Student motivation journal club: The role of trust and relatedness in our classes

Written with Heather Fedesco, Ph.D.

In the November meeting of the CFT’s student motivation journal club, we discussed two papers: Cavanaugh et al.’s investigation of the role of trust and growth mindset in promoting student motivation and performance, and Fedesco et al.’s examination of the contributions of student-student and student-instructor relatedness to student motivation.

In essence, Cavanaugh and colleagues asked two questions:

  • Does trust predict students’ commitment to active learning, their engagement in course activities and their course performance (as measured by end-of-semester grades)?
  • What about a growth mindset?

To answer these questions, the researchers used five measures:

  • a newly developed trust scale based on work from Reis and Clark (2013). Students rated nine items focused on instructor understanding, acceptance, and caring (specifically, about educational welfare).
  • The Dweck three item growth mindset scale (Dweck et al., 1995)
  • a scale to measure commitment to active learning, derived from Aragon et al., 2016, in which students indicated whether they had been exposed to active learning techniques, were persuaded that they were useful, identified with them, and were committed to using them
  • a subset of the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (Pintrich et al., 1993) in which student self-report their use of some really good strategies for learning (e.g., elaboration, metacognition)
  • End-of-course grades

The authors asked whether pairs of these measures correlated with each other, and generally, they did:

Perhaps surprisingly, the exception was growth mindset and course grade, which did not correlate.

When the authors did bivariate regression analyses, they observed that the relationship of trust with student commitment to active learning, use of motivated learning strategies, and final grade was stronger than that of growth mindset (see Appendix A in the paper). When they did a multivariate regression analysis, they found that trust was a strong positive predictor of all three outcomes, where growth mindset was not.

 (Fair authors: These data seem to me to cry out for testing a pathway model, where trust à commitment to active learning à adoption of motivated learning strategies à course performance, but you didn’t test that model explicitly. Why?)

Thus, these results suggest that a student’s trust that her instructor understands her learning needs, accepts them, and has her educational wellbeing in mind is important for her motivation and her success.

After reviewing this paper, we turned to our second article. In the research by Fedesco and colleagues titled, “Connections in the classroom: Separating the effects of instructor and peer relatedness in the basic needs satisfaction scale” published in Motivation and Emotion, the authors continue to make the case for the benefits of positive instructor-student relationships in the classroom. They relied on a self-determination theory (SDT) framework to conduct their research, which states that motivation, as well as academic outcomes, can be improved by meeting students’ basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Students feel autonomous when they have a say in how they go about meeting the learning objectives of the course. Students feel competent when they believe they are able to track their progress and meet the learning objectives of the course. And students feel a sense of relatedness when they feel connected, both intellectually and emotionally, to their instructors and peers in the class.

The authors argue that relatedness gets an unfair reputation within this framework, pointing out that while there is ample evidence that autonomy and competence influence student motivation, previous studies have found only a weak or non-significant relationship between relatedness and motivation (e.g. Cheon, Reeve, & Moon, 2012; Levesque-Bristol, Knapp, & Fisher, 2010). They state that one potential reason for these findings could be due to the current operationalization of relatedness in SDT studies in the Basic Needs Satisfaction Scale, where students are asked to rate their degree of connection with “people in this course” (Deci & Ryan 2000; Deci et al. 2001; Gagné 2003). In this way, it is unclear whether students are reflecting mostly on connections with their instructor, their peers, or an equal combination of both. This brings up issues of validity and may explain why studies in the past have struggled to find statistically significant and/or strong evidence regarding the influence of perceived relatedness on student motivation.

Given this line of reasoning, their research had two goals:

  1. To test whether there is a need to change the Basic Needs Satisfaction Scale to reflect two dimensions of relatedness: relatedness to instructors and relatedness to peers.
  2. To test the SDT model using these new subscales; more specifically, to model the effects of autonomy, competence, relatedness-instructor and relatedness-peers on motivation and academic outcomes.

To meet these goals, the authors had college students (556 female, 321 male) complete a questionnaire assessing their basic psychological needs, including the two new relatedness subscales, which asked students to separately report the amount of connection they felt with their instructors (e.g., “The instructor in this course cares about me”) and peers (e.g., “I really like the other students in this course”). Student motivation was measured using self-report questionnaires assessing interest/enjoyment in the course (e.g., “I would describe this course as very interesting”) and effort (e.g., “I put a lot of effort into this course”). Academic outcomes were measured with questionnaire items assessing perceived learning (e.g., “I feel that I learned a lot in this course”) and by gathering final grades in the course. Exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses and a series of hierarchical multiple regressions were then run.

Results revealed that the original relatedness scale should, in fact, be treated as two-dimensional. In addition, students who had a greater connection with their instructors showed more interest/enjoyment in the course, put forth more effort, and perceived they learned more, whereas peer relatedness was not significantly associated with these outcomes.

They also found that contrary to previous findings, instructor relatedness was a stronger predictor of interest/enjoyment and effort in a course compared to autonomy and competence, and it more strongly predicted perceived learning than autonomy.

The implications of these results suggest that instructors should realize the power that fostering positive relationships with their students has on student motivation and that they should consider making it a priority to dedicate time to cultivating these connections with their students. Doing so could lead to even greater motivational benefits than simply focusing on increasing student autonomy and perceived competence.

The question then becomes, how can we build trust and connection with our students? The good news is that we think by building one, it enhances the other. That is, these two concepts, although having slightly different operationalizations in these two papers, are likely similar. By establishing trust with your students, you most likely with build deeper connections with them. And by feeling more connected with your students, you most likely will establish a greater degree of trust between them.

The papers point to some ways you might build trust and connection. Cavanaugh and colleagues state that trust can be built by making it clear that you have the students’ best interests in mind, that you are there to support them, and that you are with them on this journey. To send these messages, you can include inclusive teaching strategies, make yourself available to students to answer their questions, provide no-stakes assignments for students to work through problems, and encourage a collaborative approach to learning. Instructors can also be transparent about the purpose and goals of the learning activity, share research on the benefits of particular pedagogical activities as it relates to student learning, ensure course activities are aligned with learning assessments, and encourage a growth mindset for learning.

Fedesco and colleagues suggest that you can increase instructor-student relatedness by including warm nonverbal behaviors (e.g., eye contact, vocal variety, smiling, gestures), using humor in class, and engaging in conversations with students before and after class. And both articles highlight the importance of using students’ names, providing frequent feedback to students on assignments, and soliciting student feedback about the teaching methods and activities in the course.

In our journal club where we discussed these papers, we reflected on other potential strategies that might build trust and relatedness with our students. For example, students might come to trust you more when you have said the work you are about to do is manageable and it turns out to be manageable, or when the work you are about to do is hard, and it turns out to be hard. Ways to ensure you don’t raise the stress and anxiety of students when you are about to do something really hard is to normalize the struggle of the experience. By saying the work will be hard, but that you believe they can do it, that students in the past have come out on the other side of this struggle, and that you have put a set of structures in place to help them get through the experience, may further foster a sense of trust.

Typically when talking about building connections with students and showing you care, a question of how to maintain boundaries so that you don’t get overburdened usually comes up. We talked about how when you establish that you are a caring instructor, students might feel more comfortable bringing intimate challenges they are facing to you. In those moments, you can show empathy for the student but can do so in a way that brings the focus on the course. It’s important to remember that your role is to help students meet your learning objectives, so steering the conversation towards ways you can help ensure they can continue to succeed in your class is best. But for students who are really struggling, it’s helpful to point students in the direction of other campus resources where they can get additional support (e.g., the health center, counseling services, etc.).

Other strategies that surfaced in our discussion of building trust and connections in the classroom included showing ourselves not just as people, but imperfect people. This means not being afraid to share a bit about who were are (e.g., talking about our families, our time as students, our own interests), but also pointing out when we have made mistakes. We can discuss our own writing processes and when we feel stuck, or the moments when learning certain concepts didn’t come easy to us, or model how we approach problems where we don’t know the answers. We can make it a point to check in with students on an individual level as they are working on activities during class, we can greet them by name when they enter our class, and we can ask how their semesters, weekends, or vacations are. Finally, we can provide past challenging examples from our course to show that students are being prepared for upcoming assignments.

We realize there are many more ways instructors might foster trust and connection with their students, however these ideas serve as good starting points. It can often feel overwhelming to consider all the things an instructor should do to enhance the learning experience of their students. Some may feel that there simply isn’t enough time to worry about these types of emotional connections with their students. However, both articles show that it is a worthwhile endeavor to prioritize these concepts in our courses, and as the suggested strategies show, it doesn’t take much time to show up as compassionate people in our courses, especially given how much of a reward students will receive when we do. 

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