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  • Cultivating Deeper Life Interactions:Faculty–Student Relationships in a Nonresidential Learning Community
  • Catherine Pressimone Beckowski (bio) and Richie Gebauer (bio)

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).


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.


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...