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Cultivating Trust in the Classroom

Cultivating trust is one of the keys to effective collaboration. This is especially true in the classroom. The relationship between instructor and student can have a huge effect on how much the student learns. But how do we cultivate trust?

Here are just a few ways:

1) Creating "psychological safety." In a study by Google of what helps teams collaborate well, Google found that psychological safety, as measured by taking turns in discussions and team members demonstrating high degrees of social sensitivity. In the classroom context, this means students need to feel free to ask questions and speak up without fear of rejection by those sharing their classroom space. Instructors can foster this by making it clear that there are no "stupid" questions, by cultivating a supportive classroom atmosphere, and by encouraging students who ask questions or make comments with positive reinforcement.

2) Listening actively. When students feel that instructors and classmates are listening carefully, it creates mutual respect. When students feel heard, they are more likely to believe that their contributions have value--and when people feel valued, they are more likely to want to contribute more frequently. Too often, we are listening to respond, not to hear what's actually being said. Consider contributions before responding to students' comments and questions too quickly. Your students will know that you're actually contemplating what they've said. Pausing doesn't make you seem unprepared; it makes you seem deliberative.

3) Being authentic. Instructors can show students their authenticity by being honest with them. In the classroom, we like to see ourselves as the knowledgeable figure in the classroom. (In fact, I got through my first semesters of teaching by repeating one mantra to ease my insecurity: "Remember: you know more than they do.") But, it's important not to break trust by giving an answer when you don't necessarily know it's the right one. Students respect their instructors more when they respond honestly with "I don't know. But I'll find out and get back to you." Not only do students appreciate their instructors' authenticity in these moments, but they feel even more valued when the instructor does take the time to look into an issue and reports back to them.

4) "Taking students seriously." One of my all-time favorite articles is Kent Syverud's "Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers,"  43 J. Legal Education 247 (1993). He notes that students are particularly astute at knowing whether their instructors like and respect them. Or more importantly, they know when their instructors don't. When students know you enjoy and value your time with them, it builds a certain rapport and trust, which Syverud explains allows students to forgive a lot in the classroom. If there's trust, students are also likely to value what you're teaching more--which may be especially important given the traditional place of legal research skills in the law school curriculum.

How do you cultivate trust in your classroom?

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