Do Students Need to Trust Us to Learn?


bruceBy Bruce A. Johnson, Ph.D., MBA

When you consider the importance of building strong working relationships with your students, how important is the element of trust and is it necessary for effective classroom facilitation? Can the process of learning occur even if students have not developed a sense of trust with their instructor? When students start a new class that is often the first time they have been introduced to their instructor and because of that forced relationship they may choose to trust until something has occurred to diminish it, or they may withhold judgment until there have been interactions in the classroom environment. Trust is also a perceptual issue, based upon what the students perceive about their instructor’s ability to facilitate the class and address their developmental needs. Instructors can encourage the development of trust through positive interactions, meaningful conversations, and the establishment of conditions that promote productive working relationships.

What does it mean for students to trust their instructor? If students have developed a sense of trust they are relying upon their instructor’s experience and background with the process of educating adults to meet their developmental needs. A perception of trust also carries with it an expectation that the instructor will know how to effectively facilitate class discussions, provide meaningful feedback, and provide assistance as needed when students are attempting to meet the required learning objectives. Students also look to their instructor to bring the course materials to life in a way that they can understand it, relate to it, and apply it to the real world.

Many instructors find over time that trust is an element that must be developed in order for there to be effective working relationships. Students are more likely to be receptive to an instructor they believe they can trust and communicate with, rather than an instructor who simply demands compliance with their instructions and the school’s policies. An instructor can request or expect that their students will be involved in the class; however, students will only devote their full time and effort to the process of learning when they feel a connection to the class and their instructor. By trusting their instructor, students are likely to become a willing participant in the class and be fully engaged, highly motivated, and performing at their peak.

The development of a trusting relationship does not occur instantaneously for most students. Every interaction and every form of communication between the instructor and their students builds a pathway towards the desired result. What this means for classroom facilitation is that an instructor should consider proactively monitoring the tone of their communication, whether it is verbally spoken in a traditional classroom or posted through a message within an online platform, along with their attitude, availability, and responsiveness to students’ needs. Positive interactions contribute to building trust; whereas, miscommunication and any other conflicts can negate or diminish that trust.

Building trust with your students has benefits that extend beyond strong working relationships. Instructors are likely to find that students will also be receptive to feedback and constructive criticism when they believe their instructor can be trusted. While it may not be possible for an instructor to gauge the exact level of trust that has been developed they can have a direct influence on its development by instilling a sense of confidence in their students; that they can be relied upon to assist them with the process of learning. Every classroom interaction produces a perceptual result and through positive interactions students will develop the trust needed to work with their instructor and be fully engaged in the class.

About the Mentor: Dr. Bruce Johnson has had a life-long love of learning and throughout his entire career he has been involved in many forms of adult education; including teaching, training, human resource development, coaching, and mentoring. Dr. J has completed a master’s in Business Administration and a PhD in the field of adult education, with an emphasis in adult learning within an online classroom environment. Presently Dr. J works as an online adjunct instructor, faculty developmental workshop facilitator, and faculty mentor.

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