Jim Smith is data and assessment coordinator at Twin Cities International Elementary School in Minnesota. Previously, he served as a middle school history teacher for 15 years.

Under the Learning Umbrella – Relationships and Assessment

Professional relationships are at the center of my work in education. Clearly technology, especially Twitter, has changed how these relationships impact who I am. I will admit a certain weakness for educational-based Twitter chats, (full disclosure, I am a co-moderator of the #ATAssess Chat). I love to hear how educators think, what they do, and their reflections and ponderings; investigating what makes them tick and how they grow. Much is learned from these conversations with folks I have never met, but a bond exists; an undeniably positive relationship.  These folks a help inform my work and shape my thinking.

Relationships in the classroom are important as well.  Developing strong teacher/student relationships is considered foundational to learning.  In almost any Twitter chat, no matter the topic, a “relationship” tweet enters the conversation.  What follows is often a universal agreement that building relationships is tops on the list of what is important in learning. I do not disagree, but this makes me squirm – just a little.

To try to allay the squirm, I went to the master of measuring, John Hattie in Visible Learning (2009) to see how he measures the “relationship” piece.  The effect size of the teacher/student relationship comes in quite high at a .72 (remember that the desired number is .4 or greater).  Jeffery Cornelius-White (2007) in his meta-analysis of learner-centered teacher/student relationships refers to this development as “person-centered education.” His overall conclusion was that “person-centered teachers score high in multiple areas of student achievement.” My squirming has lessened a bit, but it is still present, since I do not know what “relationships” mean.

The student/teacher relationship is different than most others, and it has at its center a culture of learning. Students come to school to learn, and our job as educators is to set the best table possible for that to happen. Relationships are not just the foundational piece to have in place before learning – they grow and mature together as a part of the learning process.  It can sometimes feel that relationships and learning are separate and opposite forces. As the demands of the learning space increase, the tension can make strong teacher/student relationships a casualty of learning. When relationships and learning are in conflict, no one benefits. The learning space must foster a journey where we (student and teacher) develop as fellow voyagers on an intentional and much desired learning journey. Relationships and learning must flow as one. Cornelius-White (2007) notes that teachers must see their (students) perspective, “communicating it back to them so that they have valuable feedback to self-assess, feel safe, and learn to understand others and the content with the same interest and concern.” The relationship centers on learning and the learning grows with the relationship.

To develop both the learning and the relationship, there must be clear evidence of learning for both teacher and student.  This evidence is provided through timely assessment practices where feedback and the response of a next step must also be accompanied by clear evidence of a relationship of empathy as well. Assessment is an emotionally loaded process which must be carefully nurtured by the educator. The greater goal here is not just to correct mistakes and errors in student work.  It is to encourage, to develop, and to establish the student as a self-efficacious learner.  Susan Brookhart (2011) defines that “self-efficacy as a learner is a student’s belief that he or she can, in fact, learn effectively.” The evidence to foster this understanding is found in the assessment practices of the classroom, when alignment exists with clear learning targets providing valid evidence of the learning journey of the student.  The relationship with the teacher moves this journey forward to its desired conclusion, building a trajectory of hope for success in the student and eventually the goal of an independent and effective learner.


Hattie, John. (2009). Visible learning. New York, NY: Routledge Press.

Brookhart, Susan. (2011). Grading and learning. Bloomington, IN Solution Tree Press

Cornelius-White, J. (2007). Learner-Centered Teacher-Student Relationships Are Effective: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 113-143


  1. Jennifer Murray

    I gave my 9th graders a journal prompt, asking if teachers could always be trusted. The majority of my students equated a connection with a teacher to trusting said teacher. Kids won’t learn from teachers who disrespect them or treat them like just a “number.”


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