Sitting Alone in a Crowd Just Like You: The Isolated StudentPosted: April 9, 2012
I’ve posted a number of things about the importance of training people to use all the techniques and technologies that we have – which applies to us teaching as much as it ever applies to the student. The best way to training and education to happen is, unsurprisingly, provide the best environment in which this can happen – resources, buildings, rooms and, above all, community. One of the big benefits of the traditional lecture is that we get the whole student community for a course into the one room, several times a week. What isn’t guaranteed is that we will actually get a proper community forming – we may just have a big room full of people, none talking to each other, no-one interacting. At that stage, of course, we have the traditional lecture at it’s potential worst.
I’m writing a series of short stories at the moment around the theme of isolation and there are many excellent examples in literature of the notion of being alone while in the company of others. Whether it’s the isolation of the protagonist in Bashevis Singer’s The Slave, separated from the community by his religion and status, or the isolation of the reader from the world and characters from Philip K. Dick, a wonderful example of umwelt, we see the same notion over and over again – the presence of other people, even like-minded people, does not guarantee any protection from isolation because of issues with perception, background and expectations.
There are many reasons that a student can feel that they can’t reach out to their community and handling this is one of the big issues that we have in dealing with the transition into a new course of studies. We spend a lot of time with (very useful) mentoring schemes, networking among our students with supporting BBQs and meet-ups – but the things we actually do in lectures are also very helpful. If you have a group activity, or a talk-to-your-neighbour, exercise in the first week, you can be setting up small communities and networks that will survive for the rest of the student’s career. If the lecture space is also a community space, a meeting place and something that people look forward to, then we start to work on the many possible issues that can lead to isolation.
If someone isn’t making progress then, rather than focus on what they’re not doing and giving them a relatively tired lecture on keeping up effort and putting in the hours, it can sometimes help to ask who they’re working with, whether they have any friends in the course and, if not, direct the student to your support system. For students who have more serious problems, at our University we have a Transitions Service who provide a shopfront to the other services we have, ranging from friendly chats over tea to introductions to our counselling service. This is, however, a little bit of overkill in most cases – a chat, some activity in lectures and a BBQ or two can address at least some of the problems.