Seven Principles, part one: Fostering Student-Faculty Contact

Image: “Dark Contact” by Flickr user Neal Fowler

Beginning with this week’s post, the Teaching Tips posts on the CETL blog will take a new look at one of the most venerable pieces of the literature on teaching and learning in higher education: Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson’s 1987 article “Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.” For such a brief article, its impact has been enormous. Chickering and Gamson synthesized a significant amount of research into a succint, accessible list of areas that institutions could use as organizing principles to improve teaching and learning. As they put it:

These seven principles are not ten commandments shrunk to a 20th century attention span. They are intended as guidelines for faculty members, students, and administrators- with support from state agencies and  trustees-to improve teaching and learning. These principles seem like good common sense, and they are — because many teachers and students have experienced them and because research supports them. They rest on 50 years of research on the way teachers teach and students learn, how students work and play with one another, and how students and faculty talk to each other.

So what were those principles? According to Chickering and Gamson, effective undergraduate education is a set of practices that embodies the following habits:

1. Encourages contact between students and faculty
2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
3. Encourages active learning.
4. Gives prompt feedback.
5. Emphasizes time on task.
6. Communicates high expectations.
7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

To get a sense of how much these principles shape our own practice, consider that they were the basis for the National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE, used by hundreds of colleges and universities (including GV) to at least partially assess academic practices. The Seven Principles have also been the basis for extensive research and professional development activities across higher ed; Grand View is not alone in using them to frame some of our new faculty orientation material. The reason this list has remained so influential over the last several decades is, I think, that it speaks to practices both in and outside of the classroom that produce effective learning and student engagement. Moreover, the list seems to affirm our own sense of what good teaching involves. On an intuitive level, we understand these practices, and would likely produce a similar list if asked what things go into good teaching.

That said, though, it’s worth going back to the basics once in a while to think about our practices, to ask ourselves if what we’re doing with and among our students is in alignment with our teaching goals. Are we interweaving what we know to be good practices into our courses and instruction? This series of posts on Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles will hopefully assist that process of reflection.

Principle 1: Good practice in undergraduate education encourages contact between students and faculty

What does student-faculty contact look like in practice? In a typical semester-long, three-credit course, we have a bit less than 45 hours of contact time with our students over fifteen weeks. Aside from that, though, there may not be many opportunities for the type of meaningful interactions that Chickering and Gamson suggest are important parts of an effective undergraduate education. Their own observations about this principle focus primarily on students’ ability to be in contact with a wide range of faculty (and thus disciplines) through interdisciplinary programs like our own Core seminars.

Other than those points of intersection in our classrooms, what other places can we create the opportunity for our students to be in meaningful contact with us? Accessibility is an underappreciated dimension of this principle. Should we be on call 24-7 for our students? Of course not. But should we be accessible via office phone and email? Absolutely. Grand View expects its students to check their GV email regularly, and that suggests that maybe we ought to as well. Yes, we know students aren’t always the best at emailing their professors (though there are plenty of resources out there to help them develop that skill), but we should encourage them to reach out if they have a question or concern. It’s useful to let students know up front (ideally in your syllabus or the first day of class) when they can expect a response; I tell my students to give me 24 hours to respond to their message, and thus they don’t need to send multiple follow-ups before then (unless it’s an emergency, of course). If you don’t check email over the weekend, let them know. Letting our students know our office phone number and encouraging them to use voicemail to leave a message is also a good practice (as is reminding ourselves to make sure we’re deleting messages to keep our voice mailbox from filling up and preventing new messages). Being available for questions or concerns outside of the classroom are important parts of our contact with students.

The most obvious out-of-class opportunity for faculty-staff contact is also the most underutilized by our students: office hours. I’ve had entire semesters pass without a single student coming for office hours, and I’m certain I’m not the only one who’s experienced this. It seems like a real lost opportunity, though. We’re required to hold a set amount of office hours each week, so it seems like we should hope to make the best use of that time. (Though many of us schedule office hours at times where we know we can get other things done, too, as this funny piece from Jim Lang describes.) It’s worth asking how we market the opportunity to our students, though. We know the research suggests that engagement with faculty outside of regular class time is a key factor in students’ academic success, but have we ever shared that insight with them? Some instructors require at least one office-hours visit, particularly early in the semester, to get to know their students and to “break the ice” about office hours, and this is an effective practice for sure. Other faculty use “alternative” office space for at least a portion of their office hours. A couple years ago, I started using the library coffeeshop space for one day’s worth of office hours; I’ve found that some students see that space as less intimidating than “my turf” in the office. Plus, I would see students pretty frequently as they came through the space themselves, and that could sometimes lead to positive conversations–and even if no one came by, I was still close to large amounts of coffee, and that’s no small consideration. There are a number of ways to get students coming to office hours, and keep them coming; a few useful collections of tips and resources can be found here and here.

Accessibility and approachability are important parts of our teaching repertoire, and faculty-student contact an important part of our practice. Next week, we’ll look at the second of Chickering and Gamson’s principles, and address reciprocity and cooperation.


If you’d like to follow up on any of the topics in this post, or if there’s any other way CETL can be of service, please contact us by clicking here or emailing Kevin at kgannon@grandview.edu.

Finally, Yoshi the Mastiff Pup came to work with the Registrar this weekend, and tried to enroll in some courses:

He’s on the wait list.

Have a great week, everyone!

 

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