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Faculty-Student Interaction Outside the Classroom:
A Typology from a Residential College

Faculty-student interaction is an important component of the undergraduate experience. Our year-long qualitative study explored the complex nature of faculty-student interaction outside the classroom. Our resulting typology identifies five types of interaction: disengagement, incidental contact, functional interaction, personal interaction, and mentoring. This typology provides researchers with a new lens through which they can examine faculty-student interaction and suggests that even non-academic interactions between students and professors can be meaningful to students. Finally, the typology will allow faculty, staff, and administrators to improve current practices and develop initiatives that build bridges between faculty and students outside the classroom.

Faculty-student interaction is an essential component of the collegiate experience. Significant research has demonstrated the importance of interaction between faculty members and students, both in and outside of the classroom. Astin found that faculty-student interaction had a positive effect on both cognitive and affective student development (1993) and that faculty-student interaction was the variable most strongly related to student satisfaction in college (1977). Kuh, Douglas, Lund, and Ramin-Gyurnek (1994) encouraged an increase in faculty-student interactions in order to improve career choice, personal growth, and student persistence. Wilson and Gaff (1975) found that faculty labeled as "most outstanding" and having the [End Page 343] "most impact" on students were those who most frequently interacted with students outside the classroom. In their meta-analyses of the higher education literature, Pascarella and Terenzini (1991, 2005) identified a number of studies (Avalos, 1994; Berger, 1997; Kuh & Hu, 2001) that support a correlation between faculty-student interaction and positive student outcomes. Furthermore, it has been suggested that informal interaction with faculty outside the classroom may lead to enhanced intellectual development and therefore affect student persistence (Tinto, 1993).

Unfortunately, the value of faculty-student interaction is undermined by two factors. First, no value can be extracted from such interactions if they do not take place. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) (2006) indicates that faculty-student interaction occurs less frequently than all but one of the five benchmarks for effective educational practice. These relatively low levels of interaction exist in all types of institutions but are lowest at doctoral universities with very high levels of research activity. Second, the quantity of faculty-student interaction accounts for only one part of the equation; without understanding the quality of those interactions it is impossible to account for the related student outcomes (Sax, Bryant, & Harper, 2005).

In other words, while educators know that faculty-student interaction outside the classroom is associated with positive outcomes, there is little understanding of the process by which such interactions take place. Researchers are generally unsure why and how students and faculty members engage with each other outside the classroom. However, such an understanding is critical; without it, efforts to develop structures and cultures that foster these educationally productive interactions will be limited in both their effectiveness and efficiency. To successfully promote faculty-student interaction outside the classroom, educators must understand how students make sense of their interactions with faculty members.

Therefore, this study investigates the full range of types and meanings of students' interactions with faculty members outside the classroom. Our research was guided by the following questions: (a) What is the nature of faculty-student interaction outside the classroom, and (b) What conditions foster and inhibit these interactions? The resulting analysis yields a typology of faculty-student interaction outside the classroom that provides a framework through which educators can pursue future research and improve institutional practice.

Literature Review

Faculty-Student Interaction

Recent literature has confirmed what the early studies of faculty-student interaction suggested. Specifically, there is clearly a link between positive [End Page 344] student outcomes and both the quality and quantity of out-of-class interactions between undergraduates and faculty members. Anaya and Cole (2001) confirmed that quality relationships and communication with the faculty had a positive impact on student grades. Further, Hathaway, Nagda, and Gregerman (2002) indicated that undergraduate students' interaction with the faculty to conduct research may have a positive impact that extends beyond graduation.

Unfortunately, the research on faculty-student interaction is limited in its scope. The vast majority of research addressing faculty-student interaction focuses on interactions that take place within the classroom. Likely guided by early research suggesting that faculty-student interaction appeared most valuable when it related to academic, intellectual, or career matters (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1977, 1991; Pascarella, Terenzini, & Hibel, 1978), and Kuh, Shuh, Whitt, and Associates' (1991) recognition of the tendency for out-of-class interaction to relate to academic issues, nearly all of the literature regarding faculty-student interaction has focused primarily on a narrow range of behaviors. Specifically, researchers have tailored their inquiries to interactions considered to be academic or intellectual (e.g., Anaya & Cole, 2001; Hathaway, Nagda, & Gregerman, 2002). In doing so, even while acknowledging that other types of interactions warrant additional study (Einarson & Clarkberg, 2004), available research has generally overlooked the potentially important "humanizing" and "personalizing" effect that nonacademic interaction might have on students' perceived integration into the campus social and academic community (Colwell & Lifka, 1983).

Residential Learning Communities

Residential learning communities have evolved over the past decade in efforts to increase student involvement, satisfaction, and sense of community in residence halls (Altschuler & Kramnick, 1999; Schroeder & Mable, 1994). The concept of a residential learning community differs on every campus; however, "the central theme appears to be one of bringing about a closer integration of the student's living environment with his or her academic or learning environment" (Pascarella, Terenzini, & Blimling, 1994, p. 32).

One such residential learning community is the residential college. Residential colleges were first founded at Oxford and Cambridge nearly 800 years ago and were established in American higher education in 1933 with the founding of the Harvard House System (Ryan, 1993). According to Smith (1994), residential colleges are "experiencing a renaissance. Dozens of colleges and universities in North America are rediscovering the venerable benefits of teachers and students living, dining, and studying in the same building" (p. 241). Residential colleges are small cross-sectional societies of students and faculty within a larger university. The goal of a residential college is to increase students' sense of community and integrate the social and academic domains of a large university into a tight-knit community [End Page 345] (O'Hara, 2001). Oftentimes, faculty members reside with students in residential colleges.


With few exceptions (Colwell & Lifka, 1983; Golde & Pribbenow, 2000), nearly every recent study of faculty-student interaction has used quantitative analyses to study what is a highly personal, complex set of experiences for both faculty members and students. Several studies (Anaya & Cole, 2001; Grayson, 1999; Kuh & Hu, 2001) have used the College Student Experiences Questionnaire (CSEQ). Additionally, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), delivered to hundreds of thousands of students each year, explores faculty-student interaction as one of its "five clusters or benchmarks of effective educational practices" (Kuh, 2003, p. 26). A related assessment tool, the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE), asks similar questions of campus faculty. One recent study (Sax, Bryant, & Harper, 2005) used the CIRP Freshman Survey and the College Student Survey from the Higher Education Research Institute.

Using these nationally distributed survey instruments, most recent studies investigate the nature of faculty-student interaction outside the classroom by asking students a handful of questions about how often they, for example, "worked with faculty members on activities other than coursework" (NSSE, 2005) or "had coffee, Coke, or snacks with faculty" (CSEQ, 2000). While all of these instruments are nationally recognized and offer valuable insights into the experiences of undergraduate students, to keep within the constraints of both time and space they are required to use simple proxies to estimate complex constructs.

Breaking from this quantitative tradition, our use of a multi-method qualitative design freed us from the constraints of previous studies' narrow definition of faculty-student interaction and allowed us to garner a more complete understanding of the nature of such interactions. Blending case-study and grounded theory approaches to qualitative research (Creswell, 1998), we hoped to develop an explanatory theory of faculty-student interaction based on data collected within an environment specifically tailored to foster such interactions. Moreover, while previous studies of faculty-student interaction have generally focused on relatively concrete outcomes by measuring the frequency of generic student experiences, our study explored the range and meaning of students' individual, highly contextualized experiences.

Site of the Study

For the purpose of this study, we investigated faculty-student interaction at a residential college in a large public research university. Essentially an [End Page 346] effort to copy the "Oxbridge" cultures and communities of the finest British universities (Duke, 1991), the residential college in our study, also known as "the College," included students ranging from freshmen through graduate students from a variety of disciplines. Approximately 40 faculty members from throughout the university were associated with the residential college. In their role as faculty "associates," these faculty members agreed to participate in such College events as College-wide dinners, teas, lectures, and banquets. Several of these associated faculty members also taught academic courses for students in the College. Because the residential college was established, in part, specifically to increase faculty-student interaction, a number of the College functions were developed to intentionally bring faculty members into contact with students outside the classroom.

Each month the College held "teas" that typically brought together more than 100 students and several faculty members. Teas were a seemingly successful effort to simultaneously engage both faculty and students, bridging the two cultures while keeping a firm footprint in each. The use of the term "tea"—a reference to the British tradition in the Oxbridge model (Duke, 1991)—connotes formality and decorum, a subtle appeal to the faculty culture. Additionally, the teas were held in the live-in faculty "principal's" apartment, a formally decorated abode complete with antique furniture and oil paintings of former university leaders. To entice the students, teas reliably offered a generous buffet of student-friendly food (e.g., chicken wings, cookies). Further, each tea was organized around a festive theme (e.g., a welcome-back tea, a Halloween tea) that was thought to appeal to students. As host of these teas, the faculty principal acted as a liaison between the faculty and students.

College-wide dinners were required for all students and encouraged for all faculty members associated with the College. Dinner was served in a dining hall reserved for members of the College on Monday through Thursday evenings. The College-wide dinners were the setting most frequently available for the faculty and students to interact. Faculty members occasionally set up themed tables to encourage the faculty and students to dine together over conversation around a common topic, like American literature or the French language.

All of the College's official events, including teas and College-wide dinners, tried to maximize student and faculty participation. Accordingly, these events were free for the students and held on campus. However, affiliated faculty members were encouraged to develop their own supplemental initiatives. One such faculty-initiated event was the ethnic dining experience. Because they were not officially sponsored by the College, these events were optional for students and received no financial support from the College, meaning that interested students were required to pay for their own meals. Further, to partake in truly ethnic cuisine, these events had to be held off-campus. [End Page 347] Collectively, these factors limited student involvement. The typical ethnic dining event would draw approximately a dozen students and three professors. The ethnic dining experience we attended, an excursion to a local authentic Mexican restaurant, drew six faculty members and eight College students of varied genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations.

Researchers' Relation to Study

For any qualitative study, it is important to consider how the position of the researcher affects the data collection, analysis, and conclusions. In the present study, our unique relationship to the community facilitated the building of rapport, the collection of data at College functions, and the eventual member-checking to ensure that the interpretation and analysis of the data was valid. Nonetheless, it may have also contributed to our initial expectation that faculty-student interaction would be both common and meaningful to students.

During the course of this study, we were sequentially employed as graduate assistants within the College. While neither of us lived in the College, each had an office in the building, assisted with various administrative requirements of the College (e.g., budgeting, admissions), and typically spent 20–30 hours per week in the building. In this position, we frequently worked with both the College's faculty and its students, developing a strong rapport with many of them. It was this familiarity that earned us acceptance as part of the College's in-group (Tajfel, 1982) and allowed us to attend various College functions without attracting undue attention. Moreover, our status as year-long graduate assistants allowed us to freely associate with both faculty members and students without being perceived to represent the other (i.e., students didn't think of us as faculty, yet faculty didn't think of us as students). Our unique positions within the College suggest that our data possess a "natural validity" (Warner, 1991, qtd. in Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 278) because the behavior of our participants was likely unaffected by our presence.

Aware of the residential college's goal of improved faculty-student interaction and being intentional in our selection of student participants who were perceived as active in the College, we began this study expecting to find that faculty-student interaction was frequent and meaningful to the College's students. As such, our initial hope was that we could identify and encourage replication of effective institutional practices that foster such interaction. However, our early observations and conversations suggested that present initiatives were less than optimally effective. Thus, instead of identifying institutional best practices, we shifted our focus to the students (as opposed to the institutional structures/programs) in an effort to understand how students' perceptions affected institutional efforts to foster faculty-student interaction outside the classroom. [End Page 348]

Data Collection and Analysis Procedures

We conducted this study over a 12-month period ending in February 2005. We used a multi-dimensional research approach by conducting focus groups, interviews (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994), and researcher observations (Jorgensen, 1989). Following Patton's (1990) guidelines, we sought to develop a holistic understanding of faculty-student interaction by participating in College events, noting both the content of the conversations and the context in which these interactions occurred. Throughout this period, on eight different occasions, we observed three different types of College events. Our observations included the following: four teas for approximately one hour each, three College-wide dinners for 30 to 90 minutes each, and one off-campus ethnic dining experience. We chose to attend these events because they were the College's most visible efforts to promote activities specifically designed to foster faculty-student interaction outside the classroom.

To explore the full breadth of interactions between students and faculty outside the classroom, we also conducted focus groups with students who were active in the College. Our choice to focus on active students was purposeful (Manning, 1999) and reflected our desire to understand the various institutional mechanisms that encouraged faculty-student interaction. We suspected that active students would have experienced such mechanisms frequently and would be able to provide insight into the relative success of such initiatives. However, the real importance of having selected active students became apparent soon after we began our data collection. Upon recognizing that even the most active students had only infrequent out-of-class interactions with the faculty, we realized that less active students would have been unable to provide the rich data required.

Using a semi-structured interview protocol developed after our initial observations at dinners and teas, we conducted four focus groups with four or five students in each. Each focus group lasted for approximately one hour. Student participants included residence hall staff, members of the College's hall government, and other students who, without any official title within the College, were perceived to be active members of the community.

To confirm the transferability of our data and findings, we also interviewed participants who might offer contradictory stories or provide alternate perspectives. Because even the active students had infrequent interactions with faculty, we surmised that inactive students would be unlikely to provide counter-stories. Instead, we hypothesized that faculty members might make meaning of their interactions with students in a fundamentally different way than did the students. Therefore, we conducted two individual interviews with associated faculty members whom students mentioned as being particularly engaged in the College. That faculty members expressed feelings roughly parallel to those of the students suggests that our findings [End Page 349] represent a universal understanding of faculty-student interaction within the College.

We wrote field notes immediately following observations of College events. We took notes during each interview, and all focus groups were recorded and transcribed. Our data analysis began with open coding and was followed, upon the emergence of our typology, by axial coding (Straus & Corbin, 1998).

To ensure the reliability of the data and the accuracy of our analysis, we requested and received feedback on our resulting typology from members of the College's students, staff, and faculty. Furthermore, our multi-dimensional research procedures were intentionally designed to include three distinct forms of triangulation (Denzin, 1978). First, we collected data from multiple sources in multiple settings. Second, each researcher collected data independently, but we confirmed axial coding together. Finally, we used multiple qualitative data collection methods—interviews, focus groups, and researcher observations—to triangulate the data.


We began our data analysis by openly coding the content and context of interactions between faculty members and students. While our coding of content essentially entailed identifying the various subjects that came up in conversations between faculty members and students, our coding of the context involved a number of variables that influenced those interactions (e.g., location, event type, time, physical surroundings). Our resulting typology of interactions emerged as we recognized that the content of these interactions generally fell into five categories.

The typology includes five fluid, contextually influenced types of faculty-student interaction outside the classroom. These types of interactions are defined by both the subject (content) of the communication and its meaning to the student. They include (in descending order of frequency) disengagement, incidental contact, functional interaction, personal interaction, and mentoring. (See Figure 1.)

The types of faculty-student interaction are not isolated or disconnected. Rather, they occur along a fluid, contextually influenced continuum. The fluidity within the typology occurs because of the often erratic nature of each conversation or relationship. As occurs in everyday discussions, faculty members and students frequently drift in and out of topics, often in response to some change in the interaction's context (e.g., another student enters the conversation, changes in time or setting). Data from our observations, focus groups, and interviews provide evidence of each of these types. [End Page 350]

Typology of Faculty-Student Interaction
Click for larger view
Figure 1
Typology of Faculty-Student Interaction


We define disengagement as faculty and students not interacting outside the classroom. Our study revealed that, despite institutionally established conduits through which interaction could occur, the majority of the students and faculty members were not engaged with one another outside the classroom. The most obvious indicator of disengagement was the absence of faculty members at College functions. Never, during any of our observations of the teas or dinners, did we see more than eight faculty members at the event at the same time.

A more subtle form of disengagement occurred when faculty and students, though physically proximate, chose not to directly interact with one another. One example of this type of disengagement occurred at a College-wide dinner we observed. Two faculty members were sitting in the second to last seats, across the table from each other, at one end of a double-long rectangular table. The rest of the table had four students sitting together with one space between them and the professors. The faculty members were engaged in their own conversation, while the students were engaged separately in their own. Moreover, the students closest to the faculty members turned in their chairs a little, and were leaning forward, almost turning their backs on the professors. The faculty members showed no visible sign of being bothered or offended. In fact, the faculty members and students seemed oblivious to each other. [End Page 351]

We found situations like this at all of the events that we observed. Even when they were in the same room at events, faculty and students tended not to interact with one another. Students in our focus groups were keenly aware of the disengagement. When we asked about her relationship with the faculty, a first-year student responded "At the moment, they occasionally walk through the building, and I see them walk through the building and just kind of, yeah, it's a faculty person, back to what I was doing." Another first-year student, Mandy (all names are pseudonyms), pointed out, "I know there's one of the professors in the poli-sci department I was introduced to last fall [who] was also supposed to be a faculty associate at [the College]. I've never seen him either." Todd, a sophomore, noted, "I don't see very many others [faculty]. Eight is about it." Students even suspected they all knew the same eight faculty associates. Thus, even within a small community that intentionally fostered faculty-student interaction outside the classroom, only eight of the 40 associated faculty members had made enough contact with students to be remembered.

Incidental Contact

The second most frequently observed type of faculty-student interaction was incidental, or unintentional, contact between the faculty and students. Polite greetings and waves are typical of this type of interaction. At a Halloween tea, we noticed two faculty members, Tim Thomas and Linda Mann, talking to each other in the corner of the dining room. Students were around them, picking up food, but no students were talking to the faculty members. When a student dressed as a pink fairy was getting food, Linda commented about her costume. The student then told Linda how her friend made the costume. The total conversation lasted less than two minutes, and we observed no further interaction between Linda and the student during the rest of the event. Like all incidental contact, this interaction was trivial and perfunctory; the student and faculty member began talking to each other simply because they came into contact with one another while picking up food.

In focus groups, students mentioned these incidental contacts regularly. When asked about his interactions with the faculty, a first-year student commented, "It is pretty much just happenstance. I mean like saying 'good morning' to them on my way out to the lobby." Megan, a sophomore, agreed and noted, "I mostly see them in the lobby and I say 'hello' and they say 'hello' and they might stay in the lobby for two minutes and talk about something and then they go." Rick, the College's faculty principal, reluctantly acknowledged the prevalence of these types of interactions. During a tea, he asked us to tell him what we had observed. We started saying, "Faculty-student interaction was . . ." and Rick completed the sentence with "superficial."

Nonetheless, Colwell and Lifka (1983) suggest that, just by spending time with students outside the classroom, faculty can "serve as adult models and [End Page 352] inspirations" (p. 9) for students. For some students in our study, the mere presence of faculty members at out-of-class College events was valuable. One student, Susan, noted:

It is kind of nice having them around. They are always at College dining with us. We always see at least one or two faculty members in there, in College dining. It's just really nice to see. It just feels like you have this camaraderie, this family, it's nice to see adults around, especially when you are a college student.

Functional Interaction

Functional interaction occurs for a specific, institutionally related purpose. Kuh, Shuh, Whitt, and Associates (1991) have suggested that this is the type of interaction that occurs most frequently: "Student-faculty interaction out of class, when it occurs, usually is directly or indirectly related to academic activities and concerns" (p. 174). This type of interaction can include students asking professors academic questions, students and faculty members working on a College project together, or faculty members asking students institution-related questions. When asked about his interactions with students, Tim Thomas lamented that, despite having an office in the College building and regularly teaching at the College over the last nine years, "I've only had one student who asked me any question about getting ready for a history test. She told me afterwards it really helped, it really helped her grade. But she didn't come back."

An example from a tea also illustrates functional interaction. A student approached Rick, the College's live-in faculty principal, and asked, "What does 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny' mean?" This saying was written in red upon the base of a 5'x4' picture hanging above the piano in the living room. Rick had created the artwork, a fact the student apparently knew. Rick said the saying was one of his favorites and that it meant: "The development of the individual replicated the development of the species." He gave the human race as an example. The female student listened carefully. When Rick completed his explanation, she nodded as though she understood, and gave an affirming noise (like an "uh-huh"). Then she turned around and went back into the room with other students. In this case, the student used Rick as an intellectual resource; however, the interaction failed to initiate any further conversation. Functional interactions such as those described above have an easily recognizable value. When a student asks a faculty member an academic/intellectual question and receives an accurate answer, the benefit to the student is obvious.

Less obvious however, is the recognition that this type of interaction can lead to personal interaction if both the student and the faculty member realize they have something in common. Sam, a sophomore, spoke excitedly about an interaction she had had with a faculty member: [End Page 353]

It wasn't even necessarily having to do with anything we particularly talked about in class. I think it came up really briefly. It was, uh, [the] non-proliferation treaty, and there had been a question that I was always curious about but I never really had anyone who was educated enough, I guess, in this particular topic, to answer my question, until recently. So I was, like, "I'll drop by your office." And it wasn't even office hours. But I went and I was, like, "I just had a question about this. I was wondering if blah, blah, blah . . ." and she sat down and was, like, "You know, I'm so glad you came because it just shows . . . " and so she and I just sat down and had a twenty-minute conversation. It was just, how class was that day, um, the interesting class dynamics between me and somebody else in the class, how a friend of mine, Kelly, was doing, who had just recently gone into the hospital. Stuff like that. Like, we talk about everything.

For another student, a last-minute study session developed into a relaxed, personal conversation:

Milton Mathews [faculty member] offered his knowledge in the math department to help with final exams last semester, and I really needed that at the time, and he helped me out. He offered his knowledge, and his guidance through the horrible time I was having with math, and we, afterwards, we would just sit and talk for about ten or fifteen minutes, just about whatever's going on.

While each of these students began their conversations with faculty members in an effort to address some matter of intellectual or institutional importance, they all received more than just an academic answer. They received the personal attention that is often so difficult to find as a student at a large research university.

Personal Interaction

In personal interaction, the interaction is purposeful (which distinguishes it from incidental contact) and revolves around the personal interest(s) of a faculty member and/or student (which distinguishes it from functional interaction). This is the type of interaction in which a personal—as distinguished from a purely professional—relationship can develop between a professor and a student.

Typically, personal interaction developed from functional interaction as happened in Sam's conversation described earlier. However, personal interaction can also develop directly from incidental contact. For example, we observed that James, a student, and David Greg, a professor, transitioned from incidental contact to personal interaction within a matter of minutes. At about 9:15 A.M. David Greg was walking toward the rear door of the College when James left by that door. As they approached, they both acknowledged each other and stopped to engage in a conversation. David Greg said he [End Page 354] "wanted to set up a lunch with James, Jack, Susan." All three were student writers and literary scholars-in-the-making. David met regularly with these students on Tuesday nights for dinner at the College. He asked James, "When are you available?" Though James's response was inaudible, David followed with, "Call Rachael" (his secretary). Then each went his own way. Thus, what started as a brief hello between passing acquaintances ended up as a mutually desired arrangement for personal interaction.

In focus groups, students talked about their personal interactions with faculty members and what these interactions meant to them. One student commented:

Dustin Brown [faculty], he and I went for coffee the other night before the meeting that they had in the lodge. And we just really talked about life. You know, and that's really good to have some guy who spent most of his time in mathematics, and science, and you have this sort of idea of what he may talk about, and you know, too, um, he can talk about it a lot more than sometimes you need, but they're all people, and they are all people, and they talk about just various things. And they're interested.

The topics discussed during personal interactions were not about students' courses. Brenda, a sophomore, noted, "I've never talked to any [faculty associates] about classes. I know others go to advisors to ask about professors. . . . I just go talk to them at dinner. They have interesting stories that I've never even dreamed of and [they are] fun to talk to."

When students engage in personal interactions with faculty, they feel valued and important. As Mandy put it, "You become more than just a number. . . . You're no longer just another one, you're an individual, you have a name, you have a background, and they know you personally, and that personal connection, that relationship means a lot." Through personal interaction, students can develop personal relationships with faculty members in which the professors become what the students called "friends" or "peers" who were concerned about the students' lives. The professors, who may be the most visible symbols of the university, become more human and less institutional. Jacob, a first-year student, commented:

It's all about the person and your interaction with them because they are not so much "professor" but after you get to know them, they're more a person who you like talking to. 'Cause I know that's how it is for me because, like with Dr. Greg I would, I just sit down with him lots of times, like at dinner and we would just talk.

Katie, another first-year student, agreed that "if you ever get a chance to sit down with most of the faculty associates, they will treat you like you're the same level as them. Apparently, you're fellow faculty members or something, instead of a student. It's just great." Though personal interaction did [End Page 355] not occur as frequently as incidental contact or functional interaction, those who did engage in personal interactions clearly recognized the "humanizing" and "personalizing" effects that Colwell and Lifka (1983) suggested could improve the college student experience.


The final type of faculty-student interaction is mentoring. However, this is also the most infrequent type and the most difficult to define. Despite several universities' recent development of official/institutional "mentoring" programs (e.g., California State University System) and undergraduate research programs (e.g., the University of Michigan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), we defined mentoring not in terms of programs, but in terms of relationships. Specifically, we considered mentoring to be the "highest end on a continuum of helping relationships" (Jacobi, 1991, p. 511). To be labeled as a mentoring relationship in our study, the relationship must have met all three criteria set forth by Anderson et al. (1995), who summarized Jacobi's work: (a) direct assistance with career and professional development, (b) emotional and psychosocial support, and (c) role modeling. In essence, mentoring minimally required an extended relationship built on both functional and personal interactions.

Through our observations and focus groups, we found only one student with a relationship that met our definition. For the student being mentored, relationships with the faculty were very important in his day-to-day life. John, a junior in the College who had mentoring relationships with a number of faculty members, noted:

Well, you know, the thing is, there's a lot of instances in life, in college life, that occur, that I have no idea how to handle, you know I just—"what the hell do I do here?" And these people [faculty] understand and they really help. You know someone like Adam [points to someone else in focus group], might be going through, and has yet to go through something that I am currently dealing with, or whatever. And Tim or Henry or Bob Brown or Bill Kent or any of those people [faculty] . . . they most likely [have] been there and they understand you.

In this case, the faculty members' life experiences are why John feels he can rely on them as mentors.

Ironically, though we observed little mentoring and only one student mentioned having such a relationship, the faculty members we interviewed viewed themselves as mentors to students. When asked about the role he plays in students' lives, David Greg responded, "Students look to me as a model." Greg's perception of himself as a role model completes our three criteria for a mentor. He continued by saying students were "comfortable with me" and he was comfortable with the students. Though he doubted they talked [End Page 356] to him as they did their roommates, he said they could talk to him normally because "I'm not judging them." In fact, when recounting a recent discussion he had with a College student, David Greg was intrigued by the student's expertise in comic books and stated that "[the student] teaches me." David mentioned that he would often "learn from the students," resulting in the creation of a certain "trust level between me and the students." Just like all human relationships, then, trust appeared to be an essential element of the out-of-class relationships between students and faculty.


Educators have long known that a significant portion of student learning in college occurs outside the classroom and that faculty-student interaction is an important part of the college experience. Yet meaningful faculty-student interaction outside the classroom is still elusive on many campuses. Perhaps the most striking finding from this study is the general lack of out-of-class interaction between professors and students. This finding mirrors those from other studies (NSSE, 2006). What makes our finding remarkable is that such disengagement occurred within a well-funded residential college intentionally designed to foster meaningful interactions between students and faculty members outside the class. Nevertheless, both students and professors were universally frustrated by the infrequency of interaction.

That such major structural and financial investments garnered only marginal returns leaves us wondering if different institutional initiatives may be any more successful. While residential learning communities have emerged sporadically across the country, many institutions have begun other novel initiatives designed to foster faculty-student interaction. Some schools (e.g., St. Petersburg College, Santa Fe Community College) have articulated policies that require a minimum number of faculty office hours. Other institutions (e.g., the California State University system) have asked faculty members to "mentor" certain students. More prominently, colleges and universities across the country have begun summer reading and undergraduate research programs to help their students engage with faculty members outside the classroom. Evaluations of these initiatives, perhaps using the typology presented in this study, may shed further light on the efficacy of institutional efforts to increase faculty-student interaction.

However, we suspect that isolated programs will have only marginal effects. Changes in policies, structures, and finances will be successful only as they build an institutional culture that values out-of-class faculty-student interaction as an important component of the collegiate experience. As Strange and Banning (2001) remind us, individual structures and organizations, like residential learning communities, may have their own cultures that "assist participants, staff as well as students, in making meaning of [End Page 357] the college experience" (p. 104). The cultures of these residential learning communities, however, represent just one component of the student experience and may only minimally mediate a larger institutional culture. Thus, substantive improvements in faculty-student interaction will require systemic and coordinated efforts to adjust the wider institutional culture (Ewell, 1997).

While we have placed special emphasis here on the influence of institutional initiatives and campus culture, several other factors shape the quantity and quality of faculty-student interaction occurring at an institution. In fact, to varying degrees, we found evidence to support each of the four "interrelated domains of influence on the level of faculty out-of-class interactions with undergraduates: intensity of competing time demands; institutional norms and practices; personal beliefs and attitudes; and interpersonal skills" (Einarson & Clarkberg, 2004, p. 2). The ultimate challenge for institutions seeking to improve faculty-student interaction outside the classroom, therefore, is to coordinate efforts that simultaneously address each of these issues.

Limitations of the Study

This study was bounded by several limitations. Perhaps most importantly, the research was conducted in an institutional setting that may inhibit the generalizability of the findings. Students were essentially self-selected to become part of a community intentionally designed, in part, to foster faculty-student interaction. As such, both the quantity and quality of interactions taking place at the College may be greater than would be typical in most higher education settings.

Second, the participants in our study, both the students and the faculty, were active members of the College community. Again, these participants likely had more out-of-class interaction than is typical.

Finally, we urge readers to use caution when considering the relative importance of each type of faculty-student interaction. While it may be intuitive to infer that mentoring relationships are the most valuable to students—and that our typological pyramid represents a value-ranked hierarchy of interactions—our study provides insufficient evidence to support this conclusion. Rather, our findings suggest that all interactions (except disengagement) have value and that the value of a particular type of interaction is dependent upon the individual student and the context(s) in which such interactions take place.

Suggestions for Future Research

As suggested earlier, campus culture can facilitate or inhibit out-of-class faculty-student interactions. Thus, it is likely that the frequency and relative distribution of each type of interaction will vary in different institutional [End Page 358] contexts. So, too, might the meaning of such interactions vary across the wide landscape of higher education institutions. Therefore, replication of this study in other institutional environments may yield additional rich data that could lead to an even more comprehensive understanding of the complex interplay between institutions, faculty members, and students. Future research should also explore how differences between student and faculty racial, gender, and sexual identities may affect these interactions.

Another potential track for future research relates to the growing use of technologically enhanced communication on campus. Emerging evidence suggests that the communication taking place via email is qualitatively different from face-to-face communication (An & Frick, 2006). Students may use email as a way to initiate interactions with professors whom they might otherwise have been unwilling to approach in person. It would be prudent for future research to consider how technologies like email affect the relative frequency of each interaction type and how the electronic medium either fosters or interferes with transitions from one type of interaction to another.

Finally, to improve future efforts to bolster faculty-student interaction outside the classroom, researchers must continue working to identify the personal and institutional factors that facilitate such interaction. While previous research has suggested that members of the faculty with particular beliefs about teaching or at certain points in the tenure/rank scale are most likely to interact with students outside the classroom (see review in Einarson & Clarkberg, 2004), there has heretofore been little articulation of specific, transferable behaviors that can improve faculty interaction with students outside classroom walls. Our study found that even those faculty members and students who desire high levels of meaningful interaction with each other can remain frustrated by their inability to make such interactions happen. That such inability occurred within an institutional context specifically designed to promote interaction suggests that institutions are still searching for efficient ways to foster faculty-student interaction outside the classroom. Therefore, it is our hope that future research will identify specific personal and institutional tools that can be employed to bring students and faculty members together in meaningful ways outside the classroom.


Contrary to the prevailing perspective in earlier research, our study suggests that virtually every type of interaction between faculty members and students can have positive effects. While our findings confirm the value of functional interaction, they also indicate that incidental contacts, personal interactions, and mentoring can be meaningful to students. Even the most fleeting out-of-class interactions with faculty members (i.e., incidental [End Page 359] contact) can help students overcome the professional distance implicit in a classroom setting. Moreover, incidental contact, though often unintentional and superficial, can serve as a stepping stone to more substantial interactions later. Personal interactions between professors and students, though perhaps not leading directly to better student performance or persistence, nonetheless help students feel important and valued as members of the institution.

Considering that faculty members are often the most visible academic representatives of an institution, it seems likely that personal interactions with faculty members outside the classroom contribute to students' intellectual congruence within the institution, a key factor in student persistence (Tinto, 1993). Finally, when mentoring relationships grow naturally out of functional and personal interactions, both students and professors benefit from the symbiotic relationship. Perhaps, then, by embracing the notion that faculty-student interaction outside the classroom need not be formal or academic to hold value, institutions of higher learning can begin to tap the full potential of such interactions as an integral component of the undergraduate experience.

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