Social community, identity and status
Research has shown that social connection is a basic human need, necessary for wellbeing and health (1, 4). Social environments can have profound effects on wellbeing and cognitive functioning, with ‘toxic’ environments having the potential to reduce an individual’s capacity for thought, decision making and good health (5). It is, therefore, no surprise that the social and cultural environment of the classroom has a key role in learning and wellbeing (whether the classroom is virtual or in person). There are a number of aspects of the social learning environment that are worthy of consideration.
Having a shared identity can improve learning within a cohort and provide a sense of social connection. Shared identity and social integration have been shown to be important for student persistence and sense of belonging is beneficial for wellbeing (6). Even small markers of shared identity can make a difference. One study showed that when students were told they shared a birthday, it enhanced levels of motivation and persistence (7). Creating a shared identity focussed on academic discipline and the shared learning environment can provide a sense of community that is beneficial for learning and wellbeing. Within a cohort, the academic discipline is the one element everyone has in common. Building community through the discipline therefore avoids marginalising students who may not share other common experiences and helps individuals build academic identity and a sense of belonging to their discipline. Particular care, however, should be taken to include minoritized students in this process, given that they may not always see themselves reflected in those who teach or are associated with the discipline’s history (8).
Social groups inevitably develop their own normative social rules – explicitly and implicitly (9). These rules can help the group to bind together, providing for group growth or they can generate stasis and group behaviour that, in effect, undermines cohesion and development. This is true of the learning environment. Research has identified in-classroom behaviours that can be disruptive to learning, social integration and wellbeing but can nevertheless become normative (10, 11). For example, phone use, not engaging in learning activities, irrelevant conversation etc can all become part of a pattern. This highlights the need for explicit focus on the development of shared social rules for the classroom, to ensure the environment supports group learning and wellbeing. Again, consideration should be given to the different ways in which these rules operate in online or hybrid teaching sessions.
Without explicitly addressing the social and cultural aspects of the classroom, there is also a risk that some students may feel excluded by the normative culture that otherwise may develop. Some students who feel a sense of difference, or increased risk in raising their profile publicly, are less likely to ask questions or contribute to the classroom if they are not supported by helpful social norms, rules and an environment of psychological safety (12, 13). Creating an environment that is safe for all students requires all students to feel and be given a sense of value and respect – an understanding that they have much to contribute of value to the class. A lack of status in a social environment can have significant negative impacts on wellbeing and cognitive function. Ensuring that students have a sense of status and value can therefore help them to thrive and learn effectively. In this context simple acts, such as a lecturer remembering a student’s name, can have powerful effects.
Addressing and creating a healthy classroom culture requires space in the curriculum and staff who understand its importance. Teaching sessions during induction and the early weeks of term should be a key focus within curriculum design to establish this culture. Students can be involved in co-creating social rules as an early group activity. These rules and norms must then be reiterated across the academic year – some students will only trust them and gain a sense of psychological safety when they have seen them work in practice e.g. that a student can get a question wrong without being made to feel humiliated or embarrassed (14). An explicit focus on classroom and cohort culture throughout the curriculum, can do much to improve student sense of belonging, persistence, learning and wellbeing.
- Classroom culture (online and in person) is crucial to student learning, persistence and wellbeing
- Students can benefit from a shared social identity, a sense of community and helpful and health social norms and rule – an environment that facilitates peer-learning, collaboration rather than a competitive environment. Creating a healthy classroom culture requires explicit attention and should be a feature of curriculum design
- Use induction/orientation and/or the first class of term to focus on creating cohort identity, a safe social environment and social rules
- Use opportunities to identify how a range of prior experiences enriches the learning environment
- Use the academic discipline to co-create a shared sense of community
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