On Trust

Effective teams are built on trust, not rules. It’s the same for the FYS classroom.

In the First Year Seminar the difference maker toward achieving the learning objectives will be having the right classroom climate. In my experience this means working to develop a trusting relationship among the students, and between you and the students, starting on day one.

Trust is a willingness to be vulnerable to another person’s actions (Sweeney, Thompson, & Blanton, 2009).  Absent trust, students will not take risks with the material or in sharing ideas.

We see it every semester:  students expect us to drive the conversation, offering superficial answers when we ask questions, or hoping for inspiration from the floor (where in my experience they tend to stare).  More than once I’ve invited students to sit with me to discuss the reasons for this – to find the root cause behind the problem.  (We conduct an After-Action Review – see page 38 of the FYS Guidebook.)  And each time we come to the same conclusion.  It’s about fear.

They worry about what their peers will think and they’re afraid of me and how I’ll judge (and grade) their answers.  They’re also afraid of their reading assignments.  When the reading gets too difficult, they simply walk away.  They’re unwilling to make themselves vulnerable.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Many got through High School by doing just enough to pass the exams to get the necessary grade.  They’ve become passive learners skilled at the game of school (Deresiewicz, 2014).  And they like it. They like it because it has already proven useful.  It’s what got them to QU in the first place!

The very nature of inquiry belies the predictability they are seeking.  We are asking students to undo years of conditioning and accept the ambiguity of “wicked” problems, and the realization that they must find connections through exploration, not attentive listening. They won’t do this if they are not willing to make themselves vulnerable.  Vulnerable to you, to their peers, and to failure.  And while they may respect your authority and position, they don’t yet trust you.

The bottom line:  Trust yields influence (Sweeney, Thompson, & Blanton, 2009) and influence (not authority) is what you’ll need to make FYS work. Establishing trust may take weeks, or more.  And it won’t be easy.  But here are three things that you can do in week one to set the conditions for success:

Trust is a risk game and you must ante up first (Kouzes & Posner, 2012).  From day one I demonstrate my trust in my student’s integrity by making myself vulnerable to their actions.  Instead of dictating the rules by going over my syllabus, I ask them to develop a set of community norms to guide their actions.

These norms include rules for missing class discussions, how they’ll hold each other accountable when they’re not prepared for discussion, and who they’ll handle disrespect as they challenge each other’s ideas.  I even ask them to discuss how we should grade (given the learning objectives,)

I tell my students that the University does give me rules and guidelines (they’re on m syllabus) for those rare occasions when a student creates a toxic climate by violating our community norms but I also tell them that I will only use that authority when there are no other options.

Rather, I prefer using my influence, and their innate desire to do what’s right, to resolve what are typically temporary problems.

Some students will test you and this collaborative environment. Some to the point of betraying your investment. Before you react, think about the larger mission of the University curriculum. You are preparing students to navigate the knowledge society, an environment characterized by the uncertainty and rapid change (Bereiter, 1997).

You are developing your student’s capacity to create ideas, prepare informed judgements and deliver mindful decisions for the purpose of generating positive impacts on self, individuals, communities and the world we live in. Not compliant rule followers.  Not excellent sheep (Deresiewicz, 2014).

Students who bend or break the rules are in the main more creative than their abiding peers.  There’s value in their non-conformity (Grant, 2016).  If you clamp down on rule breakers for the sake of order, consider what you might be sacrificing.

I’m not saying allow I allow all manner of behavior; it’s not about anarchy and abdication. I try to establish a social order based on trust (mutual vulnerability) and it generally works for me.  My students do not run amok. I deal with each problem individually, on its own merits, but never pre-punish the group for what might happen or for the stunts of one person.

My leadership and teaching experience have taught me that when I have to use my authority, I’ve already lost.

Which leads me to point number two:  credibility matters.

Credibility is the marriage of character and competence (Kouzes & Posner, 2012; Sweeney, Thompson, & Blanton, 2009).  Every interaction you have with students either adds to or jeopardizes your credibility.  It’s more than your honesty and integrity.  It’s about doing what we say we’re going to do. This is always tricky as your students are watching your every move.


For example, some of your students are going to turn in papers that look as if they’ve been written on the cell phone on the way to class.  It might be they don’t take your course seriously, or it’s a technique that’s worked for them in the past (do just enough to get a B…)

They’re not yet taking seriously the learning objective, “Reading, writing, and oral communication skills to create knowledge cooperatively, and to share knowledge with others.”

If you react the way they expect, you’ll confirm their suspicions:  despite your rhetoric, you are still playing the game.  Rather than offer low grades or corrective comments (the traditional responses meant to correct errant behavior) you could redact the names and conduct a peer review session (a community-normed activity).

They’ll see that their efforts matter not because of the repercussion from you, but because their ideas (or lack thereof) impact the community.

Let me add that in my experience these are the very students who, they realize you stand by your word, will become your best students. They’ll begin turning in quality material not because you expect it (you do) but because they want to.

We can go on.  If (in my scenario) a student misses class, or often comes late, and the community isn’t responding as you’d like, the natural tendency is to discipline the student yourself.  While this is perfectly fine given your authority and the rules, it violates the trust you offered to the students in their community norms.

(The smarter thing to do would be to lead an After-Action Review to discuss the issue, and what might be done.)

The bottom line is that you have to reduce your student’s fear of exploitation and that you are dependable toward that end (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978, as cited in Sweeney, Thompson, & Blanton, 2009).

How does this sound day to day?

  • When they miss class and ask if I want a note (often from the doctor) I say, ‘no.” I trust you.
  • When they miss assignments or ask for an extension, I don’t need a reason, I tell them, “I trust that you are making the right choices about prioritization as you deal with all of your classes and activities.
  • When they aren’t talking in class, I trust that they’ve done what’s necessary to prepare (I don’t immediately jump to accusations…)

Risky?  You bet.  I never said it would be easy.

As a personal note, enthusiasm and kindness matter. They do. I’m not suggesting that you jump around your classroom like a cheerleader, but I do think students can detect whether you love what you do or see it (and them) as a chore.

Competence in FYS is about your teaching ability. It is about your ability to inspire students to discover how different kinds of knowledge are generated and interpreted, how to critically evaluate and integrate knowledge and perspectives for the purpose of creating ideas, making informed judgements and making decisions, and how to effectively communicate and gain support for their ideas, decisions and judgments.

In FYS you’re a generalist.  It’s not about getting them to love your discipline as you do.  It’s about inquiry, systems thinking, design thinking, critical thinking, knowledge management, and fostering intrinsic motivation.

For some of you this may require learning new skills as you go. To help, Chris and I will create a series of relevant workshops and will make some great readings available through the Center of Teaching and Learning.

We’re also going to continue running our huddles for small-group professional development and knowledge sharing. I highly encourage you to take advantage of as much as you can so you have a better grasp of the theories behind many of the FYS practices.

Lastly, you should aim for transparency.  Let your students know what you’re doing and why.

For example, when I ask students to write, I go out of my way to explain the purpose behind the task.  I do this because I’ve found over the years that they don’t always know why we ask them to write.  They see it as a chore, something to be endured.  (This applies to many of our teaching techniques…)

One of my favorite lines is, “I’ll ask you to work, but I respect you too much to waste your time.”

But as with credibility, be wary not to send a mixed message.  Every time we make students write because we suspect they’re not reading the articles, we are reinforcing the idea that writing is a punitive exercise.

Writing in FYS has a very specific purpose:  to create knowledge cooperatively, and to share knowledge with others.

Their primary audience is their peers. They need to know this. They’re not turning in papers for you, they’re writing to “publish” their ideas into a community of scholars. Telling them this changes their focus, and their motivation.

As an aside – this business about “wasting their time” is not insignificant. Realize that students are extremely busy.  To write well takes hours of work (With reading, writing, and revising, it’s 90 minutes for every 300 words).  A 1,500-word paper could take more than seven hours!  Imagine getting two or three of these each week as often happens when you have five classes.  Add in class attendance, extra-curricular activities, and work-study, and suddenly you have a very busy week (Immerwahr, 2011).

They’re not lazy when they make tradeoffs about their work, they’re struggling to balance it all. They want to write well, but often are compelled to turn in drafts because they don’t have time or have other priorities.

My task is to get them to slow down and see writing as more than “satisfying another requirement.”

I have found that because we develop this transparent and trusting relationship, they eventually stop competing for an A and start writing to better share their ideas.  And because the writing is now about them (and not me) it starts to get better.

Yes, they’ll gripe sometimes about how much I ask them to write, but like being a musician or an athlete we know that practice improves performance.

(By way of transparency, I chose writing as an example in this section because I could use it to insert some ideas on writing for FYS…)

I share much of what I’m doing in class (such as why we practice recalling earlier materials, or why we sometimes move to new areas before we fully grasped the current one – more on these in later posts…)

My transparency provides them with exposure to the structures – the raison d’être – of the FYS program.  I want them to know that assignments have a purpose and are not designed simply to pile on work for arbitrary reasons.


Before I wrap this up, some of you may have detected a bit of contradiction in my comments.  On one hand, you should ante up first.  On the other, you (not they) need to be credible.  Shouldn’t they need to be credible to earn your trust?  Yes.  But as students I offer them a lot more latitude recognizing that some are more mature than others.

But given our unequal relationships (I do have authority) it’s easy for me to take these risks because they really can’t exploit me like I could exploit them.  With my experience, I don’t share their fears.  I am going to use this position to model the way.

Remember that it takes time and effort.  You have to work at it all semester long, but when you see students making a greater effort to learn because they see the value in learning, you’ll see a good return on your investment.



Works Cited

Bereiter, C. (1997). Education in a knowledge society. In B. Smith (Ed.), Liberal education in a knowledge society. Chicago: Open Court.

Deresiewicz, W. (2014). Excellent sheep: The miseducation of the American elite and the way to a meaningful life (First Free Press hardcover ed.). New York, NY: Free Press.

Grant, A. (2016). Originals:  How non-conformists move the world.  New York: Viking.

Immerwahr, J. (2011). The case for motivational grading. Teaching Philosophy, 34(4), 335-346.

Kelley, H.H., & Thibaut, J.W. (1978). Interpersonal relations: A theory of interdependence.  New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Posner, B. Z., & Kouzes, J. M. (2012). Leadership challenge : How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations (5th edition) John Wiley & Sons.

Sweeney, P. J., Thompson, V., & Blanton, H. (2009). Trust and influence in combat: An interdependence model. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39(1), 235-264. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00437.x



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