Faculty Club / Student Engagement / Q&A: A Researcher’s Notes on Building Rapport with Students

Q&A: A Researcher’s Notes on Building Rapport with Students

Dr. Lisa Burke-Smalley shares her findings on how authentic interpersonal relationships facilitate students’ learning.

Dr. Lisa Burke-Smalley shares her findings on how authentic interpersonal relationships facilitate students’ learning.

Lisa Burke-Smalley, PhD


Guerry Professor of Management,
University of Tennessee–Chattanooga

PhD in Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management, BS in Public Sector Management

It is obvious when two people connect—sparked by a smile, buoyed by a sense of ease, evidenced by witty repartee or deep conversation. Known as rapport, this type of authentic connection often sparks naturally, through a combination of physical proximity, unmanufacturable chemistry, and simple good luck. Research has found that rapport is related to student motivation, participation, retention, satisfaction, and other educational positives.

But is it possible to foster such camaraderie? And if so, what might that entail?

These are questions that Lisa Burke-Smalley, PhD, began to study two years ago after an eye-opening performance review at the University of Tennessee–Chattanooga, when her boss said simply, “Students like you.”

“I think I’m a rigorous and challenging instructor, and I didn’t think that students liked that. They don’t want to work that hard! I was stymied,” Burke-Smalley recalls, laughing. “It got me thinking, ‘Maybe I can be challenging because they like me.’ The rapport is there and established, so I can go beyond ‘college lite,’” she says.

While this researcher says that rapport cannot be faked, she has found that it can be facilitated. In the interview below, Burke-Smalley explains her research findings on how to do this—and why it can help students in the classroom today and in the boardroom tomorrow.


“There’s very scant research out there on rapport, which is surprising, since business professionals are well aware of the benefits of interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. But there’s so much validity that building rapport in the classroom is useful, positive, and important to outcomes we all value.”
-Lisa Burke-Smalley, PhD

Course: MGT 4350 Compensation and Benefits

Description: A study of compensation and benefits practices used by organizations to motivate employees in achieving strategic organizational goals. Establishing internal alignment and external competitiveness in pay structure design is a primary focus, along with variable pay design and labor cost control.

See materials

Burke-Smalley’s research on building rapport

Burke-Smalley—who has published more than 85 academic journal articles and 15 book chapters and has edited her own book on management training—set about explaining rapport in her award-winning 2018 Management Teaching Review study, “Practice to Research: Rapport as Key to Creating an Effective Learning Environment.” Here, she shares some insights from her paper, as well as actionable advice for educators who wish to put it to use.

Q: Course Hero: How is rapport defined in a classroom setting?

A: Lisa Burke-Smalley: I talk about “instructional rapport,” which means affinity—either for the instructor or other students. Essentially, it’s your relationship with someone. But it’s a pretty slippery concept, and I think it’s hard to pin down exactly what it is and how to execute it. It’s intangible, subjective, and there’s no mathematical formula.

Q: What made you decide to study rapport?

A: Number one, I want more instructors to catch on. Number two, I want there to be more research. When I wanted to read about it, I’d find little tips and tricks—general things on the Internet—but never any substantive research. I came away from my literature review thinking, “We don’t know much of anything at all,” which is why my work is conceptual and theoretical. I don’t know that we’ve defined it well, know the factors that compose it, or have studied it with good measures and appropriate samples—all those “research-y” things. Which is why I introduced it; I want there to be more research on it.

Q: What impact have you seen from building rapport with students?

A: Here’s what I have observed (as supported by a bit of anecdotal evidence in the extant literature): There’s improved motivation. It is also correlated with increased satisfaction. I’ve seen it personally. [Higher] class participation has been correlated and is probably also true. In my “Practice to Research” paper, I propose that instructor rigor will be correlated with student outcomes when rapport is high. Here is a diagram illustrating the point:

Lisa Burke-Smalley

I’ve seen various types of students blossom [under these methods], but I take particular pride in the results with the “quiet but sharp” types, or the “typically overlooked” students.

Q: What are the key components of building rapport?

A: There are three components to the student-instructor relationship that I explore in my paper, Practice to Research: Rapport as Key to Creating an Effective Learning Environment:

  1. Personalize connections. It must have some element of identity and personal, customized connection. It cannot be manufactured; it’s not fake. It’s an authentic, one-on-one relationship.
  2. Use supportive communication. This can be verbal and nonverbal, such as empathetic comments or facial expressions.
  3. Be accessible. Make yourself available to students, virtually (i.e., the contemporary educational environment is digital) or face-to-face.
Q: How do you put these pillars into practice?

A: I have a few strategies that I employ each semester.

Before the semester begins: I start to get to know my students way before the semester begins. This spring, I’m already looking at my roster for fall—particularly the students’ pictures, to enhance facial recognition. I do that for months: Who do I know; who do I not know? When you can walk in and know some students on a first-name basis, it makes everyone feel comfortable. I’m hesitant to dig too far into their academic transcript, as I don’t want to disadvantage them or myself.

Before class begins: I stand outside my classroom before class begins. In the formal classroom, it’s stuffy and tense. Stiff. I find that when I stand outside the room and people come in, I can get to know them one-on-one. I say something along the lines of, “Hey, good to see you. Welcome back.” I’m building a relationship, and they’re more willing to talk to me one-on-one instead of in front of 40 people.

On the first day of class: In class, the first connection has to be authentic, positive, engaging. I start by saying, “I’m so glad you’re here. What a great day to start the semester.” I say something positive about the day, whether it’s the building, the weather, how many people came to class. I find something positive to emphasize. Next, I pose a question to the class (for example, “What did you find interesting in that discussion?”), so it’s not just me yakking. It’s participative. I prefer to call on volunteers, but if the same people tend to talk, I directly call on someone else.

During the first week of class: I know students by their first names by the first week. I put extensive effort into this, starting weeks before the semester begins using the course enrollment system. I have to know their face to make the learning experience more personal. I’ll ask them an odd question on the first day or on an information sheet, like, “Tell me something funny that happened over summer break.” As they’re filling out the information sheet, I’m writing down attributes physically that help trigger my mind: “Looks like Uncle Bob.” I also ask them to write down other classes they’re taking and why they’re excited to be in this class. I want to know about that! It reinforces my excitement.

After assignments and exams: When students perform well, I give positive and specific written feedback next to their grade. It’s not just a number or a letter. They get earned praise.

When students don’t perform well, I encourage them to come see me in person by putting a note in their online gradebook. I also suggest resources that are available on campus. For those who come to chat with me, I offer specific study tips, test tips, and note-taking tips, tailored to their situation.

Q: In your mind, what further research needs to be done?

A: So much. I’d love to see some empirical, quantitative research into developing a measure for rapport. Can we validly measure what rapport is? I’d also like to see research on the outcomes associated with rapport, such as retention, GPA, attendance.

Q: Do you plan to do future research yourself?

A: I have a lot of irons in the fire. Realistically, it might be another year or two before a next step. I was encouraged that this piece [“Practice to Research”] was a finalist for the Management Teaching Review as “Best Pedagogical Contribution” in 2018. It gave me some motivation: “Wow, other people think this is interesting, too.” It was personally meaningful and self-actualizing.

Q: What resources would you recommend to an educator who wants to learn more?

A: A good start would be the studies I cite in my research by authors who have written on rapport. Those who teach in the field of speech and communication who have published education research have done the most written work and study of rapport.

Q: What words of encouragement do you have for educators interested in building rapport with their students?

A: As educators, let’s not wait for published research! Start to develop your own anecdotal repertoire of observations of what works and what doesn’t, so that community-building on campuses increases.

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