Dear ECP Committee,
As we enter the month of Valentine’s Day, I started thinking about how we promote a sense of connection between the students in our classes. What are some strategies we can use to help students feel comfortable with each other, gain a sense of belonging within our classrooms, and perhaps even help students develop new friendships amongst their peers? Any suggestions?
-Looking for Connection
Dear Looking for Connection,
What a great question! Some of our best class experiences have been those in which students really connect with each other. Furthermore, past research suggests that when students feel connected and supported by their peers in the classroom, their motivation, classroom participation, and performance can all improve (e.g., Frisby & Martin, 2010, Zumbrunn, McKim, Buhs, & Hawley, 2014), especially for historically underrepresented or marginalized students (e.g., Murphy et al., 2020) . As an ancillary benefit, social connection is also crucial for students’ mental health, which was reportedly negatively impacted by the COVID-pandemic in 72% of college students surveyed from over 650 higher education counseling centers (Scofield & Locke, 2022), and can negatively affect students’ academic performance as well. So, as instructors, helping to facilitate student connection can really pay off in terms of setting our students up for success, both in and outside the classroom. Below, several of our committee members share some of their favorite techniques for developing a sense of connection within the classroom:
Amanda: I have used an activity called “Finding Common Ground” which is a nice way for students to form connections in the classroom. In this activity, students get into pairs (or small groups depending on the size of your class) and have to find three things they have in common. The only rule is that they can’t use the fact that they are 1) all in my class, 2) psychology majors, or 3) students at my University. I generally prompt them to think about favorite foods and hobbies, but remind them that it can be anything. Afterwards, I have them report out loud to the rest of the class so they can learn more about each other and I allow time for them to comment on each group’s responses (e.g., “I like running too!”).
In my larger (350) student class, I have a few online discussion boards to help students get to know each other outside of the classroom. For instance, there is a “study buddy” discussion board that students can choose to interact with. Students have used this discussion board to not only find people with similar availability, but also to disclose how they’re feeling about current material and share tips and tricks for learning statistics. These discussion boards are supplemented with in-class group activities where they work together to work through problems and code.
Courtney: I have used the “Fast Friends” procedure (see Aron et al. (1997) and Chopik & Oh (2022)) in several courses when we have discussed topics such as self-disclosure or relationship foundations. This task basically has students take turns answering personal questions (that move beyond more typical small-talk questions) as a way to get to know each other in a more meaningful way. Students tend to leave the activity feeling much closer to their discussion partner and there are some teaching lessons you can easily embed (e.g., talking about how the method has been used in past research). Although I have often used it to illustrate relevant course content–it would also make a great standalone ice-breaker activity!
Pulling from prior work on “capitalization support” (or getting support in response to positive event disclosures), I have also had students take turns sharing personal good news with each other in a classroom section as a way to build a sense of connection (see Gosnell, 2020). Students are simply asked to share something good that happened to them since the last class with a partner or in a small group. It can be something big (“I got an internship!”) or something small (“I had a delicious new sandwich in the dining hall!”). This task is an easy (and fairly quick) activity that students can do at the beginning of class–and it can pay off in terms of helping them feel connected and supported by their peers.
Finally, I use a lot of small group hand-on activities and demos throughout my classes. I sometimes have students work with those around them (to build relationships with those they have close proximity to). But, I also will intentionally mix things up and have students move around the room to get in new groups so that students slowly (but surely) get to know all of their classmates (and not just the one or two people they tend to sit next to). This helps them start to feel closer to the class as a whole.
Dina: I have also used the “Fast Friends” procedure that Courtney described above with great success as well as a similar research-backed ice-breaker you can try for social connection that only takes 9 minutes: the Relationship Closeness Induction Task (RCIT). The RCIT is another structured self-disclosure procedure that entails students pairing up and taking turns answering a total of 29 questions that get more and more personal in three rounds of 3 minutes each. (Most students won’t actually get to all those questions, but encourage them to answer as many questions as they feel comfortable answering in the time allotted.) I have students do this activity when they are learning about relationships and/or social connection, so I also have them use the Inclusion of Other in the Self (IOS) Scale (Aron et al., 1992) before and after to see if their closeness actually increased and discuss their experience. Students consistently report really enjoying this activity and feeling closer to their discussion partner afterward, and often engage more in class discussion, too!
In addition, I have used the capitalization exercise Courtney described with great success to illustrate active-constructive responding and its benefits in my Positive Psychology courses, but I look forward to trying this in my other classes as well. Since the pandemic, I began starting each class with an ice-breaker, connection exercise or check-in to show students I care about them as humans and also prime students for quality sharing. I highly recommend doing so if possible because the few minutes you spend regularly facilitating student connection and belonging can pay huge dividends in their engagement, learning, and success. A ritual at the end of class, such as “Exit Tickets” to assess and improve student learning, can also boost connection and a sense of community. You may find this Padlet of resources on facilitating social connection online that I created for a past STP talk on that topic (you can also feel free to add to it with a free account :) helpful when teaching in person, too: www. tiny.cc/STPpadlet
Finally, my courses usually entail regular group work, but in courses that don’t or in large classes where it may not be feasible to check-in with all your students regularly, it may be helpful to put students into “support pods” and have them (or assigned group leader) report back to you regularly on their progress.
Vishal: One activity that I have used is the traditional game Two Truths and a Lie on the first day of class. Along with their statements, students are also asked to say one thing they are excited/worried about in this class and what their impression of the class is based on the syllabus. For example, for General Psychology, I often ask what they think psychologists study, since most don’t have a true understanding on day one. In upper level classes (e.g., cognitive psychology), I may ask what they think is the biggest factor that influences memory or how they think students remember more material from class. These types of discussion questions help students, especially in small class sizes, find common ground and understand that everyone is in this class together. I think it also creates a stronger learning environment from the first day of class.
Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363-377.
Aron, A., Aron, E. N., & Smollan, D. (1992). Inclusion of Other in the Self Scale (IOS) [Database record]. APA PsycTests. https://doi.org/10.1037/t03963-000
Chopik, W. J., & Oh, J. (2022). Implementing the Fast Friends Procedure to Build Camaraderie in a Remote Synchronous Teaching Setting. Teaching of Psychology, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/00986283211065746
Frisby, B. N., & Martin, M. M. (2010). Instructor–student and student–student rapport in the classroom. Communication Education, 59(2), 146-164.
Gosnell, C. L. (2020). Receiving quality positive event support from peers may enhance student connection and the learning environment. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 6(4), 342.
Murphy, M.C, Gopalan, M,. Carter, E.R, Emerson, K.T.U, Bottoms, B.L., Walton, G.M. (2020). A customized belonging intervention improves retention of socially disadvantaged students at a broad-access university. Science Advances, 6(29). https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.aba4677
Zumbrunn, S., McKim, C., Buhs, E., & Hawley, L. R. (2014). Support, belonging, motivation, and engagement in the college classroom: A mixed method study. Instructional Science, 42(5), 661-684.
Ask an ECP!
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Your STP Early Career Psychologists Committee:
Dina Gohar, Ph.D.
Courtney Gosnell, Ph.D.
Ciara Kidder, Ph.D
Vishal Thakkar, Ph.D.
Amanda Woodward, Ph.D.