We're sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
The most likely cause of this is a content blocker on your computer or network.
If you continue to experience issues, please contact us at 202-466-1032 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Kurushima explained that learning names is important, and health careers require working with many different people. That made sense to Nguyen, who plans to become a nurse. She and her classmates formed a study group that regularly met at the skills lab. Before an exam, the group would migrate to the library after the lab closed, and then to a coffee shop after the library closed.
“Coming into Dr. Kurushima’s class, it was really nice being able to expand my social circle,” Nguyen says. “In high school, I was talking to the same people, with the same ideas, same mentality, same personality. Being in this class, it was really interesting to learn how to work with people who were very much different from me.”
The weirdness of the pandemic emphasized for many that we are social creatures; during its most isolating stretch, the virtual classroom, hastily built as it was, remained a place where students and professors could attend to that aspect of their humanity. All the same, the pandemic warped the social experience of the teenagers who are now traditional-age college students. While many are eager to connect with their peers, they might not quite know how to go about it.
Helping them find their way is one more task on what may feel like an endless list for busy instructors. But connecting students with their classmates isn’t just something that sounds nice or feels good. A growing body of evidence from neuroscience and related fields has shown that learning is enhanced — the human brain actually works differently — in the company of other people. And on the often-cliquey campuses of our deeply divided country, the classroom remains one of the rare places where people who might have little else in common are — sometimes, at least — asked to learn together, and from each other.
“If all of these students feel like an isolated individual in the classroom, they’re not going to learn as effectively as if they come and feel part of a learning community,” says Michael Brown, an associate professor of higher education and student affairs at Iowa State University who studies the social dimensions of learning. Students who form connections in one course can carry those connections into other courses, he says — and research shows that those who do so are more successful in their majors.
“Having people that you can go to with questions or concerns is helpful,” he says. “But the other thing that we gloss over as instructors is what happens after you leave my class.”
Students in courses where social connection is a priority can point to a host of benefits. They form connections, even friendships. They feel like they belong and have an incentive to show up and participate. They enjoy themselves. They learn more.
That was the case for Nguyen, who credits the study group for how well she did in anatomy. “I think it’s because I was able to collaborate with my classmates through that semester,” she says. “It really opened my eyes to what study methods worked for me, and what worked for me was teaching the material to my classmates and having them correct me on what I didn’t understand, and also explaining it to them in a way where they did understand it.”
Even now, back to meeting in person, Goodman has noticed there is initially less of the chitchat and side talk that tells him a class is bonding. This closed-off behavior is partly the social rustiness of pandemic isolation, he figures, but it’s also students’ tendency to retreat into their devices, a socially accepted alternative to the discomfort of being with new people. But he’s trying to change it. “I feel like it’s my job,” Goodman says, “to reinvigorate the classroom with that social juice.”
If all of these students feel like an isolated individual in the classroom, they’re not going to learn as effectively as if they come and feel part of a learning community.
So what does he do? Like Kurushima, Goodman asks his students to learn one another’s names — in his case, by the end of their first week. He has each student create an “about me” slideshow, which they each post to their website portfolio. He then creates a treasure hunt that requires students to search through each other’s presentations.
He also has students use something from a classmate’s slide show in a subsequent assignment.
Goodman puts the students in groups to give each other feedback on their work, focusing on finding what is best in each other’s projects.
“When it works,” he says, “what happens is you get students who start to know things about one another.”
It worked for Bailey Davis, an elementary-education major who, during her sophomore year, took one of Goodman’s courses, “Build It! Design Technology and Elementary Steam Education” — an elective where education students explore hands-on projects they could use to teach kids later.
Davis, who expects to graduate in December, considers herself a quiet person in general. She spent her first year of college taking classes remotely, and when she took Goodman’s class after a semester of in-person learning, she still found it hard to talk with classmates. “So it was really nice to kind of learn about other people,” she says, “and not have it be all up to me.”
She remembers that students wrote down a few things about themselves, including a song they liked, on notecards. Goodman would revisit the notecards, she said — unlike some other professors who had students fill out cards and never followed up. He used their songs for a class playlist that was on while they built their hands-on projects.
For one project, groups were asked to build a roller coaster for a table-tennis ball with materials including a pegboard, bolts, and rubber bands — and make it go as slowly as possible. Davis’s group talked about using friction to make it hard for the ball to go up, as well as using gravity and changing the angle of the board so it was nearly flat. “Those things were brought up by different people,” she says, and their collective ideas and creativity took them further than she’d have gotten working alone. “Maybe you don’t know something that could be really beneficial in the project, but someone else does.”
This fall, Davis is serving as a student-teacher in a fourth-grade classroom. In that setting, creating a classroom community is everything. Why is college so different? Davis thinks it’s because college marks a transition to adulthood, to independence. That focus puts group work, and community, on the back burner.
But maybe, it doesn’t have to.
And maybe more professors are now primed to attend to these needs, says Peter Felten, executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning and assistant provost for teaching and learning at Elon University. “There’s an opportunity to see now as a moment where we could reset a little bit about what’s the heart of a college experience, for any student.”
For the many faculty members who worry about students’ mental health but also understand that they’re not in a position to support it therapeutically, she says, it can be encouraging to hear that fulfilling their role as good teachers is, in itself, a way to help.
For some, the idea of building social connection in the classroom may conjure cheesy conference icebreakers or kindergarten circle time. But getting students to interact need not be organized around something separate from the work of the course, Cavanagh says. “In some ways, it is almost even better if it is content, because when you ask students to do those icebreakers and to share stuff, they kind of freeze up.” Doing an activity in a group, or taking part in an intellectual discussion, can help meet students’ social needs without asking them to reveal too much about themselves.
Lori Kayes and Devon Quick have designed the large-enrollment biology courses they teach at Oregon State University around active learning that happens in assigned small groups. That gives students a home base in a giant lecture hall.
“Of course people can reach out to other people in the class,” says Kaitlyn Kim, a junior biochemistry and molecular biology major who serves as a learning assistant in an introductory course taught by Kayes. Still, “if you’re already not super inclined to just put yourself out there and say, hey, let’s work on this outside of class, it takes the pressure off of them. And I’ve definitely talked to students who have validated that.”
I feel like it’s my job to reinvigorate the classroom with that social juice.
That doesn’t mean that these students necessarily go on to become close friends, Kim adds. “But that’s fine. Being able to work with different people is really important.” Even if you don’t love being in a group, she says, you can still learn a lot from it.
Designing large courses around small groups takes effort — and it might not always be what students are expecting, either. Both Kayes and Quick emphasize the importance of teamwork so students understand the degree to which the science careers they’re pursuing are collaborative. But that is not the only reason they’re doing this. Collaborative work leads to better learning, says Quick. “I know it’s worth the work because the types of things that they are able to synthesize together are amazing.”
It wasn’t like this before she taught with active learning and social connection. Quick says she is an excellent lecturer. “I can tell a story. I am so good at it,” she says. The problem? Students didn’t learn much from those lectures, as evidenced by their difficulty in applying what she told them. “They struggled to answer questions using graphs,” she says.
Working through problems together is what has gotten students to understand the content of the course.
Asking students to work together in class is a hallmark of an active-learning classroom, but it’s not the only way to use groups to build community. Since he became a professor in 2018, Francisco Gallegos has put students into small discussion groups and asked them to meet outside of class, using a format adapted from a consulting company where he had worked before.
Gallegos, an assistant professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, teaches courses that are usually capped at either 18 or 28 students. To form his groups, he first meets individually with each student. Is this a student who wants to be challenged or one looking to feel more comfortable? Do they want to be in a team with students who share some traits or are they looking to broaden their horizons? Is there someone they really do or don’t want to work with? He takes all of that into consideration.
Once the groups are formed, the setup is loose and student-led. They meet once a week for 40 minutes outside of class and talk about the course. Each student writes a reflection, which is graded for completion.
“It’s the single most powerful thing that I do in the classroom,” Gallegos says. “It’s the thing students say was the most meaningful to their learning. And it’s the thing that takes the least amount of actual work from me.”
The discussion groups allow students to take ownership of their learning, Gallegos says, to have an intellectual connection with one another that isn’t directly mediated by him. That’s something many students come to college hungry for, he says, but don’t always find.
When the groups go well, he says, “you end up having these amazing conversations, that you may not even ever have with the people you’re closest to, your friends and family. And a lot of students say: This is what I thought college was all about.”
Kylie Yorke, who graduated in May with a double major in philosophy and psychology, says being in a discussion group in one of Gallegos’s courses allowed for deeper engagement in the material. Philosophy, Yorke says, asks “what guiding principles one should orient their life around. And that work cannot be done on a purely theoretical basis. That work has to be done on a personal, individual level where you’re digesting content and applying it to your own life.” In the discussion group, “we were able to really let our guards down and ask, How did this stick with you? Did you guys understand this? No, me neither. Or yes, this really stood out to me, and I want to focus more on this particular issue. Let’s dive deeper.”
Yorke was in a group with two other women, and they shared a real interest in philosophy and a dissatisfaction with the Greek life that dominates their campus. They bonded. But they also took that connection back to the broader class. Yorke’s group came up with the idea of hosting a symposium for the whole class at the end of the course, where they had music, food, and a philosophical discussion that lasted long after Gallegos left to take care of his child.
Jen Ebbeler was missing that kind of social connection. An associate professor of classics at the University of Texas at Austin, Ebbeler was excited to get back into the classroom after a research leave and to have a more normal teaching experience after all of those pandemic semesters. But then, she learned that the building that houses both her office and her department’s standard seminar classroom was full of mold, and there wasn’t another room available that met her needs. Disappointed, she shifted her first-year seminar course — which focuses on disability — online.
But Ebbeler had taught online even before the pandemic. And unlike during emergency remote instruction, students could meet up outside of class. So she built in assignments for the students to complete together, and encouraged them to do the assignments in person.
Ella Gault, an arts- and entertainment-technologies major in the course, recalls having coffee with two classmates — and staying long after they had completed their worksheet to keep talking. Gault, who spent a full year of high school taking classes online, says knowing her classmates has mattered. “It’s one thing to have a professor talking through a video stream and then you just, like, just half pay attention. But if that connection is created, and you sort of learn to respect and admire your classmates, it makes the discussions more meaningful because you want to listen and respond. And it makes your connection to the content more meaningful because the people you’re connected to have a connection to it.”
Ebbeler’s students have asked her if they could have one gathering in person as a full class. The plan is to have the last meeting in a classroom, with food.
To Ebbeler, the experience underscored that connection can happen, or not, in any class format. “The future is that we’re going to be teaching more classes online,” Ebbeler says. “Especially large lecture classes.” Ebbeler, a proponent of universal design for learning, records all of her class sections as a matter of course. Some of her colleagues, though, resist this — in part because they think students might not come to class.
“They don’t understand,” she says, that “no, students come for the social part.”
And students can do that no matter what modality the course is taught in. “There’s no magic modality or number or shape of classroom or anything like that,” Ebbeler says.
That growing recognition is part of a broader change. Traditionally, many professors have viewed their task as teachers as “to confirm the location of skills and knowledge in individual students’ brains,” says Lindsay Masland, director of transformative teaching and learning and a professor of psychology at Appalachian State. But that model has been challenged by the internet, which has lowered the value of knowing information now that it’s at everyone’s fingertips, and, more recently, tools like ChatGPT that can pump out the kind of answer instructors often ask for to measure what students know and can do.
That has left at least some faculty members unclear about what is being accomplished in their classrooms, Masland says. “Maybe a way for us to at least try to respond to this existential crisis that’s been created for us about our jobs is to say: What else could this be about?”
One answer is to focus less on having students prove what they know and more on improving their ability to use that knowledge to do something meaningful, together.