Student engagement starts with community

Posted by Maddison Woodall

Key to a fulfilling student experience is the ability to strike a balance between study and life outside of university. Given the stereotype of students as social butterflies, the latter is rarely considered a roadblock but it should be considered by your institution to help nuture your student's wellbeing. 

Building connections doesn’t always come easy - particularly to those struggling with social anxiety. 

Recently, we spoke to one student who felt their shyness was holding them back from bonding with fellow students. We listened as they shared with us some of their personal experiences from so far, including the impact of social anxiety in their university life. Despite a strong desire to make new friends and connect over common interests, striking up conversations with their peers in person sat outside their comfort zone. 

While some argue that study outweighs social life in importance, a growing body of research points towards a lack of social interaction, support and community as damaging to the mental health of students in schools, colleges and universities. After all, even the most introverted among us need a support network. 

Rather than a nice to have, it’s increasingly clear that a sense of community is intrinsic to student engagement. But what solutions can education leaders offer to help encourage social connection among students?


How social interaction shapes the student experience

The link between strong social connections and mental wellbeing is no secret. Stable relationships with friends, family members and partners are especially important for young people as they help to strengthen self-esteem, assist in the development of problem solving and establish a sense of belonging. 

So, what happens when students fail to make these key connections with their peers? 

According to a recent study, around 22 per cent of UK university students face a form of social anxiety during their studies. The report, which explored the effects of poor social connections on academic performance, found a clear link between anxiety and lower grades. It also revealed a growing trend of young people experiencing social isolation, with many cases thought to be going unreported. 

Dr Moitree Banerjee, a leading psychologist and co-author of the study, said there was no doubt of the major impact that social anxiety has on young people’s education. She added:

From this investigation, we can see that students’ social fears created difficulty in social and academic contexts, often resulting in negative self-concepts and generally poor emotional experiences. This includes deficits in relationships with others, potential academic disruption, safety behaviours to reduce anxiety, and excessive anticipatory worry and rumination after the event.”

Although universities are often seen as small communal cities, isolation still occurs within these environments among students with lower self-esteem, lower self-confidence or even just a lower propensity for connecting in a traditional way. If left unchecked, these students will likely experience heightened self-consciousness and feelings of being judged by others, which may lead them to retreating further from social situations. 

Further, being surrounded by your peers isn’t always enough to stimulate social interaction - especially in a post-pandemic environment. For many pupils, the effects of social isolation from lockdowns have only compounded feelings of anxiety, with 74 per cent of young people reporting that the pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Returning to in-person learning hasn’t magically transformed the self confidence of shy students, either.

Disruption to schools during the pandemic may not be the sole factor leading to social anxiety, but it certainly hasn’t helped. What it has done, however, is shine a light on the urgent need for support systems that go beyond in-person meetings and extracurricular tuition. 


What role does community play in learning outcomes? 

As Preece (2000) noted, “From birth to death, we shape and are shaped by the communities to which we belong.” 

Community promotes growth; the sense of belonging among our peers gives us the confidence to be our authentic selves at school and to ask questions. When we feel we are in a safe space among like-minded people, we are more likely to challenge each other and explore new ideas. 

But it goes even deeper than that. 

Increasingly, neuroscientific research is proving how crucial a role the sense of community plays in learning and development. In the brain, executive function and self-regulation skills enable us to remember instructions, focus attention, plan ahead and manage multiple tasks at once. That’s why building a sense of community in schools is so important: because cognitive processes are so closely linked in the brain to emotional ones. 

When students feel withdrawn from low social connections, it may have an impact on the following:

Organisation and time management

Keeping up with course work requires forward planning, but students who feel isolated may struggle with managing their time. The stress from social pressures and a lack of support can leave us feeling helpless and more prone to procrastination, and we may fall behind at school as a result. Asking for help is easy when you have a strong support network, but social anxiety may prevent students from speaking out or seeking advice when they need it the most. 

Working memory

Working memory is crucial for our problem-solving abilities. So, when our working memory is under strain, we often develop issues in our work or daily life. Rather than focusing on retaining information, students who feel isolated will dedicate cognitive energy to the source of their stress.

Knowledge transfer and collaboration

When our brains are clouded by stress, we tend to shut ourselves off to new perspectives. The availability of the prefrontal cortex for use of knowledge or skills is hampered by negative emotions - so, the more isolated we become, the more limited our toolkit for problem solving will be in later life. 

Framed another way, the greater the sense of safety, acceptance and community a person feels within a group, the more open they will be to taking in and sharing new perspectives. This was illustrated within the results of our recent survey, in which we asked students using our Engage app about the impact our platform was having. Over 75% of the 792 respondents said they felt that this community-based app had positively improved their work. In fact, 30% of students gave the app a 10/10 score.


How can we build community in education? 

Building student engagement begins with community. Only through a secure and collaborative space in which students feel supported will they be empowered to take risks without the fear of being judged. 

But what does that look like in practice?  

Through our work with clients across the education sector, we’ve seen the far-reaching impact that a collaborative, trusting community can have on student engagement. Much of this has to do with embracing online platforms as a means of:

Facilitating communication 

In most schools and colleges, communication between students and staff is dependent on emails and phone calls. However, students feeling isolated or in need of advice may not look to these systems for support. What’s more, emails are easy to miss, meaning students may not feel connected to the wider campus activities. By centralising channels for communication through digital apps, education leaders can instill a sense of community, keep students in the loop and enable them to seek support in a way that comes naturally to them. 

There have been multiple occasions where the app has given me notifications on what is happening around college and what events are going to be taking place, which is great,” said one student using the Tribal Engage app. “It’s also made it easy to connect with people or ask help in the study groups.”


Creating safe spaces for student support 

Onsite counselling and wellbeing support have been a mainstay of university campuses for decades. While the role they play is still crucial in sustaining student wellbeing and providing practical help with mental health matters, it’s important to recognise that a large portion of students suffering from social anxiety won’t always feel comfortable seeking in-person support. Discussing issues out loud with a counsellor can feel daunting, whereas secure digital spaces may provide a more suitable environment where people can discuss their feelings and get the support they need. This sentiment was reflected across the feedback we got from students using Engage:

At the beginning of my course, when I got stressed, the app allowed me to talk to people and get some help,” said one student. 


Empower students to start interest groups 

When it comes to isolation and feelings of rejection, early intervention and prevention is key. Often, all people want is to feel that they aren’t alone, that their interests and passions are shared by others at their school or university.  Thankfully, technology can facilitate this, and we’ve seen first hand how secure online groups can forge strong bonds between students with shared interests. When surveyed about their experience with Tribal Engage, students shared with us the positive impact the app had in connecting people:

It’s very engaging and brings people together. I was able to join a group that has the same passion for cars as me – retaining students through friendship groups and having a sense of community.” 


Harnessing digital tools to promote student wellbeing 

In a digital-first society, education leaders are actively exploring the dynamics and potential that lies in online communities. After all, in-person clubs and societies are important, but they aren’t the be and end all of student wellbeing. 

Through our Tribal Engage App, a growing number of clients are achieving improved learning outcomes and bolstering the learner experience across campus. Take the example of the student we interviewed about their social anxiety. In this case, the college they attended had been using our Tribal Engage App to share information about courses and extracurricular activities. 

Taking advantage of the systems in place, this student created a college Anime group as a place for like-minded people of the college to connect with each other. Since the Tribal Engage App was being run by the college, the student felt safe setting up this online community knowing that staff would get involved where needed. 

While social media today is nothing short of the Wild West, digital community apps designed for education can reap the benefits of the medium without the damaging drawbacks. Although most universities still use email as their primary form of communication, dedicated social media and mobile apps have been recommended by communication specialists as the best way to keep students engaged with their course and with wider campus activities.

After reviewing all groups created in the Tribal Engage App across all of our customers, this college Anime group came out on top. Although the student running the group was surprised at its popularity, they expressed a sense of pride that the group they created had sparked a campus-wide community - one that would not have come together otherwise. Thanks to the group, they now had a digital space where they could chat freely with other students without the social pressures of in-person interactions. 

Building student communities through Tribal Engage  

Clearly, isolation is something that anyone can experience, at any time. It isn’t an issue reserved to the introverted, but rather one that touches the entire population. The more we can do to bring people together, build networks and foster a sense of community within schools, the greater chance we have of preventing poor outcomes for students struggling with loneliness. 

Through conversations with group members, we discovered the profound effect that our digital platform had in empowering students to connect with one another. Now, many of them had a secure space outside of school to bond with each other, and that sense of belonging was manifesting into higher levels of learner engagement within the classroom.  

Today, as we navigate the return to in-person learning, safe and collaborative spaces like these will be critical in giving students a chance to feel heard, accepted and connected with their peers. Given the strong link between community and student engagement, mobile apps like Tribal Engage present education leaders with an opportunity to bring students together, encourage stronger social connections and strengthen the student experience as a whole.


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