I attended a seminar today given by my colleague Emma Heron. I was fortunate enough to mentor Emma through a year-long research project looking at the role of friendship in the student experience. It was good to catch up today after several months and connect some of my own work on learning spaces to what Emma has found. It is not surprising to find connections across our work because, in our own ways, we have been convinced that fostering student belonging is critical to student success.
If you read no further, my connection is that the configuration of the classroom, as we ‘welcome’ new students onto campus, is significant. I will now reflect on some of the points made by Emma and then return to this point about the classroom.
In brief, Emma brought student friends together to record semi-structured friendship conversations. She will be publishing on the detail of this method in her our right, however, the method elicited a rich data set about the importance of friendship.
Some ideas to reflect on
Establishing and losing friendships preoccupies students, especially in their first year. Friends are critical in this period, being key to developing confidence. A key point here for my interest in learning spaces, according to her work so far, is that students report that they will often decide not to attend class if they know their friends will not be attending. Walking into a lecture theatre or classroom on your own can be intimidating for some students. The implications of this are enormous. What, as academics, can we do to alleviate this anxiety without mollycoddling our students? From a learning space design point of view, doors that allow students to enter from the back of the lecture theatre, rather than the spotlight of the front, could help.
The happiness of students, and the role of friends in fostering happiness is key to retention. I discussed this through my time supporting Emma with her research because it related very much to my own interest in the development of non-formal learning spaces. I have case studies of students where they discuss perching spaces or spaces that they determine as being useful for ‘in-between’ learning. The idea of ‘adjacent space’ has come up in my own work and others have written about ‘working alongside’ (Harrop & Turpin, 2013). These spaces are difficult to own and, in part, this explains why I refer to in-between spaces as non-formal. In a similar way, the concept of friendship is difficult to own.
Today, in the seminar, we had the discussion about what can ‘we’ do if, as we believe, friendship is fundamental to student success? Student services provision and pastoral support in tutorials tend to operate as deficit models or as safety nets to catch those with identifiable problems whereas Emma’s work, and my own thinking about non-formal learning space, is about recognising conditions that foster belonging and becoming. But, who owns this and how can it be owned? Without a sense of ownership ideas like friendship and non-formal space are assigned to experience (being) and student agency over their place is lost. This, then, relates to thinking about placemaking.
At this time of year, we should be looking for practices that inhibit friendship and addressing arrangements that alienate students.
Immediately we can reconfigure our classrooms so that students sit facing each other and we can build interactive practices around such configurations. In lecture theatres we need to be smarter, thinking perhaps about adjacent space and how we advocate its use before and after sessions, and perhaps how we allow extra ‘gathering’ time and seed pre and post-lecture activities and conversations.
If our students are sitting in rows they are not engaging with each other in class. What does that say to a new and possibly anxious student about university?