Learning is a Social Activity – Katherine Lithgow

After attending one of the Sixth Decade Mid-Cycle Review sessions, I began thinking about some of the comments that were raised during and after the session regarding academic excellence and what that entails. During these discussions, someone always shared a story of their best learning experience and those stories invariably included statements about how they enjoyed getting to know their classmates, hearing about their classmates’ experiences and understandings, how they appreciated getting to know an instructor, or how, when the content became personally meaningful to them, they became more engaged with the course material.  Many spoke, too, about the kinds of activities that most helped with their learning, or the little things that an instructor had done or said that had made a significant impression on them, things like a word of encouragement, a comment that made them feel more confident in their abilities and made them more eager to rise to the challenges of the course assignments and activities. Their comments reminded me again how important the social aspect of learning actually is.
This aspect of learning is one of the elements explored by Garrison, Anderson, & Archer (2000) in the Community of Inquiry project , a theoretical framework which “represents a process of creating a deep and meaningful (collaborative-constructivist) learning experience through the development of three interdependent elements – social, cognitive and teaching presence”.  
Garrison and Anderson, 2003

Teaching Presence is the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001).

Cognitive Presence is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).

Social presence is “the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities” (Garrison, 2009).

[This concept map outlines in more detail what each of these components in the online environment might include]

In order to achieve high levels of learning, a sense of belonging to a community must happen on a cognitive and social level.   This sense of community and connections with others is necessary to sustain an educational experience over time (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). But I wonder if we sometimes forget this aspect of learning and spend most of our time focusing on the cognitive and teaching aspect.

So what are some things we can do to build a sense of community in our classrooms?

  • What can we do to help our student feel free to experiment with concepts that we’ve covered in classes so they can apply them in the future?
  • What can we do to create an environment where students are willing to take risks, to learn from mistakes, and to learn from each other?
  • What can we do to help students engage with the content so that it is personally meaningful to them?
  • When, where and how do we let our students tell us about their past experiences and how they find it relates to what we’re talking about in our course at the moment?
Often it doesn’t take much to create a sense of community. I know of one professor who routinely takes a few minutes at the beginning of class to allow her students to vent about anything that is bothering them right now, anything that might be preventing them from turning their attention to the task at hand. It doesn’t have to be related to anything about the course. Having the space to do this allows the students to get “it” out there, share it with their classmates and instructor,  and then focus on the course content.
Creating this community doesn’t have to be left up to a single professor either. In AHS, I came across posters advertising the FEDS Eat & Speak Mentorship Series , a series designed to help undergraduate students get to know uWaterloo’s professors. Interested students enter their name in a draw. Eight uWaterloo undergraduate students are accepted for each dinner and all they have to do “is come ready to ask questions and engage in discussion.”
The CTE tip sheet, Motivating Students: Creating an Inspiring Environment, offers many useful suggestions. As well, Aimée Morrison (Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo) has a great post on the Hook & Eye blog in which she discusses an innovative strategy she employed to create a sense of community in her classroom.
I’m sure there are a lot of really interesting and unique examples across campus. I hope faculty and students will take a moment to post a favorite one here.
More information on the Community of Inquiry Framework 
The image is taken from http://communitiesofinquiry.com/sites/communityofinquiry.com/files/coi_model.pdf
Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer,W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

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Katherine Lithgow

As Senior Instructional Developer, Integrative Learning, Katherine Lithgow facilitates ePortfolio and Integrative Learning initiatives, supporting instructors across campus with the design and implementation of activities that help students integrate learning in academic, workplace, community and social environments. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Katherine taught Cytology at The Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences. She received her BA from the University of Toronto, and a Master’s in Educational Technology from UBC. In what seems like another life, Katherine worked as a cytotechnologist graduating from TMI’s Cytology program.

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