1 Relational Learning: Creating a “Working Alliance” in the Classroom

Javier S. Garcia


The day has finally arrived; it’s the first day of classes[1]. You make your way into the classroom, noticing a couple of students were also early and look as nervous as you do. As it gets closer to the start of class, more students mill into the classroom. You try to converse with some students as you work to get comfortable. Finally, it’s time for class to begin. All eyes focus on you as you start to speak and introduce yourself as the course instructor. This is your first time teaching a course, which can be daunting, especially for new faculty/instructors who may not have previous experience teaching.

Developing social relationships within a classroom can have wide-ranging effects on the classroom environment. Rather than establishing the classroom as a dynamic based on power, the instructor’s role in the classroom is redefined as a trusted guide through relational learning. Instructors can form meaningful bonds and create a climate conducive to learning when they form working alliances with their students (Meyers, 2008). Relational learning, also known as a “working alliance,” relies on strong relationships between educators and their students as well as on establishing rapport in the classroom. This classroom harmony is positively correlated to students’ attention, attendance, and satisfaction with the course professor (Benson et al., 2005). By establishing those relationships, students will be able to motivate, engage, and actively participate in their learning. This can be critical in preventing or reducing the likelihood of academic failure.

This chapter will discuss…

  • Why relationships in the classroom are important.
  • What relational learning is.
  • Some strategies to implement or reinforce relational learning in the classroom.

Relationships in the Classroom

Developing positive instructor-student relationships in the classroom has many far reaching effects on the classroom environment, such as supporting students’ adjustment to school, promoting academic performance, and fostering students’ resiliency in academic performance. Rather than establishing a classroom environment based on power and control, the instructor establishes their role in the classroom as a trusted guide (Rimm-Kaufman and Sandilos, 2011). The instructor and students accomplish the learning objectives of the course by working together. As a result of developing these trusted relationships students become motivated, engaged, and will actively participate in their learning. This is crucial in preventing and/or reducing the likelihood of academic failure and creating a fun, yet educational, environment.

A working alliance relies heavily on strong relationships between instructors and students and establishes a certain rapport or connection in the classroom (Roger, 2009). The concept of a working alliance is rooted in psychotherapy research and theory, mainly in the psychologist/patient aspect. However, this concept can be applied to the college classroom as well. An individual (student) seeks change and another individual (instructor) serves as the agent of change (Rogers, 2009). In a survey, undergraduates were asked to identify characteristics and behaviors inherent in effective teaching. It was reported that 42% of the student responses were ranked as follows: work ethic and commitment, positive affect, excellent communication skills, classroom creativity, concern for students, intelligence and knowledge, demeanor toward students, humanistic value, high standards for student work, and popularity among students as the top qualities of effective teaching. However, when faculty members were given the same survey, only 7% of the faculty listed the same qualities in their top 10 (Buskist et al., 2002).

Rapport in the classroom has been positively correlated to students’ attention, attendance, and satisfaction of the professor and course (Benson et al., 2005; Meyers, 2008). In early childhood education, students in math classrooms with more positive teacher-student relationships reported an increased engagement in mathematical learning and were more willing to help their peers learn new concepts (Rimm-Kaufman et al., 2015). Relational learning needs to be used in combination with other techniques and pedagogy. As a result, it keeps students motivated and engaged in purposeful work.

Keep in mind that relational learning does not mean that the instructor should be friends with their students, but rather, the instructor should have a respectful and supportive relationship with their students. Do not create a persona that you think your students would find enjoyable or likable. Be authentic! Your students will respect you more. In the classroom, use language that is inclusive and respectful. Be mindful of your students and the experiences they might be going through when you see someone struggling in your course. Also, you will find that every classroom has its own personality. What works for one may not work for another one. Modify your approach as needed, and don’t be discouraged. Relational learning is about the tone you set for the classroom.


Relational learning fosters a fun learning environment by creating a respectful and supportive relationship between the instructor and students. This environment can be further developed to include diversity and inclusion, but it is up to the instructor to determine how to incorporate this. Using inclusive language is an easy way to incorporate inclusion in the classroom. Allowing different viewpoints on the topic can help everyone feel like they are being heard and have a voice in the classroom. Be sure to remind everyone to be respectful, especially when they might not agree with someone else’s viewpoint.

The college classroom itself can be diverse. It might be made up of students from around the country and sometimes from around the world. Many of the students may not know each other and normally wouldn’t interact with each other, except that they are attending the same college.

With relational learning, the instructor can create situations where these diverse groups of students can work together, communicate, and learn from each other (Westfall-Rudd et al., 2019). Assigning student groups so that the members are diverse can also aid in further exposing students to different ideas and viewpoints.

Teaching Strategies

Applying relational learning in the classroom does not have to feel like required extra work. This forced application of relational learning appears unauthentic and has the reverse effect in the classroom. As an instructor, one should ask themselves: How would I like to use relational learning in their classroom? What is the outcome expected for using relational learning in the classroom? How much effort and time will I dedicate to relational learning? Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself, but do not overwhelm yourself.

Establishing positive and constructive relationships that foster relationship learning is challenging in the large classroom. This will require some creativity and patience on your part (Tanner, 2011). The following are suggestions to be applied to your classroom to foster relational learning; do not limit yourself. As the instructor, you will have a better understanding of your classroom and how you would like your classroom to function. I challenge you to be creative and step out of your comfort zone to apply relational learning in your classrooms.

The first day of classes is essential in establishing a relationship between the instructor and students. It is their first interaction. Just remember that each person brings a different personality to the classroom. You must be able to easily flow between different students’ personalities as well as upholding your own without the use of a persona. This may be difficult, keeping this in mind should make it easier to keep these interpersonal relationships between student and instructor. On the first day of class, the instructor generally gives an overview of the course, goes over the syllabus, and perhaps goes into some of the course material. This is important as it sets the course’s expectations and gives students an idea of what the course will be throughout the semester. However, this possibly is not the ideal setup for relational learning. Something as simple as telling your students a little bit about yourself on that first day, such as where you came from, your educational background, hobbies, pets, and so on, helps your students relate to and feel more comfortable with you.

An example. One semester, I co-taught at a land-grant university in Virginia. The class was Introduction to Animal Science 1464. I introduced myself and made myself relatable with them by explaining that I was once in their position: I was a student in the same classroom, possibly sitting in the same seats. I then transitioned into where I was from; most of the students were in-state, so the likelihood of meeting a student from the area I was from was highly probable. I recall that one of the students that I was teaching that semester happened to be from my hometown and had gone to the same high school as me. This student would often come to me for questions, help with assignments, or just friendly conversation. The takeaway here? The more relatable I was to them, the easier it was for the students to come to me with questions and concerns with that class. The familiarity often put them at ease, and they were willing to reach out to the instructor.

Having students complete a simple survey about themselves before the first day of classes serves as a fun speaking topic during the course’s first day. Questions such as Are you in-state or out-of-state? Where are you from? What year are you? Future career goals? Why are you taking this course? What are you hoping to learn from the course? The survey results will then give you, the instructor, a better idea of the class characteristics. In addition, because you asked about the students’ perceptions of the class and their learning objectives, you are better positioned to know the students’ expectations about the course. During the first day of the course, the results could be presented in a simple graph or table to give students a better idea about their peers. The instructor may use the results as a prompt for class discussion or as a question-and-answer segment to answer any questions about the course. This exercise aims to get a better understanding of the students in the course and helps develop an open learning environment in which students will feel a sense of connectedness toward their instructor.

A syllabus is also an essential tool in establishing a relationship between the instructor and their students. It provides students with information about the course they are enrolled in. It provides them with important dates and deadlines, the instructor’s contact information, and comprises an agreement between the instructor and the students. Nothing sours a relationship faster than a syllabus that is not followed by either the instructor or the student(s). Ensure the office hours detailed in your syllabus are set times when you will be available in your office. Try your best to stay within your set date and deadlines. Unpredictable circumstances can occur from time to time, but make sure to communicate with your students if any changes arise.

Syllabus Development

The syllabus plays a vital role in relational learning as it lays out the students’ expectations for the course. As an instructor plans their syllabus, they should be as clear as possible about their intentions for the course. The syllabus establishes the rules of the course and should be used as a reference by students. Typically, a syllabus contains the instructor’s contact information, required materials for the course, a tentative schedule for the course, and a list of resources available to students. This gives students an idea of what to expect from the course and the instructor. The language used in the syllabus can set the tone of the course, so in the syllabus, use language that is deliberate and gets the point across but is not punitive. Students should feel like they can contact the instructor if they have questions and not fear being scolded.

Learning your students’ names helps develop positive relationships between the instructor and students (Tanner, 2011). Although it is a simple concept, learning a student’s name makes the students feel a personal connection with their instructor, which is beneficial in developing your classroom’s learning environment. This is a bit more challenging in larger classrooms but can be accomplished with some practice. Having students bring in a large index card with their name or make a name tent (a piece of paper folded in half with the name written on one side that is perched in front of the student) is the simplest way to learn your students’ names (Tanner, 2013). Whenever a student has a question, they will raise their hand, and before you call on them to answer the question, look at the name on the name tent. Another simple way to learn students’ names is to ask them to say their names before asking their questions. In smaller classes, you can require each student to come to your office during office hours the first week of classes for a quick 5- to 10-minute meeting to get to know them. As the semester progresses, repeating this strategy sporadically as students complete exams and projects will allow you to engage in discussions focused on student progress in the course. You will also receive feedback on the different aspects of the course. Over time, these strategies will help you learn and remember your students’ names as well as build instructor-student relationships.

Another simple strategy to foster positive instructor-student relationships is for the instructor to come to class early. This flexibility in the instructor’s schedule opens classroom availability and classroom visibility. Being present 15-20 minutes before the start of the class gives the instructor some time to interact and converse with students or answer questions students may have. These interactions or conversations could focus on the course material, but generally, the interactions or conversations can focus on topics outside the classroom, especially as the semester progresses and students become more comfortable with the instructor. The instructor’s facial and body languages are also crucial in students feeling comfortable approaching the instructor, so remember to make yourself approachable. Students can read a room. If your presence is aloof and off-putting, you may turn your students away because of your demeanor. On the other hand, being easygoing and fluid with your classroom style will make it feel more relaxed and comfortable to the students.

Teaching assistants (undergraduate and graduate), if available to the instructor, play an important role in relational learning. A former teaching mentor described graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs) as ambassadors to the classroom. Undergraduate TAs are generally within the same age range as the students in your classroom and are peers to your students. In some cases, graduate TAs might be the only instructor students interact with. It is important to have them involved in implementing relational learning in the classroom. This will further reinforce the environment you are trying to create in the classroom. Teaching assistants can be a great resource that may pick up on issues you may not be aware of.

The strategies described in this chapter can be applied to classrooms of any size. Relational learning can be modified to fit the instructor’s needs and the resources available. Establishing the foundation for relational learning at the beginning of the semester is essential to maintaining that learning environment throughout the semester; once that foundation has been set, it is easy to keep it going. Do not be discouraged if a strategy for incorporating relational learning in the classroom does not work or does not have the desired outcome. It requires some trial and error, along with patience. When relational learning is effectively applied in the classroom, the results are a lot of fun. The learning environment is very enjoyable not only for the students but also for the instructor. Students invest more in the course, playing a larger role in their learning and collaborating with the instructor to achieve their course goals. Relational learning is beneficial for the learning environment for your classroom and the students, as they become more active in their own education as they progress through college.

Reflection Questions

  • What worries you about relational learning in the classroom?
  • How are your current communication skills and how can you improve them?
  • What are some easy ways you can apply relational learning in the classroom?


Benson, T. A., Cohen, A. L., & Buskist, W. (2005). Rapport: Its relation to student attitudes and behaviors towards teachers and classes. Teaching of Psychology, 32(4), 237–239. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15328023top3204_8

Buskist, W., Sikorski, J., Buckley, T., & Saville, B.K. (2002). Elements of master teaching. In The Teaching of Psychology: Essays in Honor of Wilbert J. McKeachie and Charles L. Brewer (pp. 27–29). Psychology Press.

Meyers, S. A. (2008). Working Alliances in College Classrooms. Teaching of Psychology, 35(1), 29–32. https://doi.org/10.1080/00986280701818490

Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., Baroody, A. E., Larsen, R. A. A., Curby, T. W., & Abry, T. (2015). To what extent do teacher–student interaction quality and student gender contribute to fifth graders’ engagement in mathematics learning? Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(1), 170–185. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0037252

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Tanner, K. D. (2011). Moving Theory into practice: A reflection on teaching a large, introductory biology course for majors. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 10(2), 113–122. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.11-03-0029

Tanner, K. D. (2013). Structure matters: Twenty-One teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 12(3), 322–331. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.13-06-0115

Westfall-Rudd, D., Elliott-Engel, J., & Lawrence, C. (2019). Teaching to develop allyship: Ensuring youth peer-to-peer inclusion in agricultural education. The Agricultural Education Magazine, 91(2), 21-22. https://www.naae.org/profdevelopment/magazine/current_issue/2019%2009%20–%20Sept%20Oct.pdf#page=21

  1. How to cite this book chapter:

    Garcia, J.S. 2022. Relational Learning: Creating a “working alliance” in the classroom. In: Westfall-Rudd, D., Vengrin, C., and Elliott-Engel, J. (eds.) Teaching in the University: Learning from Graduate Students and Early-Career Faculty. Blacksburg: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. https://doi.org/10.21061/universityteaching License: CC BY-NC 4.0.


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Teaching in the University Copyright © 2022 by Javier S. Garcia is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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