The Interpersonal Side of Teaching

Over winter break, I’ve had some time to reflect on my teaching experiences in higher education, a truly rewarding journey that has spanned more than a decade.

In that time, I’ve taught a wide range of courses from advanced statistical methods to survey courses in the field of education; at various levels from graduate to undergraduate; and in different educational settings including private elite universities and large public universities.

In reflecting upon those teaching experiences, I thought it would be useful to gather up some of my “best practices” and pass along those tips and strategies that have worked for me over the years.

I’m devoting this first post to the theme of “interpersonal” teaching strategies. By interpersonal, I mean the ways we interact and communicate with our students.

We often spend time honing our craft of teaching the substantive content of our courses (as we should!), but how much time do we spend on the relational aspects of our teaching?

Read on below for my tips.

As always, if you have additional thoughts and ideas you’d like to share, please send them to me via Twitter at @kevingee888 or by email at

I’ll be posting additional tips throughout 2018!

Interpersonal Strategies

1. What’s your name?

Get to know your students’ names.

Learning students names and using their names helps you establish a rapport with students.

If you’re in a large public institution like I am, we hear stories of students feeling like they are “just a number” (and treated as such). Using and learning students’ names signals to them that for you, they are more than a faceless student ID number.

My large undergraduate lectures hover around 100-120 students with smaller discussion sections of 30-40 students and I try to get to know their names a section at a time (as an aside, I am fortunate enough to be blessed with a good memory–which got me through much of my education…).

If you have a large lecture course with hundreds of students, then I would still try to get to know at least some of their names.

If you’re not good with names or faces, start incrementally and build over time. Accumulate names and faces each session throughout the term. To do this, I will go up to 3-4 students at the beginning or end of lecture to ask them their name.

By the end of the term I have a cumulative list of names alongside faces that I remember. I also have access to student ID photos that help me put faces to names.

2. Coffee talk

Have coffee or lunch with your students.

Again, this helps establish a strong rapport students and combats students feeling like they are in a faceless and nameless sea of other students. It also helps me understand what goes on in their lives beyond my class (and yes, they do have lives outside of your course).

This is also a good opportunity to find out about your students’ interests and future educational plans, and especially if there is alignment between your research and their interests.

3. What did you say?

When interacting with your students in a discussion seminar, hear your students, don’t just listen. Reflect back what students say.

This is often challenging because I often am thinking about the next thing I’m going to say!

Hearing your students and reflecting back helps you internalize what students have said. It then forces you to make meaning of what they said.

Also, it offers them the opportunity to engage with you around what they are saying and offers you the opportunity to draw connections to course content. You can also reflect back and then have them amplify/extend their comments. Finally, reflecting back can help clear up any misunderstandings or miscommunication.

Some examples:

  • [Reflecting back and connecting] So what I’m hearing you say is [X]; what you just said is particularly relevant to the argument that [X] makes in the reading…

  • [Reflecting back with amplification and extensions] So the point you made about [X], tell me more about why you think that…

  • [Reflecting back with clarification] Help me understand what you meant when you said [X]

4. Not quite right…

Students give the “wrong” or inaccurate answer (or the answer that you weren’t looking for).

This happens.  A lot.  Of course it does. Students are learning, sometimes complex material for the first time, and I never expect them to get content right away.

They’ll falter and that’s ok. Your job is to help them gain their footing again.

I encourage exploration and mistakes. You don’t want to shut down a student who is wrong (e.g., You’re wrong…next!) . I’ve seen this happen in lectures and seminars. And it sucks the energy out of the room.

Here’s my strategy: Help them reason through why they might be wrong.

Also resist the temptation to give them the “right” answer–that lets them and you off the hook too easily.

Instead, I always ask them to:

a) Help me understand how you’re arriving at [X]; or

b) Show me (or walk me through) how you’re accomplishing [X].

That’s one of the true challenges in teaching: getting inside a student’s head and having them articulate their own thought process that led them to arrive at a particular conclusion or answer.

If you can have them do that, then you can diagnose and reveal what within that process lead them down a different path and steer them in the right direction. Note: this also is a helpful strategy when students get stuck partway through some process and you’re trying to help them get unstuck.

5. Where’s my feedback? Gimme my feedback…

I get it. Giving high quality feedback on student writing takes time and initiative, yet the urge to procrastinate on this is even stronger.

A couple of strategies I use to manage the process of giving written feedback. The first places some of the responsibility on the students:

a) When students submit their papers, I ask them to include 2-3 specific questions about their work that they want my feedback on.

This does two things: (1) it helps students reflect critically on their own work and the help that they have determined that they need; (2) it helps you focus your time on their questions.

Of course, you will have to think about modeling the types of questions they can ask you–for instance, I tell students they cannot ask me a generic closed ended question like “Is this good enough?”.

b) I use a trusty rubric that guides me to the areas of a paper that I will provide comments and feedback on.

Finally, I avoid “binge feedback” sessions. I work on providing feedback in chunks at a time (especially on those full dissertations that land in my inbox a few days before the official filing deadline).

6. You’re a role model.

This last point seems obvious, but I think it needs to be said.

When you are in the presence of students–in your lecture hall or seminar room–you’re modeling behavior that you want your students to follow.

So if you’re late, unprepared, forgetful, going through the motions and lecturing like you’re on autopilot, that will show and you will quickly lose the respect of students. Once you’ve lost the respect of students, it is an uphill climb to regain that respect back.

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