How You Know You’ve Made a Difference to a Student

instructor and student conferring over a project
Student Success
Reading Time: 4 minutes

You work tirelessly to be the best instructor possible for your students—doing everything you can to help them succeed in and out of class. But when it’s time to see the fruits of your labor, it can be difficult to know when you’ve made a difference.

While there is no shortage of tips, tricks, guides and instructions on how to make a positive impact on students, how do you know when you’ve succeeded in helping them? To find out, we asked fellow instructors to share their success stories and gathered some useful tips you can use to better understand just how much of an impact you make.

What Students Look for in a Professor

Research shows that good teachers are the single most important factor that contributes to student achievement in the classroom, more important than facilities, school resources and even school leadership (no pressure, right?). While you no doubt understand the importance of passionate teaching and its impact on students, how can you know what students value most?

According to one study conducted by the Memorial University of Newfoundland, researchers found that students perceived the following characteristics as most indicative of effective higher ed instructors:

1. Respectful 1. Respectful
2. Responsive 2. Knowledgeable
3. Knowledgeable 3. Approachable
4. Approachable 4. Engaging
5. Communicative 5. Communicative
6. Organized 6. Organized
7. Engaging 7. Responsive
8. Professional 8. Professional
9. Humorous 9. Humorous

Signs You’re Impacting Students

Struggling Students Show Interest

“I had a struggling student and I offered extra credit, allowed the student to come to my office and ask questions. When the students show interest then I know I am doing something to help the student.” – Dr. D’Nita Andrews Graham, Instructor, Norfolk State University

Tip: Research conducted by the University of NebraskaLincoln suggests that varying your instruction throughout the semester can help keep students interested in their coursework without burning out. Consider using lectures, demonstrations, discussions, case studies, groups, etc. to keep things new and exciting.

Follow up with Graduates and See Their Progression

“I had a student who was enrolled in a certificate program, living in the homeless shelter with 2 kids. I noticed her exceptional ability in the accounting for non-majors’ course. I encouraged her to explore the accounting major. She graduated from our college with an accounting degree, went on to complete her bachelor’s in accounting. She is now working at a CPA firm and intends to sit for the exam soon.” – Nancy Cowett, Instructor, Northern Maine Community College

Tip: As an instructor, you get a bird’s eye view into students’ abilities. Oftentimes hard to see—even to students themselves—recognizing and nurturing unrecognized talent can go a long way toward helping students succeed.

Students Reach Out to You

“I had a non-traditional student whose husband had died, she was a single mom working a fulltime job and going to school. She was struggling in my computer applications course. I realized she needed more support from me than other students, so I took the time to encourage her and support her in her learning, not just my class but in all of her classes. There were times she would be in tears. I just tried to be encouraging to her. She is still working on her degree and comes by to see me to let me know how she is doing. I am going to clap so loud for her when she walks across the stage!” – Sharon Braveheart, Instructor, North Florida Community College

Tip: According to former U.S. Secretary of Education, Ted Mitchell, nontraditional students are now the “new normal.” With this in mind, understanding and catering to the unique needs of these students can mean the difference between attrition and completion.

You Push Students Outside Their Comfort Zone

“A student who was accidentally denied admission to a four-year institution from a community college. I strongly encouraged the student to go to the admissions office. The student did and was told there was a clerical error. Then one month later I encouraged the same student to apply for scholarships at the school. The student did not have money to attend and was considering not attending even though the student earned a 4.0 in their AS Engineering program. Fortunately, the student found out that they were selected for a full ride scholarship. Since that time, the student has graduated and [is] working as an engineer.” – Emerald C. Wilson, Instructor, Prince George’s Community College

Tip: More times than not, you recognize the potential in your students before they do. With that said, consider adopting strategies, lessons and activities to continually push students outside their comfort zones. For example, fostering confidence helps students realize their own potential—motivating them to venture outside their comfort levels.

You See Shifts in Student Behavior

“I had a student who was known as a difficult student by the other faculty. He tended to be disruptive and didn’t care about doing homework. I didn’t let what others said about him influence what my expectations of him were, and I challenged him to perform well in my class – to think outside the box. I gave him problems to solve and allowed him creativity to solve them. He loved the class so much he majored in it and went on to excel in the agricultural economics/business workplace. Both he and his parents have repeatedly thanked me for giving him direction and motivation to do something with his life.” – Lisa Brandau, Instructor, North Iowa Area Community College

Tip: Do you experience challenging student behaviors in your classroom? If so, consider fellow instructor, Shawn Orr’s tips: outlining clear expectations for students to meet while using technology as a tool to engage students in the areas they’re most receptive to learning.

Want Even More Inspiration?

Check out our Teaching Inspiration page on Today’s Learner. It’s packed with inspiring stories from fellow instructors, students and more to help convey the impact—and energy—you and your peers bring to the classroom every day.