Staff/Student interaction

Staff/Student interaction

Clear communication between academic staff and students.

Outline and Background of Case Study

The construction industry is a rough and tumble place. It’s all about getting jobs done and many see it as a ‘kick-ass’ industry. Some construction educators feel it’s no place for sissies. They’ve seen and experienced how difficult it is on site. For example, construction managers need to motivate staff to get things done, defuse arguments, stave off confrontations with union officials and a myriad of other activities that frequently flare up into full-blown confrontations.

These educators feel it’s their duty to prepare their students for the ‘real world’. This sometimes involves taking a hard line with students’ requests for extensions of time, answering their questions in an forceful manner and / or expecting students to experience things the hard way (in other words, in a similar manner to the way the educators learned).

However, students experience a range of pressures and imperatives that didn’t exist in years gone by. Chief amongst these are financial pressures. Whether these are fueled by life-style aspirations or necessity is beside the point – they exist and steer students to act in the way they do. This may mean prioritizing paid employment over academic studies, not communicating with peers or tutors and not ‘taking their studies seriously’ (in other words, with the dedication that educators expect). These and other pressures give rise to not only lack lustre academic performance – they manifest in physical and mental health issues.

With the increasing use of IT, many students do not see the need to attend lectures. The lecture recordings that most educators provide have largely rendered face-to-face contact redundant. The result is that educators rarely get to know what makes students ‘tick’. They simply don’t have the opportunities to find out what’s behind the rare physical interactions they have with their students, or what’s behind the brief and sometime cryptic electronic messages they receive from them.

The following hypothetical example illustrates the tensions and miscommunication that can occur

  • Matt van Rensburg is a project manager with extensive real-world experience. He is working as a part-time lecturer on a contract (and is unsure whether it will be renewed). Matt has a heavy workload of lectures, tutorials, site visits and marking... and now, just when major assignments are due, he’s received several requests for extensions of time. To say he is unhappy is an understatement.
  • Ali Nazeer is a student with money problems. He works two jobs whilst studying. Things have come to a head with Matt’s assignment... Ali thought he could meet the deadline, but was called in to work when he was finishing off his assignment. He is reliant on his jobs to pay rent and feed himself. He’s been sick recently, and his employer has said to him that he either needs to come to work or they will find a replacement for him...
  • What needs to be done to ensure Matt and Ali hear each other out? How can these Matt avoid taking an entrenched position, and hear Ali out?
  • What can Ali do to help his situation?

Purpose - aims and objectives

The purpose of this example is to illustrate how important it is for educators, students, managers, supervisors and workers to delve beyond their first impressions when communicating with others. The reasons why people act the way they do / say what they say, are rarely obvious in brief encounters. People need to take time and make an effort to explore what’s going on behind the scenes.

The aim is to help educators and students understand that they both have responsibilities to each other. Each experiences life and its associated pressures differently. Taking things at face value will inevitably mean that parties do not appreciate the full story. Less than ideal outcomes are likely to result for such interactions.

The objective is to provide educators and students with examples of protective factors to help them build resilience aligned to circumstances of this nature.

Antecedents (precursor)

Poor communication can result in stressful situations for academic staff as well as for students. Both need to respect each other and appreciate the day-to-day challenges each needs to cope with. Improved staff and student satisfaction are likely outcomes of effective communication as well as reduced attrition rates. The following protective factors may help.

Protective Factors

  • The interactions proposed above would alert academics to situations their students were coping with that they were not aware of. Students would be alerted to the importance of for seeking assistance in a pro-active manner.
  • Particular protective factors in this instance can be identified from a discussion around problem solving and role-play.

Risk Factors

  • Students not communicating with academic staff in a timely manner.
  • Students being reluctant to divulge personal information when seeking assistance.
  • Students feeling helpless and hopeless about the situations they find themselves in.
  • Time poor staff having to react in a thoughtful and empathetic manner to students’ requests.
  • Staff not being aware of the nature of support services offered by their institution.
  • Notwithstanding the real challenges many students experience, some try and game the system. Staff should seek assistance from peers, support services and other resources to establish the veracity of students’ requests.
  • Poor people / communication skills on the part of all concerned.

Resilience or coping

  • The case study should alert staff and students to the realities of other people’s lives.
  • Frequently what might seem to be the problem is not the case.
  • Taking time to ask questions in a non-judgmental manner is likely to pay dividends.
  • A capability to defuse a situation of the kind identified is positive.
  • Providing solutions and a way forward, both immediately and in the short term are helpful.


A particular consequence arising from the case study can be identified as personal growth. This draws us back to the definition of resilience shown above.

Contribution by

Associate Professor Willy Sher, University of Newcastle

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