By CHRISTOPHER CORNEJO
Renowned American psychologist Rollo May once stated “communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.” This statement holds true in most if not all social interactions, particularly those that happen within higher education.
In a university setting, there are many factors that go into creating a successful classroom environment. These factors vary, depending on what is most necessary for the particular course. However, being a communication major, I am focusing on effective communication in a higher learning setting.
Based on my own experiences of learning before and through a global pandemic, I will discuss the benefits of maintaining a streamlined focus on communication in order to increase sociability in the classroom while promoting these strategies as equitable instructional practices.
To communicate or not to communicate
When instructors establish boundaries and guidelines related to communication of any form within a course, I benefit from it due to the added structure within that area. The relationship built from this successful classroom environment benefits both parties, with students being more engaged in learning and quick to ask questions, and instructors being prepared to meet students’ needs.
Take some time to actively direct students to Pitt’s broader support network:
In a fall 2021 course, one of my instructors established designated “email hours,” in addition to their normal office hours. These were times they set aside to check and respond to their emails, so students could plan accordingly to send necessary correspondence knowing that they would get quick responses. This was extremely helpful for the entire class.
They shared with us that, in the past, they felt pressure from students expecting a response at any hour. For this class, the professor set clear boundaries for when they would respond to emails. The instructor knew what times most students would send e-mails, and students would not be waiting for time on end without a response.
This was a simple yet effective strategy to make the class much more successful. As a student, I find it crucial to understand instructors have personal lives and obligations outside of the classroom. They, like students, handle work and assignments from multiple courses. I always learn best when my instructor and I both express and practice empathy with each other, which leads to my overall success as a student.
For example, in a communications class I took online during spring 2021, I was put in a class with 28 other black boxes. However, my professor had the first couple of classes formatted around students talking and getting to know one another. This was done through thoughtfully designed ice-breaker activities and interaction with other students.
One of these ice-breakers was a simple activity called rose, bud, thorn. This is when participants provide a rose (something positive in their life), a bud (something they are looking forward to), and a thorn (something negative or non-positive in their life). With a rose, we were invited to share our excitement or reason for taking the course. A bud could be a particular course topic in which we are interested, and a thorn could be a potential challenge we felt we may encounter.
This is just one example of a seemingly generic ice-breaker activity that was tailored to make us want to ask each other questions and listen to each other’s answers. I got to know some great people in that class because I identified and connected with their answers, even if — at the time — we would only interact through Zoom and social media.
Why so sociable?
Community and relationship building are important aspects to consider when setting up in-person, online or hybrid instruction. Even when instruction is in person, the need for social distancing and mask-wearing presents challenges to community building. These unfortunate but necessary precautions can diminish the amount of social interaction between students. This is why — as a student — I find that it is invaluable to make sure that some assignments have an aspect of sociability, in order to stimulate safe and effective interaction among students.
As mentioned above, some instructors choose to create assigned groups for their classes, hoping to stimulate conversation and create a base of resources for students within these groups. While these assigned groups worked well for formal class assessments, I did not communicate with my group members for anything non-class-related. The social aspect was more-or-less lacking, which is fine, but it is important for students to receive social stimulation from at least one of their courses.
Early on in the pandemic, when instruction was fully remote, a professor put us in designated Zoom groups for the entire semester. Anyone who was absent or missed notes was encouraged to reach out to their group members first. This led to a group chat to better coordinate how to work on homework together, as well as study for exams together.
We found the best group chat format for college students was the messaging app GroupMe. It is free, simple to use, and is supported by aIl operating systems. Discord also was a viable option, although the number of features on the platform may not be needed for a semester. Nonetheless, the group was very effective, and I would not have done as well as I did in that class without being able to rely on my peers as a resource.
In 2011, Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen published an article in Science — “A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students.” Their primary goal was to create a “brief intervention aimed at buttressing college (first-year students’) sense of social belonging in school.”
This is a fascinating study to me, as a student from a minority background who is concerns about the overall lack of representation in higher education. Walton and Cohen conclude that by normalizing adversity and challenges and fostering interactions between students, instructors can help create a more nurturing and comfortable environment for learning. Their intervention lowered the number of perceived threats or forms of social adversity that students feel they are experiencing alone.
This article reminded me that in fall 2020, a professor set out to more actively engage in the type of barrier elimination that a truly equitable approach to teaching requires. On the first day of class, when many instructors focus on reviewing class expectations and assessments, this teacher took special care to provide the link to the Office of Disability Resources and Services’ application form, through which students can request disability-related accommodations and other resources if needed. This action not only showed students that the instructor cared about their well-being, but also directly connected them to resources.
What was most striking about this moment for me was that afterward, the professor distributed an anonymous survey gauging our response to the possibility of requesting accommodations. This survey did not include any personal questions that would require actual disclosure of disabilities, but it actively brought to our attention this important support system that the University offers.
This survey may have taken him a few minutes to create, but the impact of it was felt the entire semester. Not all students, or professors, have the same circumstances or support network, so there will be instances where additional help or just being considerate is necessary for a positive and productive classroom environment.
These past two years have been very difficult for everyone. It has been a stressful and draining for students and the world as a whole. Regardless, higher education must continue forging the leaders of tomorrow. As May stated, mutual valuing is beneficial to the overall relationship of students and instructors, leading to growth on both sides.
Students in higher education can only benefit from the optimization of communication and increasing efforts of socialization as long as these strategies follow an equitable formula. The steps we take as learners only go as far as the ones our instructors take, and that means collaboration and communication.
Christopher Cornejo ‘22, has served as student liaison at the University Center for Teaching and Learning since 2019. He is also a sports writer for The Pitt News and intends to pursue a graduate degree in journalism.