Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #1: Using Communication to Make Students Feel Better About Their Coursework

August 1, 2014
Instructional Communication

When students enter the college classroom, they bring a host of expectations. Many of today’s college students, composed largely of the millennial generation, expect their instructors to help them understand course material, recognize their achievements and high-quality work, and care about their success and learning in the course. Unfortunately, there are times when instructors are unable, unequipped, or perhaps unwilling to meet these expectations, and as a result, students may experience negative emotions such as anger, frustration, and aggravation. These negative emotions tend to be unproductive because they hinder students’ ability to learn in the classroom. Thus, our study sought to understand how instructors offer confirmation to students (i.e., by responding to their questions, demonstrating interest in their academic success, and adopting an interactive teaching style that is conducive to learning) and determine the extent to which these efforts facilitate positive emotional experiences in the classroom and meet the growing demands and expectations that many students now have for their college instructors.

Through a survey of 159 undergraduate students, we discovered several important findings that illustrate the significance of students’ emotions in the classroom and how instructors can influence these emotions. First, students tend to have a more positive emotional valence, or, in other words, “feel better” about their courses, when their instructor acknowledges, recognizes, and endorses their accomplishments in the classroom. Furthermore, when students receive confirming communication from their instructor (e.g., praises about a good exam score), they feel a stronger sense of emotional support in the classroom and develop a stronger emotional interest in the course material. Collectively then, students experience a host of emotional and psychological benefits when their instructors confirm their performance and achievements, which allows them to enjoy and feel comfortable in class and improves their ability to learn.

Second, we discovered that when instructors demonstrate and communicate interest in students’ academic and professional success (e.g., by taking time to speak with them after class), students find the classroom to be less emotionally exhausting and are less inclined to engage in emotion work (i.e., fake their emotions). Although social etiquette and norms may compel students to sit up straight while in class, smile when they are speaking with group members, and appear attentive while the instructor is talking, these responses, if inauthentic or fabricated, can consume students’ emotional and cognitive energy--—energy that could otherwise be used toward understanding, remembering, and applying course content. Thus, by communicating in a way that demonstrates interest in students’ success, instructors can help alleviate this emotional demand. Students will feel less compelled to act like they enjoy the class and will be more likely to feel better about the class, thus freeing emotional and cognitive resources that can be used toward positive classroom behaviors such as studying and learning course content.

Third, these findings highlight a notion that instructors, students, and researchers alike have all recently observed: the role of college instructors and their responsibilities both inside and outside of the classroom continue to evolve. Although many instructors have historically uttered or heard expressions such as, “I don’t care how my students feel or if they like me, they are here to learn” or “I’m not here to make friends with students,” these phrases portray students as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge and wisdom, a notion that has little contemporary merit and at this point seems strongly ill-informed.

Granted, the primary responsibility of college instructors is and always should be the instilment of knowledge into the minds of students. Over the years, however, economic demands, administrative pressures, and, most important, student needs and expectations have caused instructors to adapt their teaching in a multitude of ways. For instance, as tuition rates continue to rise at many colleges and universities, students are feeling increasingly more entitled to receive good grades, positive recommendations, and eventually good jobs for the price they are paying for their higher education. Instructors, who likely have a different viewpoint on such issues, are not required to agree, nor are they encouraged to “give in” to these student demands. But by being aware of these expectations, their origins, and the specific needs of today’s college students, instructors can better position themselves to assist students in the classroom and ultimately achieve their primary goal of fostering student learning. One such need that directly contributes to students’ learning is the experience of positive classroom emotions, which instructors can help fulfill by communicating to students in a way that confirms their accomplishments while also challenging them to reach their full potential.  

Although our study findings encourage instructors to actively seek out and answer students’ questions, as well as interact and engage with students in the classroom, the most important takeaway from our research is that instructors should continue to demonstrate interest and care in their students’ success to enhance their emotions in the classroom and ultimately improve their ability to learn. To do this, instructors should check on students periodically throughout the semester (e.g., by emailing all students to solicit individual feedback) to verify that they understand the course material and are satisfied with their own performance in the classroom. During these interactions, instructors also should communicate to students their desire to help them succeed in the course and to fully understand the subject matter.

Finally, instructors should express to students that they believe in their ability to succeed and remind them of available resources (e.g., instructor office hours) that exist to maximize their learning experience. These strategies, if employed often and effectively, can confirm students and their academic accomplishments. By receiving confirmation in the classroom, students will feel better about the course as they become increasingly more aware that their instructor cares about their success and is willing to help them learn and understand the course material.

About the author (s)

Zachary W. Goldman

West Virginia University

Doctoral Candidate

Alan Goodboy

West Virginia University

Associate Professor