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Building trust in college academic support sessions (opinion)

While working with a student recently in a writing session, one of us, Christin, encouraged using a writing technique that emphasizes discovery. Faced with the student’s uncertainty, she asked, “Do you trust me to lead you through the writing process?”

Trust: it is a crucial component of any one-on-one student appointment. Whether it’s helping students learn effective time management in a study skills appointment or productive writing strategies in a writing appointment, all academic support staff know the drill. Our services are only as good as the trust we’ve built with the student. While essential to the work we do, trust can be hard to quantify.

After spending 22 years, collectively, in faculty and academic support positions, we have come to believe that trust looks like a room built through discovery and intentional learning partnerships.

Layers of Trust

Based on our experience, we believe there are three layers of trust to build in one-on-one appointments.

  1. Earning the student’s trust in the staff member.

In Mitch’s early days as a learning consultant, he had to fight the urge to point out his degrees hanging on the wall or the impulse to regale students with stories of the many papers he wrote in his graduate studies. Instead, Mitch discovered that to establish the student’s trust in him, he actually needed to focus on them. Why are they meeting with you? What events or experiences caused them to come here? What are they hoping to get out of this process? Sometimes the answers are straightforward and sometimes not so much. Regardless, we find that putting in the effort to individualize the appointment to the needs of the student can go a long way to establish their trust in us.

  1. Trusting the student.

Staff can fall victim to believing a student is guilty before proven innocent in terms of academia. For example, does a student really need an extension because they were sick? Or were they just lazy? Does a student not understand the material? Or do they just not like their professor? Repeatedly, examples such as these seem to find their way around campus. We wonder if these narratives do more harm than good under the guise of being realistic. We urge academic support staff to allow themselves to trust the student—trust in their ability and/or desire to seek out new information, build positive academic habits, and learn new skills. Or maybe simply trust that the struggles, challenges and hardships detailed in appointments are not exaggerated to get something from you or your office.

  1. Ensuring the student has self-trust.

This may sometimes be the most challenging to foster: every day we meet with a variety of students, from different fields and years. What we have come to notice is that sometimes a student has given up on themselves before even finishing the appointment. Maybe it is due to challenges they have already overcome in their academic journey or maybe because they haven’t developed a growth mindset, but the pinnacle of our work is ensuring a student trusts themselves to grow as a learner. Whether we are covering a writing strategy or studying strategy, we often provide the opportunity for students to practice the techniques in our appointments. Maybe that involves going through a journal article to practice the strategy of previewing, or maybe it involves practicing a new note-taking template with their assigned readings for the week. Regardless, we hope that by allowing students to try something new, or maybe even fail in the safety of our office, they can build a level of self-trust that will transform their learning journey.

A Metaphor for Building Trust

As we work to facilitate these layers of trust with students, we have found the following metaphor of a room (and its accompanying learning-partnership theory) to be useful. It wasn’t until completing his master’s of education that Mitch realized how much his guitar teacher had taught him about the practice of learning. When he told his teacher how much his methods had meant, his teacher’s response was immediate: “Son, I just unlocked the door and turned on the lights. You did everything else.”

As academic support staffers, we believe that Mitch’s guitar teacher’s metaphor of a learning room is a useful frame for what we do with students, because at the end of the day, the onus is on the student to achieve their academic goals. We are simply guides on this grand tour of learning.

When a student meets with us, we unlock the door to a room they are either trying to avoid or are not confident about entering. We introduce them to any number of academic skills strategies they may need for studying, reading or writing. By doing so, we turn on the lights, allowing the students to discover all the tools at their disposal. For the sake of this metaphor, it’s at this point the student explores the room on their own. Maybe they’re searching for better note-taking strategies and they decide to explore the Cornell Note-Taking System. If it works, that’s great. But if they find it’s not suited for them, we are there ready to provide counsel and encouragement. At the end of the day, the student is an active agent in their own exploration and discovery.

Learning-Partnership Model

At the core of the metaphor of the room, we find the learning-partnership model, a theory and practice articulated by Marcia Baxter Magolda. In this model, Baxter Magolda balances challenge and support with three assumptions and three principles about learning. These assumptions and principles work double time to not only empower students in their learning journey but push them beyond their comfort zone and into what Lev Vygotsky calls the “zone of proximal development.” In other words, the learning-partnership model supports students but also stretches them into the growth zone—the zone where good things happen.

The three assumptions challenge the student to grapple with the complex and socially constructed nature of knowledge. Reality isn’t what they thought, perhaps, but they have the autonomy to make meaning in the face of such relativism and ambiguities. Learning partners challenge students to find the internal resources to make decisions, face uncertainty, and move forward intentionally.

On the other side, the three principles ground these challenges in a supportive stance. Learning partners affirm the student’s capacity to know and make meaning. They ground the learning in the student’s lived experiences, and they work with the student to parse difficult material, so the student isn’t alone.

Those of us working in academic skills support may find Baxter Magolda’s model particularly helpful as we enter the literal and figurative learning room with our students. When students sit across from us riddled with anxiety, overwhelmed in the face of academic culture and feeling alone, these three assumptions and principles help us to navigate the three layers of trust outlined above.

Final Takeaway

Like so many academic support professionals, we do what we do because we believe in the joy of learning. The greatest reward in our jobs is seeing a student’s eyes light up during a one-on-one appointment. We know this light is only possible when we build layers of trust that allow the student freedom to step into the room and learn through discovery. But that is only half the story. In the end, it’s not just the student learning to trust themselves through the process of discovery—we are, too.

Mitchell Higgins is a learning consultant for student success, and Christin Wright-Taylor is the manager of writing services, at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.

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