Building community and belonging during a pandemic
Claire Gordon and Nyssa Lee-Woolf explain how the Eden Centre for Education Enhancement, London School of Economics and Political Science established peer networks to help students stay connected to each other and their studies during the pandemic
Authors : Claire Gordon and Nyssa Lee-Woolf
1. What exactly is the shift in culture and/or organisational practice that you wish to highlight?
Building community and belonging
Building community and ensuring that all students irrespective of their background feel a sense of belonging in our university has been a strategic priority at LSE since 2018. NSS scores and other internal survey and focus group research have identified that students do not feel sufficiently part of the School or their departmental community and also do not necessarily feel connected to peers on their courses and programmes.
In the spring and summer of 2020, given the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic and in preparation for uncertain times ahead in the new academic year, LSE developed contingencies to prepare for mixed modes of teaching and learning, to move assessment online and to identify ways to enable students to retain a connection with their peers as well as continuity in some aspects of broader student life, be it in an online or blended learning setting. LSE’s Curriculum Shift 2020, focused on four key areas:
A)Welcoming students to their departments and degree programme
B)Designing an engaging online course
C)Building community and supporting students
D)Technology to support the Curriculum Shift.
The establishment of peer study groups across the university was a central parameter of the strands of work around welcoming students, and building community and supporting students. Higher education research literature points to the value of peer learning in various forms including peer mentoring and peer tutoring which often involves more students in higher years of mentoring or tutoring incoming students or students on particular courses and programmes. Researchers have also been interested in investigating the effects of peers in the same year of study working in groups on a particular assessment task or project on the psychological, social and emotional aspects of academic life, as well as the educational impacts. Findings suggest that working in groups can:
- provide a secure support system which cannot be obtained when working individually (Lavy, 2017)
- support the development of a range of skills such as negotiation, communication, respect, empathy and collaboration (Mamas, 2018)
- lead to more diversified social networks, particularly amongst students from different countries (Rienties et al, 2013).
2. LSE Curriculum Shift, Peer Study Groups and what did working well look like?
As part of the LSE Curriculum Shift and informed by the literature on transitions into higher education (Pennington et al, 2018) and peer groups, departments across the School were asked to form peer study groups at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels in advance of the start of the Michaelmas/Autumn term 2020 ensuring that students had meaningful opportunities for peer interaction early on in the academic year. Groups of randomly chosen students (5 or 6) were to be formed to work on a particular project or activity linked to their overarching programme or at the course level and with a steer that the students should report back on their project/activity either in class or to their academic mentors to ensure the learning loop was complete. Considerable leeway was left in the hands of academic departments to set up their study groups in line with their particular disciplinary and departmental cultures and programmes.
The idea was that working together on a project would support community building and engagement among students who were feeling disconnected from their university campus communities, finding it even harder than usual to make social connections and often struggling with their own wellbeing. The LSE Eden Centre for Education Enhancement prepared a short resource on peer study groups and its academic developer departmental advisers (who are linked to each of the School’s 26 departments) were available as a source of advice and expertise to support departments in planning for their peer study groups.
Approaches differed across the institution:
- In the Government Department, MSc Political Theory students were grouped together for a time-limited period in advance of the start of term to explore the research of a member of faculty teaching on their programme as a precursor to a discussion with said academic.
- The Social Policy Department set up two forms of peer study groups – course-specific study groups established to foster small group working and focused preparation time in advance of classes thus leaving more class-time for activities, discussion and debate. Peer groups were also introduced at the MSc level with a focus on professional development activities as well as dissertation development.
- The Economics Department also organised two forms of peer study groups – First year undergraduates sharing the same academic mentor were grouped together to work on a particular challenge (e.g., focused on measuring wellbeing) forming 10% of their coursework on one unit. In addition, in the second-year principles of microeconomics course, students were split into peer study groups at the class level and worked together to submit formative work ahead of each class.
- In the European Institute, a more informal approach was taken to peer study groups with students at the Master’s level setting up their own informal study groups to discuss readings on particular courses.
In April 2021 we commenced a process of evaluation of the peer study groups which is still underway. This has involved focus groups with students as well as focus groups and interviews with members of both academic and professional staff. Where these groups worked well, students appreciated working on a designated project and, as the literature suggests, formed connections and social relationships with their peers, supported each other when they had to miss class or wanted to discuss a particular topic or set of readings and felt a stronger sense of community, arguably the biggest challenge of the pandemic period. Where peer study groups worked less well, students were not clear of the purpose of the study groups, or what they were expected to be working on. Challenges were also experienced when groups were not sufficiently linked to the programme or course of study, and were not adequately supported by a member of academic staff, having been ‘outsourced’ to professional service teams. Group dynamics could also detrimentally affect study groups, in some cases causing breakdown. Initial findings also suggest that this was a greater challenge at the undergraduate compared to the postgraduate level. A link to the final evaluation report will be integrated into this case study upon completion.
3. How could this practice be spread?
LSE is continuing to encourage the formation and embedding of peer study groups and they remain a part of our university strategy. Some departments have now institutionalised peer study groups in their regular practice. In terms of spreading this practice further, at the institutional centre we recognise the need for stronger support and guidance to ensure greater clarity in terms of both the purposes, organisation and expectations of peer study groups for both students and staff. As part of our evaluation, we are developing a series of good practice case studies to share more widely and once the pandemic stabilises, we are planning a series of academic development events enabling staff and students to explore further the place of peer study groups in building learning community in our institution.
Lavy, S. (2017). Who benefits from group work in higher education? An attachment theory perspective, Higher Education, 73, 175-187.
Mamas, C. (2018). Exploring peer relationships, friendships and group work dynamics in higher education: applying social network analysis, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 42(5), 662-677.
Pennington, R.., Bates, E.., Kaye, L. and Bolam, L. (2018). Transitioning in Higher Education: An exploration of psychological and contextual factors affecting student satisfaction, Journal of Further and Higher Education 42(5), 596-607.
Rienties, B., Heliot, Y. and Jindal-Snape, D. (2013). Understanding social learning relations of international students in a large classroom using social network analysis. Higher Education, 66, 489-504.
Boud, D., Cohen, R. and Sampson, J. (2001 and 2013). Peer Learning in Higher Education: Learning from and with Each Other, Kogan
Byl, E., Struyven, K., Abelshausen, B., Meurs, P., Vanwing, T., Engels, N. and Lombaerts, K. (2015). The potential of peer assisted learning as a tool for facilitating social and academic integration, Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.
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