September 16, 2016

Chen, Z. (2000). The Impact of Teacher-Student Relationships on College Students’ Learning:            Exploring Organizational Cultures in the Classroom. Qualitative Research Reports in                              Communication, 1(4), 76-83.

In the abstract Chen’s (2000) article is described as exploring, “teacher-student relationships in college education by examining organizational cultures in the classroom” (Chen, 2000, P.76). The information presented in this article is the culmination of background research on the topic and a series of intensive interviews conducted by Chen (2000)  in which she asked fifteen students from a mid-western university about their classroom experiences and their relationships with their professors. According to Chen (2000) the students represent a variety of backgrounds (traditional and non-traditional, graduate and undergraduate) and a variety of levels of expertise and life experience (student government vice-president, athlete, pastor). Chen (2000) identifies the major research question for this study as: “What kind of organizational teacher-student relationship do college students think may enhance their learning process?” (Chen, 2000, P.78).

I was initially drawn to this article after hearing two podcasts that dealt specifically with organizational cultures and how they can influence the behavior of the individual. After hearing these stories I began to think of the ways a classroom, virtual or otherwise, might fit the definition of an “organization.” Although the title of this article suggests that it will explore organizational cultures in the classroom, this is not fully true as Chen (2000) only mentions this topic in any detail in the presentation of her initial secondary research. Chen (2000) cites research by Chory and McCroskey (1999) who propose that the classroom may be viewed as an organization, and Rawlins (2000) who describes the classroom as a place where students can both express their individual identities and share responsibilities for the common good. However, in the rest of her paper, Chen (2000) deals more pointedly with the experiences of the individual students in relation to their professors rather than the class as an organization.

The Results section of her paper deals overwhelmingly with one-to-one interactions between individual students and their professors. The dominant finding from Chen’s (2000) research seems to indicate that the students in her study desire that a focus be placed upon the role of the individual. They want to be seen as unique individuals by their professors, and many also want to see their professors more as individuals. Chen (2000) states that, “students wanted professors to understand the importance of their social life in college” (P.79), which suggests that they want their professors to have an understanding of the “whole” college experience rather than only seeing/knowing the student within the context of the classroom. This is one idea from Chen’s (2000) article that rang true with me, and I think that it applies to many categories of students, traditional and non-traditional, in-person and online learners. I also think it would likely apply across a variety of cultures.

Chen (2000) devotes a significant portion of her Results section exploring the idea of the “friendship” between student and professor. The responses from her test subjects were mixed. Those who felt that a friendship was inappropriate did so for three primary reasons: a) the hierarchy of the university dictates that professors be treated as superiors; b) friendship could lead to favoritism; c) friendship could affect a professor’s grading fairness. Those in favor of friendship reasoned that it could be seen as a way to establish a deeper level of trust between professor and students. Both sides were in agreement that whatever the nature of the interaction, having a relationship based on mutual respect was highly desirable. During her discussion of mutuality Chen (2000) noted that, “students want to respect professors” (P.80), and one way this is accomplished is by, “not calling professors by first names” (P.80). It is in this detail that some of the main faults of Chen’s (2000) paper are revealed.

Chen’s (2000) sample size is just too small, and consequently her findings must be called into question.  When describing her participants Chen (2000) declares that, “common traits among these students were honesty and directness” (P. 78). I call this estimation of her research subjects into question because she provides no explanation for how this assumption was reached. Indeed, I am not convinced such esoteric traits can be measured in any tangible fashion. My impression of reading her assessment is that she made this statement as a way to legitimize her small number of subjects. If we are to find value in Chen’s (2000) research, her findings must be considered through a filter that compares what she claims with the norms of your personal institution/group. It may be true at her small mid-western school that students feel inclined to use professional titles when addressing their professors, but this is not the case at every college in the USA, nor is title necessarily associated with respect in every culture. At UAF the organizational culture is much different. It is very common for professors to be addressed by their first names, especially in graduate classes. The same is often true among staff when addressing superiors. I have also noticed that more than any other group, my Alaska native students will address me by my first name. I don’t have cultural evidence to support the why this is so, but it has been true for every class I have taught and for Alaska native students from a variety of tribal affiliations.

I found Chen’s (2000) article most useful and engaging in the Discussion section when she describes the concept of mutuality. She writes, “student responses to a professor’s performance and attitude in the classroom are affected by their accumulated knowledge about that professor, that is, related to the influence from the learning community” (P.81). I agree with this statement and am now grappling with how that learning community can be developed and nurtured in the online environment. I also keep coming back to this idea of an organizational culture. My instinct says that it is more complex than a learning community in that it can potentially have a greater impact of students, but I need to do more research in order to figure out exactly what that term means in the context of post-secondary education, and more specifically in an online class. Although Chen’s (2000) article did not center on organizational cultures to the extent I would have liked, I plan to follow her research trail and read a couple of articles from her References page.

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