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Measuring Rapport with Students

Studies with Practical Implications

Measuring Rapport with Students

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Students connect with professors, not only as teachers or content experts but also as persons, and that causes some discomfort. Our relationships with students need to be professional. Because we evaluate their work and have a responsibility to treat them equally, we need to keep our distance. But there’s lots of evidence that students’ perceptions of their teachers as persons affect any number of significant learning outcomes. Their perceptions are positive when teachers are persons who care, communicate comfortably with students, listen, show respect, consider making adjustments, and teach with enthusiasm. Characteristics like these define rapport. It’s a slippery construct that involves any number of abstract features of teaching that are expressed with a wide range of verbal and nonverbal behaviors. The four references below describe the development of a long and shortened version of an instrument that measures rapport. Items on the instrument identify the characteristics that students associate with rapport. Teachers can use the instrument formatively to obtain students’ perceptions of rapport in a given course.

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Students connect with professors, not only as teachers or content experts but also as persons, and that causes some discomfort. Our relationships with students need to be professional. Because we evaluate their work and have a responsibility to treat them equally, we need to keep our distance. But there’s lots of evidence that students’ perceptions of their teachers as persons affect any number of significant learning outcomes. Their perceptions are positive when teachers are persons who care, communicate comfortably with students, listen, show respect, consider making adjustments, and teach with enthusiasm. Characteristics like these define rapport. It’s a slippery construct that involves any number of abstract features of teaching that are expressed with a wide range of verbal and nonverbal behaviors. The four references below describe the development of a long and shortened version of an instrument that measures rapport. Items on the instrument identify the characteristics that students associate with rapport. Teachers can use the instrument formatively to obtain students’ perceptions of rapport in a given course.

The studies

Ryan, R. (2014). Professor-student rapport scale: Psychometric properties of the brief version. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 14(3), 64–74. https://doi.org/10.14434/josotl.v14i3.5162

Ryan, R. G., Wilson, J. H., & Pugh, J. L. (2011). Psychometric characteristics of the professor-student rapport scale. Teaching of Psychology, 39(3), 135–141. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628311411894 

Wilson, J. H., & Ryan, R. G. (2013). Professor-student rapport scale: Six items predict student outcomes. Teaching of Psychology, 40(2), 130–133. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628312475033

Wilson, J. H., Ryan, R. G., & Pugh, J. L. (2010). Professor-student rapport scale predicts student outcomes. Teaching of Psychology, 37(4), 246–251. https://doi.org/10.1080/00986283.2010.510976

The research questions

Interesting background information

Rapport has been studied in therapy and in some college settings, such as between roommates, but it hasn’t been measured in classrooms. In research on teacher effectiveness, rapport has typically been lumped with the psychological construct of immediacy, defined as “psychological availability” (Wilson et al., 2010, p. 246). Immediacy consists of both verbal behaviors, like offering positive feedback, and nonverbal behaviors, like as maintaining eye contact while speaking and listening. The research team felt that immediacy scales offered “a limited number of instructor behaviors” (p. 247) and that teacher-student rapport describes features of a relationship, with immediacy being a way to create rapport.

Notably, the research team started with students, asking 51 of them to think of what establishes rapport and how they would measure it. The students generated 44 items; 34 ended up on the instrument and include descriptions such as these: “my instructor encourages questions and comments from students,” “my professor is enthusiastic,” and “my professor and I communicate well.” But it’s a long survey, and so the goal of the second study was to try to condense it.

The studies’ cohorts

The first, longer survey (Wilson et al., 2010) was tested with 165 undergraduates taking one of two psychology courses. The second, shorter study (Wilson & Ryan, 2013) involved 192 undergraduates also enrolled in psychology courses.

Methodology overview

To develop the instrument, the researchers asked students to assess their rapport with the professor who taught the course prior to the one in which they filled out the survey. In the second study they assessed their current teacher. In both studies students also answered survey questions that evaluated the teacher overall, their levels of motivation, and their perceptions of learning. The researchers used factor analysis to create the longer instrument, and in the second study they used a principal component analysis with a varimax rotation to shorten it.

Key findings

Cautions and caveats

This research tested the instrument in one instructional setting. At the time of publication, it had not been used elsewhere in research or as a diagnostic tool.

Rapport is a two-way proposition. Just as students respond to characteristics of the teacher, teachers respond to individual students and collections of them in courses. This research does not identify student characteristics that may influence how faculty respond to them.

Practical implications (or what you might want to do about the findings)

The 34-item instrument (included in Wilson et al., 2010) makes the concept of rapport explicit. Items worded positively and negatively describe teacher actions that do and don’t develop it. That makes the instrument a good self-assessment tool.

Teachers could use all or an abbreviated collection of the rapport items to solicit feedback on rapport as their students experience it. Note that changing items or using only some of them means that the student outcomes reported in the study are not guaranteed. Teachers can also complete the instrument themselves predicting how students will judge rapport in the course which is a great way to verify whether the teacher senses rapport similarly to students.

Rapport can profitably be discussed with students, and the instrument items provide examples. Students, particularly beginning ones, may not be aware of how teacher characteristics influence their experiences in a course. And then there are those courses where the teacher doesn’t have good rapport. What’s an appropriate student response?

Related research

Here’s a qualitative study of that starts with faculty perceptions of rapport which are fairly consistent with the student perceptions highlighted in this rapport instrument research. Of particular value is a set of concrete actions teachers can take to develop rapport.

Grantz, N. A., Koernig, S. K., & Harich, K. R. (2009). Now it’s personal: Antecedents and outcomes of rapport between business faculty and their students. Journal of Marketing Education, 31(1), 52–65. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475308326408

A recent essay on rapport offers a concise but comprehensive review of the literature on caring. It includes clear definitions and makes a strong case for caring instructors. The essay starts with this apt observation: “Even for the most experienced instructor, determining the best ways to establish and strengthen relationships with students in higher education can, at times, be difficult” (p. 53).

Strachan, S. L. (2020). The case for the caring instructor. College Teaching, 68(2), 53–56. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2019.1711011