The Importance of Establishing Rapport with Your Students
Posted April 23, 2015
By Rebecca Ryan and Janie Wilson
Instructor-student rapport is a vital, but sometimes underappreciated, aspect of teaching. Rapport can lead to positive outcomes for both the student and the instructor. For example, potential benefits for students include a more positive attitude toward the course and instructor, increased motivation, and even higher grades. Instructors may enjoy benefits such as improved class participation and positive ratings of instruction. In the following sections, we outline definitions and characteristics of rapport as well as recommendations for establishing rapport with your students.
What is Rapport?
Generally rapport is characterized by positive thoughts and feelings of closeness. Perceptions of bonding lead to favorable interactions between those in the relationship. Researchers have investigated the nature and influence of classroom rapport while defining it in different ways. Benson and colleagues (1) , for example, provided students with dictionary definitions of rapport (eg. mutual trust, connection, emotional affinity) and then asked them to consider whether or not they had experienced rapport with their instructors. This study marks one of the first to explore and define instructor-student rapport from the students’ perspective.
Our own interest in understanding rapport between instructors and students led us to develop the Professor-Student Rapport Scale (PSRS) (2). We asked undergraduate students how they would personally define/describe rapport between themselves and their instructor. The student responses provided examples of how to encourage rapport and served as the basis for scale items.
What Encourages Rapport?
Let’s start with “immediacy.” The construct of immediacy closely relates to rapport and is defined as the presence of psychological availability. There are a variety of verbal and nonverbal methods of communicating to your students the idea that you are available to them. An immediacy scale includes items such as:
- using personal examples
- moving around the classroom during lecture
- using humor
- smiling (4)
Immediacy items focus specifically on professor behavior, which provides both an advantage and a limitation. The advantage is that teachers who struggle with immediacy in the classroom can practice both verbal and nonverbal actions to exhibit in the classroom. Teaching is similar to a play, and teachers learn their roles. However, a limitation lies with student perceptions of teacher behaviors. Students in a given classroom all view the same behaviors but perceive them individually, likely depending on their expectations as well as several other beliefs (e.g., expectations of instructor behaviors based on gender). Therefore, although an immediacy measure provides an excellent step toward assessing professor-student relationships, such scales do not address different student perceptions of the same professor based on behaviors. Also, immediacy and rapport may represent two constructs, with rapport capturing a broader idea.
Benson and colleagues (1) asked students to consider the instructors who established the highest levels of rapport. When the students were asked to list specific behaviors they believed led to the creation of that rapport, they most frequently listed these teacher qualities:
- having a ‘good’ personality
- promoting class discussion
- concern for students
- fairness (1)
As you can see in this list, teachers with specific qualities come across as warm, open, and caring. Your students will notice whether or not you display these qualities and will appreciate that you communicate to them that you care.
The items in the PSRS reflect instructor characteristics as well, including the following:
- asking questions
- replying to e-mails
- spending extra time going over concepts when students need it
- encouraging students to succeed (2)
We also worked to create a brief version of the PSRS because of redundancy in the original scale and the ease of using a shorter scale (3), particularly for repeated assessments across a term. Later analyses determined which items to keep, as indicated by the items below:
- My professor encourages questions and comments from students
- I dislike my professor’s class (reverse scored)
- My professor makes class enjoyable
- I want to take other classes taught by my professor
- My professor’s body language says. “Don’t bother me” (reverse scored)
- I really like to come to class (3)
Some of these items are similar to the instructor qualities students mentioned above, and others refer to specific teacher behaviors students appreciate. We consistently get the message that it is important for teachers to be open, engaged, and caring.
What are the Benefits of Rapport?
Benson and colleagues also found rapport to be associated with positive student perceptions (enjoyment of the subject and the professor) and behaviors (attending, studying, and paying attention) (1). This provides further evidence that rapport with students can lead to higher ratings of instruction. Also, the higher likelihood of paying attention in class would most likely lead to better classroom interactions and student participation during class.
Both the original and brief versions of the PSRS predicted student outcomes, including motivation, perceptions of learning, and final course grades(3). The finding that rapport predicts actual course grades is powerful support for fostering rapport with students. In addition, the scales predicted student attitudes toward the instructor and the overall course. These findings led us to the conclusion that establishing rapport with students may lead to higher ratings of instruction. Beyond encouraging an instructor for a job well done, end-of-semester student evaluations can potentially impact an instructor’s chances of promotion, merit-based awards, and future job prospects. Further, the PSRS showed enhanced prediction beyond immediacy, providing evidence that rapport is a separate construct.(2, 3)
Teaching is a social endeavor, and some measure of teaching and learning success rests on recognizing the importance of our relationships with students. The quality of relationships will be determined by both instructor and student behaviors and characteristics. Instructors can work toward establishing rapport by engaging in the behaviors discussed here and striving to communicate good will. Professor-student rapport will increase the likelihood of positive outcomes for both students and teachers.
1. Benson, T. A, Cohen, A. L. & Buskist, W. (2005). Rapport: Its relation to student attitudes and behaviors toward teachers and classes. Teaching of Psychology, 32, 237-239.
2. Wilson, J. H., Ryan, R. & Pugh, J. L. (2010). Professor-Student Rapport Scale predicts student outcomes. Teaching of Psychology, 37, 246-251.
3. Wilson, J. H. & Ryan, R. (2013). Professor-Student Rapport Scale: Six items predict student outcomes. Teaching of Psychology, 40, 130-133.
4. Gorham, J. & Christophel, D. M. (1990). The relationship of teachers’ use of humor in the classroom to immediacy and student learning. Communication Education, 39, 46-62.
[Rebecca Ryan received her B.A. in Psychology from Concord University and her Ph.D. in Life-Span Developmental Psychology from West Virginia University. She began her faculty position at Georgia Southern University in 2006 and was awarded tenure in 2011.
Janie Wilson received her Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from the University of South Carolina. Since that time, she has been teaching and conducting research at Georgia Southern University. She is President-Elect of Division 2 of the American Psychological Association, The Society for the Teaching of Psychology, and will serve as President in 2016.]