Building rapport with students

Dr Gillian Sandstrom

Gillian Sandstrom, Senior Lecturer in the Psychology of Kindness, explains the benefits for student belonging of greeting your students when they arrive in class, even if you don’t know their names. 

What I did 

Recent research in social psychology has found that even minimal social interaction (e.g., chatting with the barista at the coffee shop) can help people feel more connected. I was interested in whether this would be the case in my own classes, so I conducted a study on my students’ sense of belonging. Students were recruited from my second-year undergraduate statistics lab classes in two separate academic years and from a colleague’s first-year undergraduate statistics lab class. All students in each sample attended the same lecture each week but were split by the university’s timetabling system into smaller groups for lab classes. This gave me the opportunity to compare interventions. In one lab students were greeted at the door (i.e., the minimal social interaction condition), in another they were given name cards to put on their desks and in the control lab, students did not use name cards and were not greeted at the door. This was not a reduced contact condition but one that reflects the usual situation at the university. 

Why I did it 

Many studies have shown that when students perceive a positive relationship with their instructor, it can lead to greater persistence, satisfaction, and even better grades. We often talk about the positive impact that learning students’ names can have on building rapport, but many instructors find it difficult to learn student names, and this is even harder with very large cohorts, in which students, unsurprisingly, report fewer feelings of belonging. Thus, I wanted to find out how greeting students as they arrive in class stacks up compared to the best practice of learning names. 

Impact and student feedback 

I found that students who were assigned to a greeting condition reported a stronger relationship with the instructor and that this greater relationship strength predicted greater interest/enjoyment, relatedness and belonging. This intervention produced similar results to a more traditional name card condition, which is used to help instructors to learn students’ names. These findings show that even when instructors struggle to learn students’ names, they can still build rapport by greeting students as they enter class. This is a simple intervention that instructors can make in their classroom that could have a meaningful impact on the student experience. 


More research is needed to establish the generalizability of the findings. The current 
study examined data gathered in only two classes at one university.  

Future plans 

Ideally, we would study the effects of greeting students in many classes, with many instructors, who are all blind to the hypothesis. 

Top 3 Tips 

What advice would you give another member of staff/department who wanted to emulate what you have done? Please give your top 3 tips for someone wanting to do something similar 

  1.  Don’t underestimate how much of a difference you can make to students through minimal social interaction (and you’re likely to feel good too!)  
  1. Remember that even small interactions with students can be meaningful – a chat is great, but a smile, or even simply making eye contact can create a feeling of connection 
  1. Try to learn a few students’ names. In my experience, even if you don’t know all of their names, students appreciate that you’ve tried to learn any. 

You can access Dr Sandstrom’s full article here.

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