Student-Faculty Interaction Matters, But What Matters for Student-Faculty Interaction

Kate Baier, Ed.D. and Kerri Smith, Ed.D.

New York University

The benefits of student-faculty interaction are well documented. A quick Internet search returns results from researchers such as Aston, Chickering, Kuh, Pascarella and Terenzini, and Tinto. They suggest that student-faculty engagement results in increased student satisfaction, improved student perception about the college experience, higher rates of academic persistence, and increased motivation. This is promising, indeed, and one of the reasons that colleges and universities create campus housing structures that formalize faculty involvement.

At New York University, we have 30 faculty members, who we call Faculty Fellows-in-Residence (FFIR), who live with their families in our undergraduate residence halls. The FFIR establish a presence in the building, serve as role models, coordinate events and activities with students and, most generally, establish the faculty as accessible people.

Inspired by an article by Cox and Orhovec (2007), we set out to learn what types of interaction our students are having with our FFIR. The article described an interaction typology that ranges from disengagement to mentoring. We utilized an annual student satisfaction survey and asked students to categorize their interaction with the FFIR in their building using the Cox-Orhevoc descriptions: disengagement, incidental contact, functional interaction, personal interaction, and mentoring.

We were interested in exploring what the faculty members did to create interactions with students. So, we also asked students to describe a memorable interaction with a residential faculty member and asked what the faculty member did to foster those interactions.

When prompted to describe a memorable interaction, students were most likely to recount an interesting event or program, share an interaction they had with the faculty member’s pet or child, describe elevator niceties or other superficial conversation, or talk about the specific food at a program.

It was evident from the students’ responses that the affect of the faculty member is very important. When asked what the faculty member did to foster interactions, the students mostly described behaviors related to friendliness — the faculty member had a warm disposition, the faculty member initiated conversation in the elevator, hallways or lobby, or the faculty member was simply present in student spaces in the residence hall.

During the last round of identifying new Faculty Fellows-in-Residence, we jokingly suggested that we would appoint the new faculty members and then give them a puppy when they moved into the apartment. But, pets and kids aside, we can draw other practical strategies from the data. First, students frequently note that an interesting event or program created an opportunity for interaction. The student-friendly events the faculty members sponsor create opportunities for casual or more personal conversation. Simply being friendly, saying hello and especially initiating conversation, is important to students. Faculty members can also be present in student spaces. This not only creates an opportunity for interaction with the student, it also establishes the faculty member as part of the residence hall community. Faculty presence in student spaces creates more opportunity for engagement, and is a strategy that could be utilize regardless of whether or not a faculty members lives in the space.

We were surprised at the relationship between student-faculty interaction and other areas of student satisfaction. The group of students who indicated any level of interaction with faculty, ranging from incidental contact to a deeper mentoring relationship, reported higher overall satisfaction with their residence hall experience.

Cox and Orhovec wrote, “Our study suggests that virtually every type of interaction between faculty members and student can have positive effects” (p 359). Our findings support this, in ways that were even surprising to us. And, the behaviors students noticed from their faculty in residence are simple — be a friendly presence in the building. It seems good things flow from that.

Cox, B. E., & Orehovec, E. (2007). Faculty-student interaction outside the classroom: A typology from a residential college. The Review of Higher Education, 30(4), 343-362.