Nurturing rapport

August 25, 2000

I was encouraged to see that Agony Aunt (Teaching, THES, August 18) was approached by a new research supervisor seeking advice on how to build a good rapport with students, but deeply depressed by the advice given. Only one adviser actually mentioned "rapport", and then merely to say it "will come naturally".

Good rapport between teacher/supervisor and student is infinitely helpful to the latter's success. It means they understand and trust each other and communicate at intellectual and emotional levels. It helps each to learn from the other's experience, and the student to develop confidence.

So what should a new research supervisor do?

First, take the time and trouble to listen, in a calm environment, to what your student has to say. Sit with him or her, not behind your desk or other barrier.

Take their anxieties, their questions and their ideas seriously, and give considered replies.

Second, remember that the life of a postgraduate research student can be very lonely. The transition from the bustling world of the undergraduate peer group may have been a difficult one to make. Talk about this, and show that you have some sympathy for a postgrad who is just starting.

Third, match the content of the supervision session to your student's needs. Take your cue from them. Do not treat the session as an opportunity to show off your own vastly superior knowledge and experience, especially if this is the behaviour you encountered as a postgrad. This will simply demonstrate insensitivity on your part.

Fourth, adopt a pace and rhythm appropriate to the stage the student is at. Break work into small chunks at first, arranging a supervision session after each one.

Make sure your student never goes away from a supervision session without knowing what he or she has to do before the next one.

Fifth, be constructive in your criticism. Sarcasm and put-downs are rarely conducive to good learning. When a student presents work to you there will always be something to appreciate. Find it and compliment them on it.

Certainly, students will find it easier to learn from you if you show that you can appreciate as well as criticise.

Peter Levin

Consultant in teaching methods

London School of Economics

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