In our Spring 2021 report, we asked 3,052 undergraduate students what’s worked, what’s fallen flat and what they’re expecting in a return to campus this fall. The biggest takeaway? Community and belonging in the classroom are no longer ‘a nice to have.’ When it comes to student motivation, engagement and their perceived value of their higher ed investment, taking steps to build community pays major dividends.

Connections with faculty help students realize the value of their tuition

Feeling connected to one’s college or university has often been viewed as the byproduct of participating in campus activities.  

However, with students placing greater weight on mentorship, feedback and community in fueling their academic success, it’s time to be more intentional with our efforts to foster a sense of belonging. And the common ground to do this is within the classroom. 

This is especially important in welcoming the incoming freshmen class. Our survey makes clear that life in the pandemic has been far from easy. Disruptions to routines and lockdowns have exacerbated feelings of isolation and loneliness (66 percent) and increased anxiety (84 percent) and depression (58 percent) rates for students. Given that so many drop out in their first year of college, creating the conditions for students to thrive can mean the difference between whether they persist in their academic journey, or not.

Creating environments where students are comfortable speaking up and showing vulnerability is the backbone of substantive learning. Sarah Sletten, Associate Professor of Biomedical Sciences at the University of North Dakota, understands this. She uses live discussions in tandem with her lectures. This way, students can ask questions, reach out to each other and stay connected with the classroom community in real-time. Depending on the subject matter, you might consider allowing students to participate in discussions anonymously. A survey from Inside Higher Ed found that students learning online are often more comfortable sharing their opinions compared to those learning in-person. This approach is particularly beneficial for shy students or for those for whom English is a second language. 

Students want learning experiences that are exciting and engaging

Students can feel just as isolated learning through Zoom as they do in a large lecture hall. The key is to make learning active. Connections are formed through the learning experience itself, especially when students are invited to participate in discussions, group work, peer-to-peer learning and when instructors use class time to coach students through problem solving exercises. Getting students to work together to achieve meaningful outcomes is a powerful tool in fostering a greater sense of belonging. 

Our Fall 2020 Student Survey highlighted the positive impact of active learning on student engagement. While it’s clear that instructors are making an effort to apply active learning, the challenge is one of consistency. Only 50 percent of students agreed that their instructors make regular use of activities that get students working and collaborating together. Clearly, there’s a gap between the levels of connection students long for, and the experiences they’re getting in their classes. 

The good news is that students who agree their instructors take steps to make learning active are more likely to say they feel motivated and engaged and to see the value of their higher education investment. They’re also more likely to say they would recommend their school to a friend or family member considering college.

Students are also looking for opportunities to apply their learnings to the real world and develop transferable skills. Seventy-six percent (76) want to apply learning to address real-world problems. Seventy-nine percent (79) want to develop transferable skills, while 67 percent want to learn through collaboration and interactive activities. This is especially important for a generation that equates a successful higher education experience with securing a job after graduation.

Tools matter for tech natives

Today’s students are accustomed to using technology in virtually every area of their lives. Generation Z places a premium on collaborative learning experiences and the ability to engage with their peers. 

Unsurprisingly, 68 percent of students want messaging and collaboration apps to stay connected with faculty and peers in and out of class. Fifty-five percent (55) of students want live chat and polling apps to make class time more engaging. 

Demian Hommel, a geography professor at Oregon State University, scatters comprehension-gauging questions throughout his lecture. This method helps students recall facts and concepts, and check their comprehension with higher-order questions as well. He also leaves a discussion board running where students can ask questions or clarify concepts, or suggest their own discussion topics, like the evolving career landscape. Small changes like this make a big difference. Ninety percent (90) of Hommel’s students report that using Top Hat in this way made them feel part of a wider learning community.

5 ways to foster community in the classroom

  1. Establish an authentic presence: Ensure you build a social presence as an instructor from day one. This includes sharing fun facts about yourself, how you got into your field of study and finding ways to humanize your curriculum. Once students are comfortable and feel like they know you well enough as their instructor, they will be more likely to contribute in class. You may wish to use a discussion forum to share a fun fact about yourself and encourage your students to do the same.
  2. Make room for non-academic communication: Ensuring students have spaces outside of your course to chat with one another can boost feelings of camaraderie. Social media is the optimal tool for ensuring students can have ‘water cooler’ moments online. Although your students may already have this in place, you might want to suggest forming a group Facebook page where students can discuss what’s on their minds beyond their studies. 
  3. Be clear on your availability to connect with students: Try and set a dedicated time slot each day to respond to students’ inquiries before an upcoming class or after a class ends. Students are more likely to feel like active community members if you address their concerns in a timely, thoughtful manner.
  4. Cater your course to student needs: It can be hard to gauge how students truly feel about both academic and non-academic matters, even if they’re sitting right in front of you. Examples of diagnostic exercises include KWL charts—where students state what they already know, want to know and will eventually learn from a topic—and informal writing prompts can give you an idea as to where your students stand academically. 
  5. Let students learn from each other: An important component of any learning community is peer learning. Let students discuss new material in small groups before reconvening as a class. Think-pair-share is a classic example of peer interaction. Learning is broken down into bite-sized pieces where students process something on their own then discuss with a partner before sharing their insights with the class. This is a great way to build connections while helping solidify concepts and improve retention.

Institutions need to equip students and faculty with tools to build communities and nurture connections. As our findings suggest, with a little extra effort, we can give students what they need most of all to be successful—care, support and human connection. 

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