According to a model developed by Joseph Lowman in Mastering the Techniques of Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 1995), teaching involves the mastery of two dimensions: intellectual excitement and rapport with students.
When asked to evaluate teachers, students consistently rank elements that contribute to intellectual excitement, such as course content, the professor's presentation skills, and his or her enthusiasm, above rapport. However, students typically deem professors inadequate if they rate low in rapport, even when those same educators win moderate marks on the intellectual excitement scale.
Professors working to improve their teaching need to strive on both fronts, making an effort to generate greater intellectual excitement and cultivate more rapport. This column offers engineering educators some tips on how to go about the latter.
The necessary, and often sufficient, first step to building better rapport with students (and reducing the frequency of discipline problems and cheating) is to learn and use their names. With small classes, there are two relatively easy ways to go about this. Arrive early the first day and learn names, or have students introduce themselves during class sessions until you have their names memorized. With large classes it can be more difficult. Seating charts are one popular option, but we have found photographing every student in the class and then studying their pictures to be more effective. This approach has the added benefit of being visible. Students see that you are making an effort, and they appreciate it.
Playing a "name game" with students during the first class period is another effective strategy. Here's an example. Stand in a circle with students. Give your name. The student standing to your right then repeats your name and gives his or her own. The game continues until everyone in the circle has participated. You end the game by naming every student.
There are many other steps professors can take to improve rapport.
Come to class early and stay late.
Communicate a positive attitude.
Don't take personally students' apparent lack of interest and motivation.
Show your enthusiasm.
Chat with students.
Grade the work, not the student.
Building better rapport entails developing mutual respect, not compromising learning standards. Even students who fail can respect their professors, and professors should respect even students who fail.
Phillip Wankat is a chemical engineering professor at Purdue University; Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. You can reach them via