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College students create stronger relationships in smaller group settings, among other factors.

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Keeping students engaged on campus and in the classroom can revolve around their sense of belonging. Jessica Gifford—founder and chief connection officer for ProjectConnect, a program designed to reduce loneliness—shared one solution for loneliness in a recent webinar hosted by the organization.

A national spring 2022 survey from the American College Health Association and the National College Health Assessment found that 53 percent of students were positive for loneliness on the UCLA Loneliness Scale. Over half of women—and two-thirds of trans or nonbinary students—indicated loneliness, compared to just under half of men.

Identifying best practices: Gifford recommends using considering six keywords and phrases in fostering relationships between students, which she calls the “Six Essential Strategies for Creating Connection.” The six elements—small, structured, sustained over time, shared experiences, self-disclosure and safe—are each valuable on their own but Gifford recommends using them all together.

  • Small groups allow students to get to know each other more intimately, compared to a large group setting. Gifford recommends making groups between four to six students.
  • Structure provides expectations for students who may be uncomfortable in a more free-flowing or chaotic setting, such as introverts or those with social anxiety. Establishing a schedule or an activity can make the social scene a little less scary.
  • Events that are sustained over time allow for relationships to build in the in-between, rather than a one-off encounter. Try organizing a series of events that build on each other with the same people to develop relationships, Gifford suggests.
  • Shared experiences or spaces to discuss shared experiences can also foster interpersonal development. “If you’re bringing diverse groups together, having ways for them to find some commonalities and common ground can give people points that they’re able to relate to and feel comfortable with,” Gifford explains.
  • Self-disclosure, like shared experiences, gives students a place to build from, as it facilitates empathy and closeness.
  • Psychological safety is essential to build connections, Gifford says. “If people don’t trust each other, are afraid of being criticized, shamed, called out [or] humiliated, they’re not going to open up,” limiting their ability to connect. Instead, students need space to be themselves and express their experiences in a safe way.

Putting them into play: Higher education professionals can incorporate these six strategies into a variety of settings. For example:

  • A faculty member can establish these aspects with an activity in their classroom, perhaps setting up small groups that check in each week to work on a project.
  • A student affairs staff member could create regular opt-in groups for students in a shared interest community, or incorporate groups into a portion of new student orientation.

For those without the resources or time to use all six techniques, Gifford recommends three smaller activities. First, involve students in a regular check-in to see what is going well or not so well in their lives. Gifford calls the exercise “Happies and Crappies,” and each student shares one positive and one negative thing from their week.

Gifford has also used a question of the day as an interpersonal icebreaker, allowing people to share a silly personal fact about themselves, responding to a question like “What fictional character would you like to be friends with and why?”

A more personal activity is “vent and validate,” in which participants share a frustration in their life and other group members affirm the sharer and the frustration. The exercise both allows for self-disclosure, but also trust building and empathy in the group as a whole, Gifford shares.

Do you have a success tip that might help others encourage student engagement? Tell us about it.

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