By Mathew Schatkowsky, Instructional Designer, EDC

“Trust between teachers and students is the affective glue binding educational relationships together.” (Brookfield, 1990)

Why build trust?

There are positive outcomes for students when they are engaged in a course and when they feel they can speak to their instructors. Micari and Pazos (2012) found that students in a face-to-face course received higher grades if they self-identified as having a positive relationship with their professors and perceived their professors as being approachable. Swan (2001) found that online students “who do not have adequate access to their instructors feel they learn less and are less satisfied with their courses” (p. 316). These findings seem to imply that the medium of communication between students and instructors is not as relevant as the student’s perception of having a solid relationship with their instructors.

How to build trust

Brookfield (1990) outlined eight steps to build trust with students, each of which feeds into building an instructor’s credibility and authenticity in the eyes of students:

  1. Don’t deny your credibility
  2. Be explicit about your organizing vision
  3. Make sure your words and actions are congruent
  4. Be ready to admit your errors
  5. Reveal aspects of yourself unrelated to teaching
  6. Show that you take students seriously
  7. Don’t play favorites
  8. Realize the power of your own role modeling

Much of learning is emotional. Professors are not only expected to be experts in their field but, in a university setting, they also serve as role models for their students. When students feel they can confide in an instructor, they often do. When students feel they can ask a question of an instructor, they often do.  And this level of confidence should not be discounted. As noted by Micari and Pazos (201) above, student learning and grades depend on this confidence.

A 19th century cartoon predicting the year 2000 - A teacher puts books into a machine that is connected to students via helmets

Jean Marc Cote (if 1901) or Villemard (if 1910) – A reproduction of the early 20th century, sca

Moving trust online

Lomanowska and Guitton (2016) argue that “distinguishing online intimacy from conventional offline intimacy does not necessarily mean that the definition of intimacy fundamentally differs in these two forms of communication…but rather that intimacy is actualized differently depending on the medium” (p. 140). This is a very interesting distinction considering that many of us feel as if digital communication is somehow less authentic than the more traditional means.

Lomanowska and Guitton go on to note that our “individual experience of interpersonal intimacy in the digital age involves a unique combination of media use based on applications, platforms and modalities (including both online and offline) that suit the particular needs of specific interactions and relationships” (p. 140). Students, teachers, support staff, friends, family, colleagues; we are all looking to connect with one another and we have started to use a patchwork of tools and media to communicate and be present with one another every day, even though we may not fully understand why or how this works.

Being present in a face-to-face course is simple to understand: an instructor and a group of students show up to each class and engage with one another. That act of communion, of seeing each other’s faces, of hearing each other’s voices, of interacting in a way that has been rehearsed over and over through the centuries is familiar and comfortable to each of us. Instructors see their students’ body language and read subtle cues. Students watch their instructors and interpret verbal and non-verbal prompts embedded in the message. In an online course, this familiarity, this presence does not exist in the same way and new modes of communication and presence must be created and maintained.

Sheridan and Kelly (2010) found that in online courses the “indicators of instructor presence that were most important to the students dealt with making course requirements clear and being responsive to students’ needs” (p. 776). Another way to think about instructor presence is found in the work of Riggs and Linder (2016), where they suggest that “creating an architecture of engagement for students, and then inhabiting that space along with students” (p. 5) primes students to take a central role in the course and to willfully engage with each other, with their instructors and with the content of the course.

So what do “being responsive to students’ needs” (Sheridan and Kelly, 2010, p. 776) and “architecture of engagement” (Riggs and Linder, 2016, p. 5) mean exactly? An architecture of engagement is not as labour intensive as it may sound – it simply means that an instructor must be clear about their expectations in how students are to participate in the course, how students are to ask for help, when they should expect a response from the instructor and when to expect assignments to be marked. Being responsive to the needs of online students requires an instructor to “show that you take students seriously” (Brookfield, 1990) by monitoring and anticipating student needs and responding within the timeframes outlined in the architecture of engagement.

Building rapport and having open lines of communication with students can feel laborious in an online course, but this is no less important. Glazier (2016) found that “rapport building by the instructor can improve student success as measured by course grades and retention rates” (p. 13). In this study, Glazier built rapport with students by “humanizing the instructor, providing detailed and student-specific feedback on assignments and making personal contact with the students” (Glazier, 2016, p. 6) through emails, video messages and other means of communication. Glazier’s work shows that while the means of communication may differ, the principles of building trust are very similar to those outlined by Brookfield.

Ideas for building trust online

  1. Make an introductory video introducing yourself
  2. Explain your teaching philosophy
  3. Outline the architecture of engagement for the course
  4. Inhabit the architecture of engagement with students
  5. Have students post pictures, descriptions or videos of themselves
  6. Send a weekly update of upcoming topics, commonly asked questions
  7. Develop your online teaching voice
  8. Use web-conferencing tools for office hours
  9. Set up a forum for students to ask questions and see you interacting with the class
  10. Reach out to students when you notice that they are faltering

This is list is just a start, but if you can apply some of these principles in your support of online courses, you are likely to see “significant improvements in student success” without the need for “additional budget requests, policy revisions or any committee meetings” (Glazier, 2016, p 14), which is a win not only for you and your students, but for your department and the university as well.