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Study shows type, context of student faculty interactions play role in perceptions of campus diversity

Monday, December 05, 2016

LAWRENCE — For many years, researchers have looked at the connection between student and faculty interactions on college campuses and the effects they have on how the students learn and their academic development.

But in recent years, students across the nation have increasingly made it clear they don’t feel welcome on campus and that diverse lives and opinions are not fully respected. A University of Kansas professor has co-edited a study examining whether student-faculty interactions have an influence on how students perceive the climate for diversity on their campuses.

The findings showed that the type of interaction students had with faculty, not just the frequency or quality of interactions, do in fact have an association with how they view the campus climate for diversity. The researchers defined campus climate for diversity as students’ feeling that members of their racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups, gender and sexual orientation were respected and that they felt free to express their political and religious beliefs at the institution. Research has primarily looked at how student-faculty interactions affect students’ cognitive outcome, such as learning, critical thinking skills, academic achievement and similar measures.

“However, we don’t know how these interactions influence other types of outcomes like psychosocial measures,” said Eugene T. Parker III, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at KU. “There’s also no consensus on what those interactions are. There’s really no standard. From the results of this study we can say type and context of student-faculty interactions are important. The takeaway is that we need to have more research on how these interactions affect student experiences.”

Parker co-authored the study with Teniell Trolian of the University at Albany, State University of New York. They recently presented it at the Association for Study of Higher Education Conference. They analyzed data from the Student Experience in the Research University survey, a data set of students at 10 research-based institutions in the United States. They examined 12 types of student-faculty interactions and students’ perceptions of their respective campus climates for diversity. The results showed nine of the 12 types of interactions had a statistically significant association with their perceptions of climate. Four of the nine had positive associations, while five were negative.

Frequently communicating with a faculty member by email or in person, experiencing equitable and fair treatment by faculty members, having faculty members who frequently provided prompt feedback on student work and being satisfied with access to faculty members outside of class were all positively associated with students’ perception of the climate for diversity on their respective campus.

“In other words, each of these interactions with or perceptions of faculty members was positively associated with participants feeling respected and feeling free to express their beliefs at their university,” Parker and Trolian wrote.

Engaging in creative work with a faculty member, engaging in research activities, working with faculty on activities other than coursework, talking with a faculty member outside of class about issues and concepts derived from a course and knowing a professor well enough to ask for a recommendation letter were negatively associated with students’ perceptions of climate for diversity.

The study is part of a larger research agenda to understand the link between student-faculty interactions and the effects on a wide variety of student outcomes. Parker said he hopes to further explore how interactions at more institutions and different types — such as smaller schools, mission-specific institutions and community colleges — compare in interactions and students’ perception of climate for diversity. The types of conversations as well as variables such as the race and gender of both the students and faculty members having the interactions warrants further understanding as well, he said. The fact that data showed there is a link between the types of interactions students have with faculty and their perceptions of climate suggests a better understanding of these experiences is needed.

With college students across the country increasingly expressing concerns and frustrations about not feeling welcome or respected on campus, understanding the value of interactions could have numerous implications from understanding better how to foster a welcoming campus environment to boosting student retention and offering more opportunities that are proven to have a positive association with students feeling welcome and respected.

“We need to think more about the quality, type and context of interactions students are having with faculty,” Parker said. “Whether it was positive or negative and how that influenced their perspective of the campus climate for diversity is important. If it has a positive impact on students, then we as higher education professionals need to develop them and support them. We need to invest in them, form more mentor/mentee relationships and engage our students.”

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