Building social connections between students during the pandemic
University life is about more than just studying. It’s about building social connections – friendships and relationships that can shape you forever.
These social connections with peers are crucial to students’ success and overall wellbeing. But establishing these connections – particularly for first year students – has been considerably more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic, where face-to-face teaching and social opportunities have been at a premium.
Recognising these challenges and the potential negative impact on student wellbeing, educators from across the University have employed different approaches to promote greater interaction between students and help build a sense of community. Here are some examples.
Movie nights in Biological Sciences
As part of the module Current Issues in Marine Biology, Dr Ceri Lewis and her colleagues have run an optional weekly marine film movie night. This has created a more informal opportunity for students to get together online, while discussing how the science they’ve been learning in the module is presented to the public.
‘We picked documentaries that were freely available on YouTube and sent the students the link,” explained Dr Lewis. “We’d introduce the movie on Microsoft Teams and everyone would hit ‘play’ at the same time. Then we’d all shut off our cameras and microphones, but use the Chat function in Teams to share our thoughts, and stimulate some really interesting discussions with students while they were watching.”
“It became a really powerful mechanism where, in the absence of being in a room together, we could still have a shared experience and bond,” Professor Steve Simpson added. “I feel that we know our students better than we’ve ever been able to get to know them before as a result.”
That positivity has been shared by students.
“It was something to look forward to, something slightly different, taking advantage of the fact that we have all these resources online,” said Biological Sciences student Camilla Arvidsson. “I think the chat function allows students to put themselves in a more comfortable position, and gives them more courage to engage.”
“A movie night is a great way to engage students with the subject matter in a slightly informal way,” Dr Lewis added. “Where you’ve got material that’s relevant it’s a great opportunity to get students engaging with it.”
Learning Pods in the Graduate School of Education
Creating a sense of community
In the Graduate School of Education, Luke Graham and fellow educators in the Teacher Trainee Department have developed learning pods – small, online groups of students with a mix of subjects, ages and backgrounds.
Course leads scheduled weekly online meetings for pods to meet up and complete tasks collaboratively – such as watching lectures or joining group learning activities. Fears, worries and feedback about the course were also fed back to staff through a student acting as pod lead.
Luke created the pods partly to enhance the relationship between teacher and students. But enhancing student wellbeing was also a critical factor. “The last thing I wanted,” he explained, “was students – who might live in the same accommodation 100 feet apart – feeling lonely.”
Learning pods were not a new idea; Will Katene, a colleague who trains PE teachers, had used them in previous years. But they have come into their own during the pandemic, with pods becoming autonomous communities, and students using them to organise everything from lockdown pub quizzes to film nights. One student said that “they were like my therapy group during lockdown,” while another commented: “I would’ve gone insane if I’d had to do all that work alone.”
In the Maths Department, Dr Layal Hakim has created ‘Maths Gatherings’ to help compensate for the lost face-to-face contact in seminars, lectures and corridor chats.
Before the pandemic, the department organised weekly breakfast clubs to allow students and staff more opportunity to interact outside the confines of the lecture theatre. Maths Gatherings took these online, offering a space for students to air concerns, get support, or simply unwind and chat.
Building a community online can feel awkward, but the Maths team helped overcome this through the skilful use of icebreakers. One week, the organisers asked students and educators to talk about their favourite maths-related film. On another, students were asked to find and discuss objects that were unique to them. Asking students to talk about something they liked helped oil the wheels and break the awkward silence sometimes felt at the start of an online meeting. They then felt more able to share their experiences and provide support.
Everyone hopes face-to-face sessions will become possible again in the near future. But as online sessions offer their own unique benefits, they’re unlikely to disappear altogether. While coffee and pastries may be off the agenda, the online Maths Gatherings have allowed students to chat in the comfort of their own home rather than make an early start. And with over 20 students coming to each event, there are more opportunities for peer support.
Learning from the success of these online initiatives will help departments build even more effective learning communities as we move into the next academic year.
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