get to know students

Author: Jovi Nazareno, Grad Student at Harvard University, Extension School

As we attempt to create a new normal in which change is constant and physical isolation is common practice, we might find ourselves asking, “what does this mean for education?” Schools have closed their campuses, canceled classes and graduation ceremonies, and/or moved instruction and celebrations to online settings. Due to social distancing measures in response to the coronavirus, and the uncertainty around when it will be safe to re-open again, online learning has gained traction in recent months despite its existence for many years before. Reasonable people may argue the benefits and pitfalls of online learning, which may vary by ages/grades, subject matter, instructional design, apps, or access to technology, for example.

Yet regardless of the modality in which we learn, whether online or on-campus, many common factors exist with the power to positively influence the quality of learning.1 For me, getting to know my classmates has been an especially impactful factor. I’m incredibly grateful to all my study buddies who, through their dedication, compassion, and openness to learn and to share, kept me motivated and grounded despite any challenges.

So, whether you find yourself face-to-face in a classroom or learning from a distance, build connections and study with classmates. People can have a tremendous influence on you and vice versa. We all have so much we can learn from each other, if only we give ourselves the time and space to do so instead of putting our heads down and working alone.

If connecting with classmates seems like oddly simple advice, that’s because it is! We may overlook the impact of such social aspects of learning in favor of valuing the instruction, content, and/or materials of a lesson. Unfortunately, by doing so, we could decide that time spent socializing is counterproductive in comparison to studying alone, which is not true especially when considering that we humans are social.2 We do need time alone, just not at the cost of always “going it alone.”

Be open to activities different from your expectations or prior experience

Truthfully, my advice is rooted in errors of my past ways of studying for school. Because homework, quizzes, tests, and other miscellaneous assignments were often completed individually in my experience, I never gave much thought or consideration to study groups. Sure, in my youth, I exchanged tips with my friends and we often helped each other, but I also learned to value the independent notion of working hard by myself.

Many people influenced my perspective on the importance of learning with others, but one particular online graduate course, titled the neuroscience of learning,3 forced me outside of my comfort zone. I started that course with preconceived ideas of what classrooms and learning look like: lectures, and maybe some discussion, followed by exams. As far as I knew, if those preconceived ideas were met, my expectations were fulfilled. But, this course challenged preconceived ideas of teaching/learning, focusing on ways to maximize each person’s potential. In the course, we were constantly discussing key concepts through live video conferencing, chat windows, discussion boards, and office hours. We heard perspectives from many different people enrolled in the class, we read studies from many different fields, and we were all expected to participate in these discussions. What I expected, based on my prior experience, was to simply be a consumer of information. Yet how much I learned and grew in the course was so much more than what I could have expected.

It would have been easy to become frustrated and uncomfortable that my initial expectations went unmet. However, by being open to new or different perspectives, I exceeded those initial expectations. This is important because sometimes what we think is working is not maximizing our learning. As an example, a study about active learning in a university STEM class found that students in the active learning classroom, as compared to those in passive lectures, actually learned more despite feeling like they learned less.4 This shows a misperception about the instructional method used in the classroom. What we expect may not be what best supports us, and we may need to question, research, and/or adapt our learning methods.

What we expect is colored by prior experience and may be missing a crucial piece. Putting your head down and working hard alone is one way to move forward, but it is not the only way and it is not necessarily the most effective all the time in all contexts. I used to try to study alone, until I realized that interaction helps me to grow. By the time the course ended, I realized I didn’t take full advantage of the chances to rely on social support and was determined to not let that chance get away again.

Connect with other students – it’s worth the effort!

I used to think that I should not ask for too much help and should not bother other people unless doing so was absolutely necessary. Now after joining several study groups, I’ve learned that taking the time to meet and just talk with classmates makes me feel a stronger sense of belonging. The social connections we have, the connectedness we feel, and our learning are all intertwined. Learning is not a solo act, and learning is not separate from what we feel or our social context. Each class, whether on-campus or online, presents a special opportunity to connect and build a community—and relationships are an important part of well-being and learning.5 You can maximize your learning experience in part by building and participating in the community—share ideas and spread your passion for what you study. Learning as a group not only helps us feel connected but also benefits our learning.6,7

Enrolled in other courses this semester, I found it incredibly helpful to have a support system of classmates while instruction transitioned from on-campus to online. These friends created a safe place to ask questions, share ideas, test then deepen our knowledge, and learn and grow from mistakes. We could find ways to laugh through challenges and remain focused. So, rather than put your head down and focus on learning all by yourself, schedule time to connect. The social aspect of learning is way too underrated.

Starter ideas

If you are unsure how or where to start, start here:

  • Students:
    • Post a new discussion thread (or send a group email) to gauge who in class might be interested in studying together
    • Send an email to a classmate asking if they would like to study together
    • Propose a weekly study schedule with a set day/time
    • Host the virtual meeting using video conferencing tools
    • Start group chats using messaging apps as a place to communicate and ask questions
    • Develop a routine for each meeting, considering for example:
      • Do you want to quiz each other?
      • Should there be open question/answers?
      • Are you reviewing lecture notes, readings, and/or assignments together?
      • What should each person do to prepare before the meeting?
    • Teachers:
      • Create a space in the online class where students can communicate for class purposes (e.g., discussion boards for weekly topics)
      • Create another separate space in the online class where students can have informal conversations together (e.g., a separate discussion board thread, or separate tool)
      • Host open office hours through video conferencing, where students are encouraged to “drop in” at any time
      • Talk about how students can benefit from working together
    • Parents:
      • Ask your children if they have group chats with classmates to talk about homework, assignments, etc., and when appropriate, help them to set up a way to communicate with classmates
      • Check in periodically with your children to see if the group communication has been helpful and what could be done to improve it
      • Develop a network with other parents at the same school or within your neighborhood
      • Remember that even working on homework together in small groups can be helpful too!

1 Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2020, March 13). Taking your course online? Think before you leap. Connections: The Learning Sciences Platform. https://thelearningsciences.com/taking-your-course-online-think-before-you-leap/?lang=en

2 Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Gotlieb, R. (2017). Embodied brains, social minds, cultural meaning: Integrating neuroscientific and educational research on social-affective development. American Educational Research Journal, 54(1_suppl), 344S-367S. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831216669780

3 PSYC E-1609, Neuroscience of Learning: An Introduction to Mind, Brain, Health, and Education, at the Harvard University Extension School (Instructor: Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Ph.D.).

4 Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(39), 19251. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1821936116

5 The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. (2020). PERMA theory of well-being and PERMATM workshops. Retrieved March 22, 2020, from Penn Arts and Sciences Positive Psychology Center website: https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/learn-more/perma-theory-well-being-and-perma-workshops

6 Aldrich, H. E. (2016). ‘Group Work’ Has Lasting Benefits Beyond K-12. Entrepreneur & Innovation Exchange.

7 Hendry, G. D., Hyde, S. J., & Davy, P. (2005). Independent student study groups. Medical education39(7), 672–679. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2929.2005.02199.x