Making Relationship-Rich Experiences the Heart of Teaching and Learning

Concurrent Session 3
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Decades of research demonstrate that student-faculty and student-student interactions are primary factors in student learning in higher education. Our courses -- whether face-to-face or online -- can and should be relationship-rich environments that enhance learning, motivation, and belonging for all students. This interactive session -- based on nearly 400 interviews with students, faculty, and staff around the country -- will focus on practical, research-informed approaches to cultivate educationally powerful student-faculty and student-student relationships in our courses.

Sponsored By


Peter Felten is executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning, assistant provost for teaching and learning, and professor of history at Elon University. In his teaching, Peter aims to help students think critically and write clearly about the connections between the lives of individual people and larger themes in history. As a scholar, he has published six books including most recently (with Leo Lambert), Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020). He has served as president of ISSOTL, the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and also of the POD Network, the U.S. professional society for faculty developers. He is co-editor of the International Journal for Academic Development and a fellow of the Gardner Institute, a foundation that works to advance equity in higher education.

Extended Abstract

Decades of research demonstrate that student relationships with peers, faculty, and staff are essential for student success. No matter the course format, institution type, or student background, the most important factor for a wide range of positive student outcomes is the quality of interactions they have. Put another way, what matters most for students is to have relationships with people who challenge them to learn, afford them a sense of belonging, help shape their identity, and encourage them discern their purpose in the world and the values that are most meaningful to them.

However, meaningful relationships are generally not the principal organizing construct for our courses or institutions. Instead we too often fall into the trap of focusing on transactions—what is due to whom by when—rather than helping students think about another type of pathway through college, an intentional journey that is defined by interactions with faculty, staff, and fellow students that hold promise to make the college experience deeply meaningful and even transformational.

In research for my new book with Leo Lambert, Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Interactions Drive Success in College (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), we explore the ways more than two dozen U.S. higher education institutions – from community colleges to research universities – use relational pedagogies and practices to support all of their students in reaching their academic aspirations. Even in fully online teaching, including at an all-online institution that is part of our research sample, human interactions are the “secret sauce” of student success. That point echoed through higher education as we moved to remote instruction during the pandemic in spring 2020 and as we plan for an unusual new academic year; at every institution, faculty, staff, and students human connections and “being human, even online” (to quote one of our interview subjects) as they navigate this unprecedented and dynamic environment.

This interactive session will be rooted in the voices of students, faculty, and staff we interviewed for the book; these quotations will introduce themes and interactive activities designed to help participants think about what they already do to support relationship-rich teaching and learning, and to consider possibilities for ways to make their courses and institutions even more relational. If the virtual platform being used in the session allows it, I will include guided small group discussion to make the session even more relational – reinforcing the message of the session while prompting participant learning and sharing. The session will conclude by asking participants to write down some concrete steps they will take based on what we have discussed.

By the close of this interactive session, participants will:
• Be able to explain how human interactions shape student success;
• Have identified a set of research-informed practices that they could adapt in their own courses or work to support meaningful student-student and student-faculty/staff interactions;
• Have sketched a plan of short- and longer-term steps they will take to cultivate relationship-rich education in their own context.