Is Discussing Identity More Important Than Shared Identity To Student-Staff Relationship Building?




identity, student-staff relationships, mattering, race, gender


Research consistently demonstrates that the quality of student-staff interactions matters for positive student outcomes. Some research studies also suggest that identity similarities (homophily) often contribute to meaningful human connections. Yet, the influence of student and staff identities on teaching and learning in higher education is less explored. We report on how undergraduate students and staff at one US university perceive the impact of identities on student-staff classroom relationships. Four themes emerged from our analysis: (1) Shared interests may be more important than shared identity for some students and staff; (2) Students’ year of study influences their views on staff identity and student-staff relationships; (3) Identity homophily is a point of connection for some students and staff; (4) Discussing identity, without identity homophily, can lead to positive course-based connections. The first three of these themes align with existing literature, but the fourth theme extends previous research, and we focus on exploring how for some students, discussing identities may be more important than matching identities when interacting with academic staff.


Metrics Loading ...

Author Biographies

Catherine Bovill, University of Edinburgh

Catherine Bovill is the co-director of the Institute for Academic Development and professor of student engagement in higher education at the University of Edinburgh (UK). Her research focuses on student-staff co-created curricula and relational pedagogy in higher education.

Ashton Croft, North Carolina State University

Ashton Croft is a study abroad advisor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina (US). Her work focuses on advising outbound study abroad students and managing global partnerships.

Caroline Dean Glover, University of Richmond

Caroline Dean Glover is an assistant director of student engagement at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond (US). Her work focuses on cultivating high impact practices with students and establishing reciprocal campus-community partnerships. 

Peter Felten, Elon University

Peter Felten is the executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning, professor of history, and assistant provost for teaching and learning at Elon University (US). His current research focuses on the ways relationships influence student and staff experiences in higher education.


Ahmed, Sara. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Arminio, Jan, and Vasti Torres. 2012. “Learning Through Relationships with Others.” In Why Aren’t We There Yet? Taking Personal Responsibility for Creating an Inclusive Campus, edited by Jan Arminio, Vasti Torres, and Raechele L. Pope, 33–55. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Baik, Chi, Wendy Larcombe, and Abi Brooker. 2019. “How Universities Can Enhance Student Mental Wellbeing: The Student Perspective.” Higher Education Research & Development 38 (4): 674–87.

Baxter Magolda, Marcia B. 2001. Making Their Own Way: Narratives for Transforming Higher Education to Promote Self-Authorship. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Bingham, Bailey E., Victoria Rae, Lisa Robertson, M. Alex Smith, and Shoshanah Jacobs. 2021. “Frequency, Topic, and Preferences: Tracking Student Engagement with Several Modalities of Student-Instructor Contact in a First-Year Course.” FEBS Open Bio: 12–23.

Bovill, Catherine. 2020. Co-Creating Learning and Teaching: Towards Relational Pedagogy in Higher Education. St. Albans, UK: Critical Publishing.

Brantmeier, Edward J., and Maria K. McKenna, editors. 2020. Pedagogy of Vulnerability. Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

Chavez, Alicia Fedelina, and Susan Diana Longerbeam. 2016. Teaching Across Cultural Strengths: A Guide to Balancing Integrated and Individuated Cultural Frameworks in College Teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Chew, Stephen L., and William J. Cerbin. 2021. “The Cognitive Challenges of Effective Teaching.” Journal of Economic Education 52 (1): 17–40.

Clydesdale, Tim. 2008. The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens after High School. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cooper, Katelyn M., Brian Haney, Anna Krieg, and Sara E. Brownell. 2017. “What’s in a Name? The Importance of Students Perceiving that an Instructor Knows Their Names in a High-Enrollment Biology Classroom.” CBE- Life Sciences Education 16 (1): 1–13.

Docan-Morgan, Tony, and Valerie Manusov. 2009. “Relational Turning Point Events and Their Outcomes in College Teacher–Student Relationships from Students’ Perspectives.” Communication Education 58 (2): 155–88.

El-Alayli, Amani, Ashley A. Hansen-Brown, and Michelle L. Ceynar. 2018. “Dancing Backwards in High Heels: Female Professors Experience More Work Demands and Special Favor Requests, Particularly from Academically Entitled Students.” Sex Roles 79 (3): 136–50.

Elon University. 2021. Elon University Fact Book: 2020–2021 [Fact sheet]. Accessed 7 January 2021.

Felten, Peter, and Leo M. Lambert. 2020. Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Student Success. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Freire, Paolo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin.

Frisby, Brandi N., and Matthew M. Martin. 2010. “Instructor-Student and Student-Student Rapport in the Classroom.” Communication Education 59 (2): 146–64.

Glazier, Rebecca A. 2021. “Connecting in the Online Classroom: Building Rapport Between Teachers and Students.” Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Gravett, Karen, Carol A. Taylor, and Nikki Fairchild. 2021. “Pedagogies of Mattering: Re-conceptualising Relational Pedagogies in Higher Education.” Teaching in Higher Education.

Gravett, Karen, and Rola Ajjawi. 2021. “Belonging as Situated Practice.” Studies in Higher Education.

Hagenaur, Gerda, and Simone E. Volet. 2014. “Teacher-Student Relationship at University: An Important Yet Under-Researched Field.” Oxford Review of Education 40 (3): 370–88.

hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Jones, Susan R., and Elisa S. Abes. 2013. Identity Development of College Students: Advancing Frameworks for Multiple Dimensions of Identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Keeley, Jared, Dale Smith, and William Buskist. 2006. “The Teacher Behaviors Checklist: Factor Analysis of its Utility for Evaluating Teaching.” Teaching of Psychology 33 (2): 84–91.

Kezar, Adriana, and Dan Maxey. 2014. “Faculty Matter: So Why Doesn’t Everyone Think So?” Thought and Action (Fall): 29–44.

Knupsky, Aimee, and Soledad M. Caballero. 2020. “Do We Know What They Are Thinking? Theory of Mind and Affect in the Classroom.” Teaching & Learning Inquiry 8 (1).

Kreitzer, Rebecca J., and Jennie Sweet-Cushman. 2021. “Evaluating Student Evaluations of Teachings: A Review of Measurement and Equity Bias in Sets and Recommendations for Ethical Reform.” Journal of Academic Ethics 20: 73–84.

Kulick, Alex, Laura J. Wernick, Michael R. Woodford, and Kristen Renn. 2017. “Heterosexism, Depression, and Campus Engagement Among LGBTQ College Students: Intersectional Differences and Opportunities for Healing.” Journal of Homosexuality 64 (8): 1125–41.

Kwok, Kathryna, and Jaqueline Potter. 2021. “Gender Stereotyping in Student Perceptions of Teaching Excellence: Applying the Shifting Standards Theory.” Higher Education Research & Development.

Mayhew, Matthew J., Alyssa N. Rockenbach, Nicholas A. Bowman, Tricia A.D. Seifert, Gregory C. Wolniak, Ernest T. Pascarella, and Patrick T. Terenzini. 2016. How College Affects Students: 21st Century Evidence that Higher Education Works. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McPherson, Miller, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and James M. Cook. 2001. “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks.” Annual Review of Sociology 27: 415–44.

Middleton, Tristan, Adeela Ahmed Shafi, Richard Millican, and Sian Templeton. 2020. “Developing Effective Assessment Feedback: Academic Buoyancy and the Relational Dimensions of Feedback.” Teaching in Higher Education: 1–18.

Milem, Jeffrey F. 2003. “The Educational Benefits of Diversity: Evidence from Multiple Sectors.” In Compelling Interest: Examining the Evidence on Racial Dynamics in Higher Education, edited by Mitchell J. Chang, Daria Witt, James Jones, and Kenji Hakuta, 126–69. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.

Museus, Samuel D., Maria C. Ledesma, and Tara L. Parker. 2015. Racism and Racial Equity in Higher Education: ASHE Higher Education Report 42 (1). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Noddings, Nel. 2010. “Foreword.” In No Education Without Relation, edited by Charles Bingham and Alexander M. Sidorkin, vii–viii. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Pacansky-Brock, Michelle. 2017. Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies, 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge.

Parker, Eugene T. III, Teniell L. Trolian, and Ellen Bara Stolzenberg. 2021. “Student-Faculty Interaction and Academic Self-concept: The Intersection of Race and Gender.” Higher Education Research and Development 41 (7).

Pineda, Pedro, and Isabel Steinhardt. 2020. “The Debate on Student Evaluations of Teaching: Global Convergence Confronts Higher Education Traditions.” Teaching in Higher Education.

Schreiner, Laurie A., Tami K. Martinez, Jennifer Drumm, and Crystal Keetch. 2020. “The Role of Faculty in College Student Thriving.” In Thriving in Transitions: A Research-Based Approach to College Student Success, edited by Laurie A. Schreiner, Michelle C. Louis, and Denise D. Nelson, 193–209. Columbia, SC: National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Schussler, Elisabeth E., Maryrose Weatherton, Miranda M. Chen Musgrove, Jenifer R. Brigati, and Benjamin J. England. 2021. “Student Perceptions of Instructor Supportiveness: What Characteristics Make a Difference?” CBE—Life Sciences Education 20 (2): 1–12.

Silver, Blake R. 2020. The Cost of Inclusion: How Student Conformity Leads to Inequality on College Campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Snijders, Ingrid, Remy M. J. P. Rikers, Lisette Wijnia, and Sofie M. M. Loyens. 2018. “Relationship Quality Time: The Validation of a Relationship Quality Scale in Higher Education.” Higher Education Research & Development 37 (2): 404–17.

Tatum, Holly E., Beth M. Schwartz, Peggy A. Schimmoeller, and Nicole Perry. 2013. “Classroom Participation and Student-Faculty Interactions: Does Gender Matter?” The Journal of Higher Education 84 (6): 745–68.

Tebbett, Natalie, Heike Jöns, and Michael Hoyler. 2021. “Openness Towards Diversity? Cultural Homophily in Student Perceptions of Teaching and Learning Provided by International and Home Academics.” Globalisation, Societies and Education 19 (5): 522–44.

Thomas, Liz. 2012. “Building Student Engagement and Belonging in Higher Education at a Time of Change.” Paul Hamlyn Foundation 100: 1–99.

Tormey, Roland. 2021. “Rethinking Student-teacher Relationships in Higher Education: A Multidimensional Approach.” Higher Education 82: 993–1011.

Trammell, Beth A., and Rosalie S. Aldrich. 2016. “Undergraduate Students’ Perspectives of Essential Instructor Qualities.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 16 (1): 15–30.

Yeager, David Scott, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, Julio Garcia, Nancy Apfel, Patti Brzustoski, Allison Master, William T. Hessert, Matthew E. Williams, and Geoffrey L. Cohen. 2014. “Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust: Wise Interventions to Provide Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143 (2): 804–24.

A brick campus building with white empty rocking chairs and white columns.




How to Cite

Bovill, Catherine, Ashton Croft, Caroline Dean Glover, and Peter Felten. 2023. “Is Discussing Identity More Important Than Shared Identity To Student-Staff Relationship Building?”. Teaching and Learning Inquiry 11 (May).