Cultivating Deeper Life Interactions:Faculty–Student Relationships in a Nonresidential Learning Community
For decades, researchers have investigated the impact of faculty—student interaction as well as the contexts in which such interactions occur and are most productive (Astin, 1993; Kuh & Hu, 2001). Cox (2011) identified two consistent outcomes from this body of research: first, that "interactions between faculty members and students have positive effects on student outcomes," and second, that "such interactions do not occur as regularly as educators might hope" (p. 49). Yet positive exchanges and relationships between faculty and students can have a significant impact on students' college experience, influencing not only students' understanding of course-related issues such as grades (Cotten & Wilson, 2006), but also students' worldview and engagement (Grantham, Robinson, & Chapman, 2015, p. 130; Umbach & Wawrzynski, 2005).
Frameworks have been developed in attempts to unpack the impact of different types of faculty–student interaction. Cotten and Wilson (2006) [End Page 752] assessed the formal and informal contexts in which exchanges between faculty and students occur. Cox and Orehovec (2007) created a typology that identifies five types of faculty–student interactions—disengagement, incidental contact, functional interaction, personal interaction, and mentoring—and found that practically any type of interaction could be beneficial. Sriram and McLevain (2016) drew upon these frameworks and established three engagement categories—academic, social, and deeper life interaction—which they examined in informal (nonprogrammatic) and formal (programmatic) contexts. Of special interest is Sriram and McLevain's concept of deeper life interaction, which "suggests that faculty have the opportunity to promote student learning through engaging students about life's big questions and helping them make meaning of their beliefs and experiences" (p. 608). Significantly, their results determined that it was not possible to independently measure the outcomes of interactions occurring in formal and informal contexts, determining that even if faculty distinguished between these types of interactions, students did not.
While Sriram and McLevain (2016) applied their model to a faculty-in-residence program, meaningful faculty–student interactions can be fostered in other nonresidential learning communities (LCs) that "enroll a cohort of students in two or more courses in which they experience at least one explicitly designed opportunity for integrative learning" (Lardner and Malnarich, 2009, p. 30). Faculty attitudes and behaviors can create environments that encourage student engagement and impact learning outcomes (Umbach & Wawrzynski, 2005): a single positive relationship with a faculty member—noting that frequency of contact is not as important as quality of contact—can influence a student's perception of the entire faculty (Cox, 2011).
PROMOTING STUDENT LEARNING
The Writers, Ink. LC at Cabrini University—a small, Catholic, private, liberal arts institution outside of Philadelphia—was intentionally created to support first-year students identified as academically at-risk in writing. The institution had experienced an enrollment shift in terms of students' academic preparedness; between 2007 and 2013, the percentage of incoming students with SAT-Math or SAT-Verbal scores below 400 (the institution's baseline indicator for whether a student will be required to complete developmental coursework) increased from 11.7% to 34.2%. The LC, one of over 10 residential and nonresidential communities offered to students at the institution, was marketed specifically to incoming students with SAT-Verbal scores below the baseline indicator; students applied for or were given the opportunity to opt into this LC. Because the LC did not include a residential component, it was open to both on-campus residents and commuters. In the LC, a team of 3 faculty combined developmental writing instruction with intensive academic support and integrated experiences in and out of the classroom that established open lines of communication between faculty and students, leading to deeper life interactions that extended program outcomes.
ANSWERING LIFE'S BIG QUESTIONS
The LC's curricular structure was designed to address the challenges that accompany academic underpreparedness, which faculty recognized extended beyond students' academic ability. LC students' college experiences were frequently complicated by long commutes, off-campus jobs, financial and family hardships, and other factors that had significant impacts on their ability to [End Page 753] fully focus on their college responsibilities. Consequently, the LC course sequence and structure provided regular opportunities for faculty to monitor and directly respond to students' academic, professional, and personal needs and questions. In the fall semester, 2 classes—a developmental writing course and a first-year writing seminar—were offered in a block and team-taught by 2 members of the LC faculty. Additionally, a college success seminar engaged LC students in metacognitive activities as they developed strategies for becoming empowered, self-regulated learners. All 3 classrooms served as readily available spaces that reinforced the LC faculty partnership in a highly visible way for students, increasing student awareness of the "scope and purpose" of faculty's roles in the LC (Sriram & McLevain, 2016, p. 607).
Faculty prioritized developing rapport with the students in the LC, perceiving personal connection as critical to motivating and exciting students to engage in their academic coursework. Sriram and McLevain (2016) highlighted the importance of faculty–student relationships that move beyond a student's experience on campus through ongoing conversations that allow faculty and students to share a vulnerable space in which they can discuss "relationships, family, spirituality, and meaning making" (p. 607). These kinds of interactions occurred frequently between faculty and student members of the LC cohort, reflecting a fluidity between formal interactions that grew out of LC programmatic choices and more spontaneous informal interactions. For example, as the sense of community and trust within the LC cohort developed, there were students who would choose to remain in the classroom during the break between block courses, inviting faculty to weigh in on their life and family issues. Faculty would readily participate in these conversations, drawing upon their own life experiences to provide perspective to the students. The candid, informal nature of these conversations helped to reinforce students' understanding that faculty were invested in them beyond a merely academic context and simultaneously challenged students to apply academic skills and content in contexts outside of the classroom.
MAKING MEANING OF BELIEFS AND EXPERIENCES
One of the clearest illustrations of how the LC faculty team committed to cultivating faculty–student relationships and fostering deeper life interactions was its impact on students' experience of the first-year writing seminar Reacting to the Past curriculum. At the start of the year, students were frequently confused or overwhelmed by this nontraditional, presentation-driven curriculum that required students to read demanding core texts like Plato's Republic. Students navigated these challenges through increased faculty–student interaction. LC faculty provided ample opportunities for individual meetings outside of regularly scheduled class time, creating a space for faculty to connect and develop relationships with students outside of the classroom and to show investment in their success. Dialogue with students about their decision to attend college, life experiences that preceded their arrival on campus, and the identification of fears and opportunities established a path of transparency between faculty and students. These deeper life interactions promoted student learning, using interpersonal connection and meaning-making as foundations for academic productivity (Sriram & McLevain, 2016). These interactions were essential to shaping students' mindsets so that the LC participants could not only successfully complete the coursework , but also understand its value in a broader context.
Cocurricular elements further helped to [End Page 754] build community and encouraged students to apply course topics in real-world contexts. LC programs including a leadership retreat, day trips to local cities, and group dinners created a variety of settings where faculty–student interactions could occur that reinforced students' awareness of the faculty's roles as not just instructors, but also as people who had lived through similar experiences and who remained committed to learning from them. Faculty were aware of the depth of influence that these interactions could have on students; while this programming was an integral part of the LC design, the less structured environments and formats of these cocurricular experiences allowed faculty to connect with students in ways that highlighted the intersection between life experiences and academic pursuits (Sriram & McLevain, 2016). The outcomes of these interactions were apparent in reflections completed at the end of the semester, in which students frequently described feeling empowered, motivated, confident, and more inclined to think positively as a result of their LC experience.
The Writers, Ink. LC provides one example of how faculty can collaborate to provide formal and informal environments in which positive and diverse faculty–student interactions can take place. While Sriram and McLevain (2016) discussed deeper life interactions in the context of a faculty-in-residence model, this LC demonstrates that a community fostering faculty–student relationships that give rise to deeper life interactions can exist without a residential component. Furthermore, the LC illustrates the value of such interactions for academically at-risk students and suggests that their engagement in positive faculty–student relationships during the first year of college may in turn encourage active learning and positive perception of achievement and academic experience (Cox, 2011; Umbach & Wawrzynski, 2005).
Catherine Pressimone Beckowski is an ECG Faculty Fellow in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Cabrini University.
Richie Gebauer is Executive Director of the First-Year Experience and Student Transitions in the Center for Student Success at Cabrini University.