Unapproachable, condescending faculty drive students out of engineering.
It is well known that large numbers of capable students leave engineering programs before graduation. Why? Largely, it is because of inaccessible and unapproachable faculty. This is the conclusion of a study that I conducted at four large, highly ranked West Coast universities. The research included a survey of 713 engineering students and advanced statistical modeling.
Self-efficacy has been found to be the major determinant of academic success. The term refers to a student’s belief in his or her capability to organize and execute the steps necessary for success in a specific domain, such as engineering. Given two students of approximately equal ability, the one with the greater self-efficacy will most likely get higher grades.
I found that self-efficacy was directly and positively influenced by faculty approachability and negatively affected by faculty distance. Thus, a professor’s interactions with students are crucial to student performance. Many engineering faculty members “intuitively” know this and also know that how approachable they are has an impact on student retention. However, the way a teacher interacts with students is seldom accorded the importance it deserves. The teaching and education component of a professor’s annual review will often be confined to a sentence or two stating whether a professor did or did not perform the required amount of teaching. Research universities, in particular, often make a half-hearted attempt to encourage faculty to be more effective teachers.
Given the clear link between students’ self-efficacy and the climate that exists in the classroom, professors need to work on developing a better rapport with students. They need to show that they are personally accessible and approachable. Often, small changes can make a major difference, such as showing an interest in students, sharing personal information, and advising students on research projects. One effective way of building rapport is for a professor to let students know that he or she also had to struggle at times. This kind of candor helps bridge the gap between students and faculty members. Students sometimes feel that professors are such intellectual giants that it’s futile to try to match their accomplishments. Too often, professors seem to like this ivory tower image and are thus reluctant to break down the barriers separating them from students.
Expressions, intonation, and body language that might convey a condescending attitude need to be modified. Professors should never be derogatory or insulting when students do not answer correctly. Insulting remarks, such as “This was covered in the ABCs of fluid mechanics,” should be avoided. Suggesting that you believe a particular student is less capable can be especially detrimental when dealing with women and/or minorities.
As my research highlighted, there are negative consequences for being stand-offish and condescending toward students. Such behavior by professors lowered students’ self-efficacy, resulting in lower grade-point averages. Moreover, while good teaching is admirable, my more recent research–in which I measure teaching along two dimensions of interpersonal rapport and teaching skill–suggests that a professor’s approachability is perhaps more important than his or her teaching abilities. While learning to teach well takes time, being personable can be instantly implemented.
Christina M. Vogt is a member of the education adjunct faculty
at American University. This article is adapted from “Faculty
as a Critical Juncture in Student Retention and Performance in Engineering
Programs,” in the MARCH 2008 Journal
of Engineering Education.