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Cultivating relationship-rich learning environments

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

By Claire MacDougall, Student, St. Francis Xavier University

On February 18, 2020, Maple League faculty and students gathered at Acadia University for a Quality Undergraduate Education Summit and to discuss the 2016 book The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. Leading that discussion was one of the book’s authors, Dr. Peter Felten. Dr. Felten is based at Elon University as the assistant provost for Teaching and Learning, director of the Center for Engaged Learning, and a History professor.

Student delegate Claire MacDougall shares her thoughts on the experience.

As a student, I was very happy to have been invited to attend the Maple League Quality Undergraduate Education Summit. I appreciated the opportunity to contribute to discussions because I believe that students bring a valuable and unique perspective to improving undergraduate education and a wealth of personal experience to draw from.

The summit featured Dr. Peter Felten – author of The Undergraduate Experience – who facilitated discussions on improving our universities and the importance of Relationship Rich Education.

Dr. Felten emphasized the importance of developing environments where students could learn to appreciate lifelong learning and foster relationships and communities that draw on diverse backgrounds and perspectives. The end goal is that when students leave their undergraduate institution they can build their own communities and live fulfilling lives by setting their own goals and expectations. As a group, we had many effective discussions on these topics. Overall we focused on the idea that relationships are the number one factor in improving undergraduate experience.

This idea has resonated with me personally and reflects my experiences as a student. Throughout my education, I have experienced relationships with professors that have been incredible and transformative, and I have also experienced relationships that have been discouraging and insubstantial. Both my positive and negative encounters with professors have been memorable moments from my undergrad and have more or less defined my undergraduate experience.

For most of my degree, I have been very fortunate to have experienced excellent relationships with professors and mentors. The Physics department at StFX is a very tight-knit community that involves both the faculty and students. We often have department-wide barbeques, and observatory nights frequented by both students and professors which provides a great environment to develop personal relationships and connections with our professors. Having this relationship-rich education has impacted my experience as an undergraduate because it has caused me to have a sense of belonging in my program and I have felt supported and valued by my professors. My relationships with my professors make me feel more accountable to complete better work and outcomes and have shown me opportunities I would not have thought possible. Throughout my education, there have been times when I have struggled and times when I have thrived. What has been consistent throughout my degree was the encouragement of several of my professors assuring me that I was capable of achieving when the material was not coming easy and letting me know that they were proud of me when I was successful. It has been incredibly meaningful to have the support and guidance of these mentors and I feel that when I look back upon my time at St. Francis Xavier, I will remember these professors most.

Encounters I have had with professors that I consider most negative are times when I have felt that I could not approach my professor for help when I was having difficulty or when they have not been understanding or helpful when I have approached them. These experiences had an extreme hindrance on my learning and overall enjoyment of the course and the subject. My experiences with these professors have also influenced the courses I’ve elected to take. I often wonder if my choice in academic discipline would be different if I’d had better experiences with faculty.

To improve relationships between faculty and students Peter Felten suggested we look at the culture of our universities as a set of practices. He advised committing to small habits as the basis of our interactions and emphasized the importance of small things such as professors taking the time to introduce themselves to their students individually and stopping students to ask them how they are doing on campus.

As a university, we can improve faculty-student relationships by encouraging professors to eat in the dining hall with their students or to have ‘meet and greet’ events with coffee and tea. The smallest efforts can help to make our classrooms feel more welcoming and inclusive.

Dr. Felten shared that often students leave higher education not because they feel they are incapable but because they feel they do not belong, and many students are one relationship away from dropping out.

I feel that as Maple League universities we have such incredible opportunities to create these learning environments and improve our undergraduate experiences even more. I highly recommend The Undergraduate Experience by Peter Felten to anyone interested in improving student life!

Claire MacDougall is a Physics and Mathematics student from Halifax, Nova Scotia, in her third year at St. Francis Xavier University. As a science student, she has chosen a career path that incorporates her values of social responsibility and humanitarianism through a climate justice lens by involving herself in researching global warming effects of atmospheric molecules and pursuing a career in the field of atmospheric physics or sustainable energy engineering postgraduate.

As a woman in STEM, she works to break down barriers for underrepresented groups through outreach and advocacy both locally at StFX and nationally as Chair of the Canadian Association of Physicists Student Advisory Council.

In her own community, she strives to create equal access to education while reducing waste through a project launched in August 2019 with aims to provide donated school supplies leftover from the university to school-aged children experiencing poverty.

Claire has been involved in sports from a young age. She competed in varsity soccer at StFX and is currently training for a marathon this summer. She hopes to inspire the same joy in others by coaching local youth and special needs persons in soccer and baseball.

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