been one of the best ways that I’ve been able to develop good relationships with my students.”  

—Rachel Annunziato, professor of psychology and associate dean for strategic initiatives, Fordham

Faculty advising offices

Tactic: Strengthen student-advising session conversations.

Model to watch: Why not give students the chance to work with faculty one-on-one to plan their entire college curriculum? Grinnell College in Iowa does just that with what they call an individually advised curriculum. Out of that conversation, a professor and student begin to define what the individual’s path through the curriculum should look like. Grinnell trains faculty members to serve as advisors to students to help guide them through course selection. Also, faculty have made a formal commitment to provide every student with a significant research experience—and students work very closely with a faculty on research projects.

Numbers to know: At Grinnel, 100 percent of students have significant research experience and 40 percent of students work closely with faculty in mentored advanced research projects.

Administrator insight: “We train our faculty to serve as advisors—having conversations about the adjustment to college itself, ways that students can make the most of the campus, academic resources they should be paying attention to, encouraging students to find activities, or other kinds of continued engagement outside the classroom. That helps them to established some really meaningful relationships, and really helps them to make the transition.”  

—Michael Latham, vice president for academic affairs  and dean, Grinnell

Across campus

Tactic: Focus on educating faculty and students together about effective team dynamics.

Model to watch: An initiative at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts is called SWEET (Supporting WPI through Effective and Equitable Teamwork). It brings faculty and students together in classes and in cocurricular activities to improve teamwork in an academic setting. The short-term goal is for faculty to teach students how to identify and address bias against race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. during group work, and to promote equity among team members. In the long term, SWEET aims to dissolve stereotypes and to enable students to lead equitable and effective teams in a diverse, global workforce. WPI has a project-based curriculum in which students must work in teams to complete several major projects before they graduate.

Number to know: A $240,000 grant from the Davis Educational Foundation has funded SWEET to help faculty teach students how to identify harmful biases and how to work more equitably on team projects.

Administrator insight: “We give students all these great opportunities to do projects, but we often don’t set them up to think about and to engage with team dynamics. By discussing these things up front, it opens up a channel of communication between the student and the faculty member—the students are aware that coming to talk to a faculty member about these issues won’t affect their grade negatively. They see us ... as a collaborator in how to make a project work really well, as someone they can come and talk to.”

—Patricia Stapleton, assistant professor and director of the Society, Technology, and Policy Program, Worcester Polytechnic Institute


Elaina Loveland is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.