Joy Lian

Do you trust your professor? A new study shows you might do better in the class if you do.

Researchers at Yale, the University of Connecticut and Indiana University of Pennsylvania have conducted research showing that students’ trust for their instructors correlates to active learning in college classrooms. The study will be published in the March 1 issue of the journal Life Sciences Education.

Active learning encourages students to engage with class through activities like peer collaboration, writing, discussion and problem solving. The results presented in the study showed that the more students trusted their instructor, the more they engaged in active learning and the better they performed in the class.

“We anticipate that students who report high levels of trust in their instructor are likely to respond more positively to, and be more engaged in, the active-learning context,” the study says.

Mark Graham, professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine and corresponding author of the study, said his model for the research consisted of three phases. In the first phase, faculty members learned strategies to promote active learning, effective assessment and inclusive teaching at workshops held by the Summer Institutes on Scientific Teaching. In the second, the professors returned to their institutions and implemented those strategies in classes, especially large introductory ones. Graham said he wanted to see whether the second phase would lead to a third in which students would benefit from these teaching changes — engage more with the materials, receive better grades and stick with the sciences.

“Just because [active learning] is there in the classroom — just because your faculty member is knowledgeable or engaging — doesn’t mean a student is actually buying it,” Graham said.

Previous research has shown that students learn more effectively when teachers employ active learning techniques in the classroom. But for students to benefit from active learning, they have to commit to it. The researchers on this study wanted to find out what would predict students’ commitment to active learning and compared two potential driving factors: student mindset and trust in the instructor.

Students with fixed mindsets tend to believe that their intelligence cannot change — and this mindset gains traction when students repeatedly record the wrong answer and believe they cannot do better. Students with growth mindsets, on the other hand, believe that intelligence is malleable and that mistakes represent opportunities to learn.

The other potential factor researchers examined was students’ trust for their instructors. To measure trust, researchers identified three components: understanding (how well does the instructor get me?), acceptance (does the instructor accept me as I am?) and caring (does the instructor have my best interests at heart?). Their results showed that trust was a stronger predictor of commitment to active learning than a growth mindset.

The published data came from a class taught by Xinnian Chen, a professor of physiology and neuroscience at the University of Connecticut and a co-author of the study. Chen said that instructors should take the time to get to know their students and be attentive to their concerns.

“What I found most important in my teaching is be transparent as much as possible and really mean what you tell your students,” Chen said in an email. “If you tell your students that you think analytical skills are important skills that they should try to grow in this course, find a way to measure that and make it count toward their final grades.”

Meghan Bathgate, a postdoctoral associate the Center for Teaching and Learning at Yale and a co-author of the study, suggested several ways that instructors can establish trust with students, including remembering names, showing evidence that active learning will help students, celebrating failure and creating a safe environment for students to try new things without their grades suffering.

“Be sure that you align your grades with your activities,” Bathgate said. “So if you’re asking students to engage and think critically and work together as peers and then you give them a multiple-choice test, you’re showing two different sets of values. And so being sure that you’re grading students on how you intend them to learn is an important factor.”

Eui Young Kim | euiyoung.kim@yale.edu