Staff-Student Interaction

Staff-student interaction affects learner engagement at many levels. Student relationships with staff are considered to be central to student engagement at university and in their learning in particular (Smith, 2007).

Solomonides and Martin (2008) suggest that, in general, tutor’s perception of engagement is more about learning, whereas students think about engagement more in terms of feeling and their experience of being part of a learning community (see also Lear, Ansorge, and Steckelberg 2010; Zhao & Kuh 2004).

Kahu (2013) observes that the higher education literature on student engagement emphasises student behaviour and teaching practice. A behavioural view of teaching results in engagement strategies that focus on what the teacher does and how the student responds. The teacher in this sense can set out to determine learner behaviour, for example by selecting content and designing particular exercises and activities. Engagement can be promoted through flexible design, however, by not over-specifying activities.

It can be useful to understand the staff-student interaction as a two-way, dialogic relationship or at least one that is not only about what the teacher knows or believes, but one where the teacher’s role is to influence, guide and provide feedback on what the student does. Furthermore, effective engagement may come from situations in which the student, or students together, initiate the interaction. In this case the teacher may enhance engagement simply by creating conditions that encourage autonomous behaviour.
As well as behavioural and cognitive interaction there can be affective interactivity that changes how a student feels. In this view the staff-student relation may do well to focus on sensitivities, inclusivity, looking for signs of alienation, or creating a sense of fun. Seeing teaching and learning as an emotional dynamic is another way of thinking about this (Christie et al., 2008). Affective engagement can, for example, stem from how the course is represented culturally; how the tutor talks about the values of the course or the associated profession and the expectations for students to assume that culture as they learn.

Engagement may come from how students are supported or how the student voice leads to changes in the course. Similarly, a student’s sense of belonging may be affected by matters beyond the direct control or style of their tutor and relate to co-curricula activities or even matters at home or at work. Being sensitive to a student’s “lifeload” (“the sum of all the pressures a student has in their life, including university” Kahu, 2013, p.767), especially as students are having to finance their education to a greater extent, makes sense when thinking about engagement. However, as with other aspects of curriculum design and delivery, it is worth paying attention to the pressure points that students have; it is not necessarily continuous (Zepke, Leach & Butler, 2011) as well as looking for the lifewide successes that students have, not just their problems.

Chickering and Gamson (1987) set out the importance of frequent staff-student contact in and out of classes as being the most important factor in student motivation and involvement. Inspiration comes when a student knows a few tutors well, thereby influencing a student’s intellectual commitment and encouraging them to think about their own values and future plans.

Staff-student interaction, therefore, needs to be thought about holistically. Tutors need to think about what students are learning, but also about how they learn and how they are managing their course.


Chickering, A.W. and Gamson, Z.F. (1987) Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. Online at:

Christie, H., Tett, L., Cree, V.E., Hounsell, J. and McCune, V. (2008). ‘A real rollercoaster of confidence and emotions’: Learning to be a university student. Studies in Higher Education, 33, pp.121-141.

Kahu, E.R. (2013). Framing student engagement in higher education, Studies in Higher Education, 38(5), 758-773.

Lear, J., Ansorge, C., and Steckelberg, A. (2010). Interactivity/community process model for the online education environment. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning & Teaching, 6. Online at:

Smith, R. (2007). An overview of research on student support: helping students to achieve or achieving targets? Teaching in Higher Education, 12, pp. 683-695.

Solomonides, I. & Martin, P. (2008). All this talk of engagement is making me itch: an investigation into the conceptions of ‘engagement’ held by students and tutors. In SEDA Special 22: Aspects of Student Engagement, ed L. Hand and C. Bryson, 14-21. Nottingham: Staff and Educational Development Association.

Zepke, N., Leach, L. and Butler, P. (2010). Engagement in post-compulsory education: students’ motivation and action. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 15, pp. 1-17.

Zhao, C. and Kuh, G. (2004). Adding value: learning communities and student engagement. Research in Higher Education, 45, pp. 115-138.