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Combatting Pandemic Impacts on Learning with Relationship-Building

We are only now beginning to witness the long-term negative impacts of the pandemic on student learning. Beth McMurtrie’s recent article, “A ‘Stunning’ Level of Student Disconnection,” published in the Chronicle for Higher Education on April 5, 2022 and the follow-up, “It Feels Like I’m Pouring Energy Into the Void,” published on April 11, 2022 paint a broad canvas of academic failure as a result of student disengagement that refuses to subside despite increased academic support. But the picture that emerges through McMurtrie’s stories, scary and dire as it is, is not hopeless. We already know how best to support student engagement and improve academic performance, through a process well-founded in research.

Research shows that relationship-building positively impacts student engagement.  

For decades campuses have focused on fostering student engagement as a means of improving student success (typically, as measured by graduation rates), requiring their students to complete annual surveys for the NSSE (National Survey for Student Engagement) to measure their level of engagement, and using student engagement as the yardstick to measure success throughout campus life. So what helps promote student engagement on campus? 

In their important 2014 book, How College Works, Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs described how small, seemingly insignificant interventions, such as an encouraging conversation with a faculty mentor, can have a profound, positive impact on a student’s academic performance and long term career choices. In their 2015 book Designing for Learning: Creating Campus Environments for Student Success, C. Carney Strange and James Banning Strange’s research showed that there was a process, an incremental nature to the development of these relationships. That process relies initially on the creation of a safe and inclusive environment that, subsequently, invites students to interact with other students and faculty to form those one or two important relationships that engage them with the campus community. In addition to Chambliss, Takacs, Strange, and Banning, Alexander Astin, George Kuh, and so many other researchers have also shown that students performed better when they were motivated by as few as one or two relationships with other students or faculty mentors.

But the pandemic has frustrated student relationship-building.

While prior to 2020, student engagement was built on a safe and inviting campus environment, the pandemic has interrupted the student engagement process by defining the campus environment as unsafe. For two years, public health officials have stressed the importance of social distancing — literally staying away from others. And while these interventions were important preventative measures for protecting physical health, there is no question that they frustrated the interaction necessary to forming the relationships essential to engaging students with their campus community. Many students now feel detached and alone. Student mental health issues have never been more pervasive, and academic achievement is suffering. 

Unquestionably, mental health support will be an essential student service for years to come. But if the research we have relied on for so long is accurate (and we have decades of success that proves that it is) we should expect student engagement programming — not academic intervention – will be the most effective approach to improving student outcomes.

Campus planners have a unique opportunity to facilitate pandemic era relationship-building.

An imperative first step for campus planners will be to re-define the campus environment as a safe and comfortable environment within the context of a pandemic that may wane but may never completely disappear. What campus environments feel the safest? How can campus environments be arranged to facilitate unplanned student interaction without causing health concerns that would interfere with relationship-building? Are there radically new models for organizing the campus in ways that better promote a sense of comfort and safety?  

These are all challenging questions for which we do not yet have answers. But, if we can meet this challenge, and successfully answer even some of these questions, we can expect that students will once again become better connected, forming the relationships that will once again foster their academic success.

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