Creating a “relentless welcome”

Professor Peter Felten delivering his keynote talk, ‘Relationships Matter’, at the Learning & Teaching Conference 2019, The University of Edinburgh (John McIntyre Conference Centre). Photo credit: A Bovill.

Teaching Matters is delighted to publish a blog post written by one of the recent keynote speakers at the University’s Learning and Teaching Conference 2019: Professor Peter Felten, Professor of History, Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning, and Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University, North Carolina, USA. Peter’s keynote talk on the value of creating a ‘relentless welcome’ for students at university struck a chord with many delegates on the day. This post shares his message with the Teaching Matters’ audience that ‘Relationships Matter’… 

In my talk at the June 2019 Learning and Teaching Conference at The University of Edinburgh, Relationships matter: Moving relationship-rich experiences from the periphery to the centre of teaching and learning, I explored some findings from my recent research project on the significance of relationships in undergraduate education. Over the past two years, my co-author, Leo Lambert, and I interviewed nearly 400 people across American higher education including more than 200 students as well as academic staff and leaders from 28 diverse institutions. In our interviews, we asked about the ways that relationships – student-student and student-staff – shaped the undergraduate experience.

Our interviews build on a deep vein of research in the United States that demonstrates, to quote a classic 1977 study, “student-faculty interaction has a stronger relationship to student satisfaction with the college experience than any other involvement variable, or, indeed, any other student or institutional characteristic” (p. 223). More recently, Estela Mara Bensimon and others have critically analysed student-student and student-staff interactions, paying particular attention to the experiences of students from groups that have been historically marginalised in U.S. higher education. Regardless of race or ethnicity, if students perceive academic staff to be approachable, helpful, and encouraging, they are likely to be open to interactions with staff and to thrive at university; if students perceive staff to be remote, discouraging, or biased, they are likely to avoid interactions and to disengage from their studies.

Professor Peter Felten, Learning & Teaching Conference 2019. Photo credit: A Bovill.

The people we interviewed echoed this research, emphasising what David Scobey described to us as the importance of “relentless welcome.” Undergraduates need far more than an engaging “welcome week” at the start of their time at university; they need to be welcomed and to feel welcome throughout their time at university. Practices of welcome are essential for all students, and particularly those from groups who have been marginalised in higher education, to develop and maintain the sense that they belong in higher education. These practices of welcome can take many forms in different contexts, and they need not be complex or labour-intensive.

The students we interviewed consistently mentioned the importance of staff simply expressing an interest in them as individuals by asking “How are you?” Matthew Smith, from California State University Dominguez Hills, succinctly captured for us what we heard in scores of interviews:

Students want to know that you see them beyond just as a student in your class or on your campus, and that you care about them beyond just their academic success.

Perhaps the simplest way to do this is to call students by name, as much as possible. A study of very large enrolment biology courses reports that the use of name tents can create a sense of welcome and belonging for students:

I feel like I’m just a face in the crowd most of the time, even in classes where the teacher is really excited about teaching and helping students understand. Knowing names makes me feel more noticed and welcome (p. 7).

Unfortunately, students often do not experience that kind of welcome at higher education institutions. When Ayeza Siddiqi arrived at the University of Michigan as an international, first-generation student, she told us, “I had no idea what I was doing. Navigating such a large, decentralised university was really difficult, and I often felt like the university wasn’t designed for people who look like me.” Siddiqi came to thrive at Michigan thanks to a student mentor in a program that matches new students with experienced and extensively trained peers who help them gain confidence, make connections, and build academic skills. Siddiqi benefited so much from this experience that she decided to give back by becoming a peer mentor herself.

Professor Peter Felten, Learning & Teaching Conference 2019. Photo credit: A Bovill.

Siddiqi’s story illustrates what Ed Taylor from the University of Washington described to us:

What students need and want is a sense of place and a sense of belonging: Where’s my place and who are my people? And part of that is the discipline, but another part of that is being in a community of people who care about you and being in relationships with staff and students who know you.

Undergraduate education must require students to stretch and grow but the experience need not be cold and impersonal. Students will struggle and stumble as they learn. To help them persist and succeed, staff and institutions must provide much more than an orientation on the first week of the year and a quick “hello” on the first day of class. Instead, students need “relentless welcome” that comes from interacting regularly with staff and peers who communicate a sense of care and belonging through simple practices like using names and asking, “How are you?”

This blog post is adapted from a forthcoming book by Leo Lambert and Peter Felten, to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2020.

You can watch Peter’s keynote talk, ‘Relationships Matter’, in full below:

Explore the 2019 Learning & Teaching Conference resources on the IAD website.

A note from the Editor

Please save the date: The next University of Edinburgh Learning and Teaching Conference will be held at McEwan Hall on Tuesday, 16th June, 2020. Call for proposals will open on 4th November and close on Friday 13th December. More information will be released shortly. 

Peter Felten

Peter Felten is a Professor of History, Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning, and Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University, USA. His books include the co-authored volumes: The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most (Jossey-Bass, 2016); Transforming Students: Fulfilling the Promise of Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014); Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 2014); Transformative Conversations (Jossey-Bass, 2013); and the co-edited book Intersectionality in Action (Stylus, 2016). He has served as president of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (2016-17) and also of the POD Network (2010-2011), the U.S. professional society for educational developers. He is co-editor of the International Journal for Academic Development and a fellow of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education.

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