Research shows that student retention and performance are enhanced when students form a strong group identity early in their course. Although the first term of a new group is ideal, the ideas that follow can be implemented anytime to encourage positive results.
A sense of belonging.
What students seem to value most is something staff can also relate to: a sense that they belong at this university, in their programme, and on the campus. For some, especially traditional undergraduates living in Halls and sharing much of their daily lives as well as classes, it comes easily. Students from ethnic minorities, older students, commuters, and the increasing group of students who attend a local university and continue to live with their parents while at uni may find it more difficult.
It’s not (always) about student social life.
Many universities emphasise social occasions as the way to build student group identity, but researchers have found that these are not of great interest to many students (Thomas, 2012).
Mature, part-time and local students—and many others—seek to form an identity based on scholarship, not pub exploits with the Hat Society. They cite factors within the department where they study: small group teaching, staff who are available for a chat, the easy availability of formal and drop-in spaces for group study and discussion, a lively environment for intellectual life.
Prioritise ways of using time and space, including classroom time, to build student group identity. Use icebreaker exercises, sharing of personal profiles, and group discussions, critique sessions and so on—both in real life and in online environments like WebCT. Where and how can staff and students hold impromptu debates? Can we encourage students to create, run and tell others about problem-solving projects? When students are able to express their motivations and experiences, they naturally inspire and connect with others.
Consider ways space in your building and staff time can contribute to meeting these needs. Can a lobby be turned from a waiting room and crisp-packet collector into break-out space? How do we show students about the research we do? How do we involve them in it?
Enrich relationships with and between students.
The What Works report cited earlier makes a strong point that students who feel connected to staff and programme are much less likely to drop out. As lecturers, we need to ensure that personal tutoring systems go beyond tick-boxes and respond to students’ aspirations for growing personal and academic compentence.
Excellent, programme-centred (rather than generic and campuswide) academic induction can get things off to a good start and ensure new students don’t feel disconnected and at sea. It takes a personal touch to build relationships, though—individual and small-group meetings, taking the time to sit and chat with students in the canteen, putting names and stories to faces. When you see a student who doesn't seem to part of the cohort, find out why and help them connect in ways that work for them.
Thomas, L. (2012) What Works? Building Student Retention and Success. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.