Exploring the value of staff-student relationships in developing student engagement

Sal Jarvis - Dean of School of Education, University of Hertfordshire

A student with textbooks


Understanding how best to engage with students is important to everyone involved in higher education.

Literature identifies a typology of student engagement and explores different ways of engaging with students (Trowler 2010), but there is less focus on the students' perspectives. This paper explores the value of staff-student contacts from the student perspective and explores some ways in which contact might enhance engagement and independent learning.

Analysis of some National Student Survey (NSS) scores suggests a possible relationship between ratings on staff contact and 'overall satisfaction'. Analysis of data from an in-depth interview with one student on the Bachelor of Education degree at the University of Hertfordshire suggests that personal contact between staff and students is important in student engagement.

An approach which supports effective and personalised staff-student communication may be worthy of further exploration as a route to developing students' engagement with research and independent learning.


This inquiry built on the findings from an induction project carried out in the School of Education in 2011-12 (Jarvis et. al. 2012), which explored students' perceptions of the value of contact with staff.

For those of us who are, or have been, teachers in schools, contact between pupils and staff has been all important. Most of our work with our students/pupils in school has involved contact: even most 'independent' work is undertaken in the teacher's presence. However in higher education, including school based teacher training, contact with students is less central and the student's own independent work forms much of what s/he does. So it is interesting to ask about the value of those contacts to students.

This article explores this question and, in turn, raises more questions than it answers. It is intended to be thought-provoking, rather than conclusive.

Research into the value to students of contact with staff

A number of researchers have explored the staff-student relationship. Coates' (2007) typology of four styles of student engagement (intense, academic, collaborative and passive) suggests the importance of students' relationships with staff for effective academic engagement.

Pike et al. (2010) also suggest that contact with staff has a positive impact on student levels of engagement. Leese (2010) emphasises students' desire for staff support, while Yorke et al (2003) point out the importance of staff contact as a means of improving retention of students from lower socio-economic groups. Wingate (2007) argues for the value of interactive activities that enable students to engage with staff, and the need for informal contact with members of staff during induction has been highlighted by Harvey and Drew (2006).

This range of approaches suggests there is no one right way in which staff should engage with students; it is the engagement itself that enables students to feel known, supported and part of the institution (Yorke et al 2003; Wilcox, Winn et al. 2005).

Wilcox et al (2005) discuss the importance of support networks and of introduction to members of staff, particularly personal tutors. This was identified by both staff and students in the School of Education induction project (Jarvis et al 2012). The project involved staff from two undergraduate teams and one postgraduate team. It drew on interviews with staff and students and examined pre-existing data such as programme committee minutes. The following are typical of staff and student comments:

...The importance of developing a strong relationship with our individual group was central to many things that we did. The impact of this is that we have been able to establish effective and long-lasting relationships with the students.

(Lecturer, B.Ed team)

The staff are wonderful. I had the pleasure of being taught by X and communicating with Y and having access to them made being at university a little less stressful.

(B.Ed Student)

Literature also identifies the importance of "understanding 'learning' and becoming an independent learner" (Wingate 2007) in students' successful transition to university.

Students' understanding of the nature of independent learning may be key in whether they stay on a course (Christie et al 2011).  Claxton (2008) suggests that education is an apprenticeship into ways of learning and that students learn how to learn from the models their teachers offer. Christie et al (2011) argue for a relational understanding of learning in which the learner develops within a social structure.

They suggest that becoming an independent learner at university is not simply about individual cognition, but also about connecting this to the learning contexts.  Learning happens in a social context in which other people are important.  Becoming a successful learner at university could be seen to be about becoming part of a community of practice: "..knowing is an act of participating in complex 'social learning systems' (Wenger 2000).

Staff-student contact: what can the National Student Survey (NSS) tell us?

Research suggests, therefore, that contact between staff and students may both be perceived by students to be valuable and be an important factor in their approaches to learning and their persistence on the course.  In order to explore this further I decided to use pre-existing data from the National Student Survey (NSS) to investigate whether there is any correlation between student perceptions of contact with staff and their overall satisfaction with the course.

The NSS is a survey which final year undergraduate students are invited to complete.  It includes questions about staff contact.  The NSS has attracted criticism since its inception  (Varnava et. al. 2010). Yorke et. al. (2013) suggest that students may not respond to NSS questions in ways that the survey's designers anticipated.  However, Prosser (2005) argues that, while viewing NSS scores as satisfaction ratings is a mistake, they can nevertheless support understanding of the student experience, and so NSS data offers a useful lens through which to examine staff-student contact.

Examination of data from disciplines which tend to receive poor NSS scores shows a high proportion of part-time staff who may not often be available to students (Yorke et al 2013).  It could therefore be useful to explore whether poor (or high) responses on staff contact statements on the NSS may be related to poor (or high) scores in overall satisfaction.

For this small-scale, exploratory study, I chose five questions (Table 1) from different areas of the NSS for examination and comparison with overall satisfaction ratings.

As well as exploring the correlations between staff-student contact and overall satisfaction, I aimed to compare these correlations with correlations between staff-student contact and other NSS sub categories.

Two questions from the section on teaching were therefore chosen as well as one from the feedback section, since feedback is one of the key areas of dissatisfaction for students.

Finally I chose one resources question as this is relatively unconnected to staff-student contact.

I first calculated Pearson Correlation Co-efficients for the University of Hertfordshire's School of Education data (Table 2) using a standard spreadsheet program.  Correlation between Q11 (on staff contact) and Q22 (overall satisfaction) for the 2012 and 2013 data showed very strong positive correlation (0.81).  Similarly strong positive correlations were obtained between questions relating to aspects of teaching and Q22, but the correlation between feedback and Q22 and learning resources and Q22 was not so strong.

However, the data set for the School (two undergraduate degrees over two years) was too small to be reliable. I therefore repeated the calculations with the national NSS data sets for 2013.

Examination of these national data sets, both for education only courses and for all courses (Table 3) showed a similar pattern on correlations.  This offers a much higher degree of reliability since last year 304,030 (HEFCE 2013) students responded.

Table 1: NSS questions selected for comparison
Q1 Staff are good at explaining things (Teaching)
Q4 The course is intellectually stimulating (Teaching)
Q7 Feedback on my work has been prompt (Assessment and Feedback)
Q11 I have been able to contact staff when I needed to (Support)
Q16 The library resources and facilities are good enough for my needs (Learning Resources)
Q22 Overall satisfaction rating
Table 2: Correlations between Q22 and each of the selected questions: BA Education Studies and Bachelor of Education at UH, 2012 & 2013
Q16-Q22 (Learning resources) - 0.8 Very strong negative correlation
Q07-Q22 (Feedback) 0.17 Very weak positive correlation
Q1-Q22 (Staff explanations) 0.81 Very strong positive correlation
Q11-Q22 (Staff contact) 0.84 Very strong positive correlation
Q04-Q22 (Intellectual stimulation) 0.86 Very strong positive correlation
Table 3: Correlations between Q22 and each of the selected questions: All Education degrees 2013 and all degrees 2013
Positive correlation Education only (498 degrees) Correlation All subjects (18,618 degrees) Correlation
Very weak     
Weak Q16-Q22 0.31 Q16-Q22 0.23
Moderate Q07-Q22 0.48 Q07-Q22 0.44
Strong Q04-Q22
Very strong Q1-Q22 0.8 

Exploring student perceptions of the value of staff-student contact

To recap: exploration of the literature suggested that contact with staff can have specific benefits for student engagement, retention and for the ability to understand learning in higher education.

Examination of NSS scores suggested that there appears to be (for 2013 at least) almost as strong a positive correlation between ability to contact staff and overall satisfaction scores as there is between teaching scores and overall satisfaction scores, which provides some support for the idea that staff-student contact is important in student engagement.

I next aimed to deepen my understanding of student perceptions of the value of staff contact through an interview with one student (AB): a mature student with a previous professional career who was often consulted by other students. I hoped that her perspectives on staff-student contact would offer new insights.

The limited amount of data, along with the atypical nature of AB, means that conclusions cannot be generalised. Furthermore, since I am a senior member of staff in the School of Education it is possible this also affected AB's responses, and so further caution is necessary when considering the findings.

Data were collected through a single, unstructured interview. This method was chosen to encourage rich description (Newby 2010). Prompts were used to ensure that data collected were relevant to the research questions. Ethical considerations included preserving anonymity in reporting the data; gaining informed consent and ensuring that data were an accurate representation of AB's views.

To ensure accuracy, AB was sent the interview transcript and this report for comment. She confirmed that she was happy with accuracy of the transcript. Data were checked to ensure that no student or member of staff was identified. I used, as a starting point for analysis, the main themes that had emerged from the literature review and the induction project (Jarvis et al 2012).

These were: support from, and contact with, staff (Leese 2010; Harvey et al 2003; Winn et al 2005); dependence/independence (Wingate 2007; Christie et al 2011) and engagement with learning and being part of a community (Claxton 2008; Wenger 2000). Data were coded (Newby 2010) according to these themes, then further examined in order to identify sub-categories.

Illustrative primary data were attached to each thread and themes were unpicked further to identify, and then connect, sub-themes. Data were coded according to these sub-themes. It was clear that sub-themes appeared across the original themes, rather than being compartmentalised.

From this analysis five core themes were identified. The main themes that emerged from the interview data analysis were:

  • importance of knowing people (including names);
  • importance of a personal response;
  • responsibility and 'spoon-feeding';
  • managing expectations and demands on lecturers;
  • the nature of relationships between lecturers and students;

Knowing people

AB considered that contact with staff enabled students to feel known.

On a number of occasions she highlighted the importance of knowing names and building personal connections:

'…being able to feel that you are not, you know, number 121 out of 140, that you are actually a person with a name.'

'… if you feel like you're not a number; if you feel you're a person rather than a number, you much more likely to ..'

'I remember we had a talk by - I think it was, the Vice Chancellor.  He came in, he came in and he talked about motivation and inspiration and I remember thinking, 'Yes, that's interesting, but who are you?  I know who you are, I know who your title is', but it didn't feel, personal …'

This reinforces data from the induction project:

'One tutor not knowing our names.  We were sitting in a lecture and all the other tutors are saying people's names and have learnt people's names and it's like, 'Oh, OK, we're not known.' [B.Ed student, Induction project 2011]

Personal Response and the nature of staff-student relationships

AB felt this sense of 'knowing' could be developed through email contact that goes beyond what is required for professional politeness:

'It's more than just 'Thanks ever so much' it's 'Thanks, great, you got back to me!' And that makes a difference.  It makes a difference.  It makes you feel you're not just a number.'

This kind of contact did not have to be extensive to be effective, in her view:

'In terms of building relationships, three or four words can make a difference.'

'…there was a very small grain of familiarity.'

AB emphasised the importance of a personal response. She argued that it is important that lecturers share 'their personal experience, their personal insights and their personal stories' reiterating several times that: 'you remember it more' [than the work of unknown writers].

The importance of the personal chimes with the work of Harvey et al (2006), who highlight the value of informal contact with staff.

There are implications here for practice. In the School of Education most lecturers have been teachers, and can therefore share examples from their own teaching practice. In other Schools too lecturers can draw on examples from practice. What are the implications for lecturers who have not been in professional practice, or not for a long time? What are the implications of 'practice stories' for limiting students' access to other perspectives? If it is the personal that "resonates more" (AB), how can more theoretical alternative viewpoints best be introduced?

One possibility, for further exploration, is that lecturers' own research into practice, or use of research in practice, could enable their students to engage better with theory.

Responsibility, 'spoon-feeding' and the challenge of managing student expectations

Clearly, students' engagement is important to their learning (Wenger 2000; Claxton 2008; Christie et al 2011), however this is not necessarily unproblematic.

AB perceived a contrast between mature students' and younger students' perspectives on the value of contact with the staff; she opposed themes of 'taking responsibility' and 'spoon-feeding'. She attributed the desire for 'spoon-feeding' to school experiences, immaturity and a provider/customer approach to learning.

In her view some students want too much information from lecturers:

'[I say] but why do you have to email them? You can think for yourself, you can think independently.' 'Well I might get it wrong, I need clarity.' And they're straight on the email and I just think, 'You can't go through life doing that.'

It is this dependency that she calls 'spoon-feeding' and she considers this both unsustainable ('and our lecturers, whilst they're a wonderful source of information, they can't be at our beck and call… at the end of a phone call all the time.') and undesirable:

'When I'm observing others, that you just think, 'Oh come on! You can't be spoon fed all the time!' You know, as students, that's one of the things we're here to do.  We're here to be, you know, independent learners.'

Could staff accessibility, coupled with a customer/provider conception of higher education (Wenstone 2012) lead to dependence in learning?

AB worries about this outcome:

'There's no question in my mind that the relationship has changed because of fees, because students now see themselves more as customers and … it's a dangerous game, um, for everybody I think … a real challenge in terms of engagement and working in partnership.'

AB suggested that the solution '...comes back to communication and establishing responsibilities.' rather than to a more distant staff student relationship. She argued that clarity in communication and being explicit fosters independence.

AB considered there is some danger that this clarity could easily turn back into 'a little bit of spoon-feeding and suggested that it is 'clarity of responsibility' that is needed, rather than precise instructions.

'It does boil down to communication and to being explicit in that communication.'

'….sometimes, yeah, clarity is needed'

Conclusion: questions arising from this study

In this paper I have explored the value of staff-student contact to students.

Analysis of the NSS 2013 national data suggests that a link between students' rating of contact with staff and overall satisfaction. Qualitative data analysis of one in-depth interview brought to the fore the value that students may place on personal connections and highlights that clarity of communication with students may be important in supporting independent learning.

As I said at the outset, the paper is intended to be through provoking, not conclusive, and raises more questions than it answers. It therefore leads me to raise three sets of issues.

Firstly, while the correlations suggest that contact with staff is important to students (and is linked to overall satisfaction) it may not be the quantity, but the quality, of contact that matters. So, would ensuring that students' names are used whenever possible, that contact is personalised, and that staff share something of their professional autobiography with students, enable students to feel that they know, and are known by, lecturers? How might this work in very large cohorts of students?

Secondly, would systematically reviewing information given to students to ensure that their responsibilities are made clear support effective communication between staff and students?

Finally, while these small changes might have an impact on students' engagement, is there also a challenge for staff practice in our School: if it is lecturers' personal insights that enable students to connect best with learning, then how might lecturers' engagement with research, either through their own enquiry or through their use of research in practice, begin to connect students with the world of theory? 


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