University students often congregate in groups of similar backgrounds, maintaining the spaces between them regardless of the student population’s increasing diversity.
This often reminds me of a phenomenon in trees where they maintain distinct separation lines at the crown, known as ‘crown shyness’. Despite the logical assumption that these trees will meet, touch, and grow together - they don’t.
They maintain the space between them.
These unusual, bizarre patterns demonstrate that what we logically expect is not always what happens. There are often invisible forces and reasons at play. This is the case with the internationalisation of universities as well.
Over the last two decades or so, there has been a pattern of western universities bringing together students from diverse backgrounds in the hope it will lead to multicultural interaction and cross-cultural communication skills.
But, instead of intermingling, students tend to maintain the spaces between them.
This pattern is not new. However, it demonstrates that there are often unintended consequences that contradict the expected result.
In my PhD, I have been exploring the unintended consequences of universities diversifying their student population in the absence of changes to classroom activities or curricular requirements.
My findings so far suggest that unfacilitated classroom experiences can affect not only students’ impressions of their university, but also of their fellow classmates.
When I surveyed 170 first-year university students in three faculties at a major metropolitan university, two important themes emerged:
- students tend to believe that their classmates are not easy to talk to
- it’s hard even for local students to make friends
While students who didn’t expect their classmates to be easy to talk to were most likely to find that to be the case, concerningly, two thirds of those who did expect their classmates to be easy to talk to ended up feeling that they weren’t.
This change is disappointing and implies that students’ dispositions, though powerful, are not the only influences on their attitudes towards each other.
Instead, there are circumstances in the classroom and university experience that lead to students’ disappointment, isolation, and lack of communication with each other.
Local students are struggling, too
While the conversation around isolation usually surrounds international students’ experiences, my research suggests it is actually just as difficult, if not more so, for local students to make friends.
It is also interesting to note that, of the three faculties that participated in the study, the faculty with the least in-class facilitation of interaction and discussion is the one where students seemed to feel more isolated and less connected.
In other words, throwing students together without a structure for their interaction seems to lead to either no interaction or, possibly, negative outcomes.
Focusing on the classroom
It seems students’ isolation goes beyond their ability to communicate.
About half of students surveyed say they feel comfortable communicating and, of those who said it’s hard to make friends, over a third are still ‘comfortable’ or ‘extremely comfortable’ communicating.
Specifically, 36 per cent of the international and 44 per cent of the domestic students who say it’s hard to make friends still say they feel comfortable communicating with other students. So, connecting with others requires more than simple communication; the opportunity for interaction needs to exist in the first place.
Universities can offer these kinds of opportunities by putting genuine thought and detailed planning into their classroom activities. In-class discussions with unfamiliar classmates and group work that requires self-reflection and peer assessment are some of the already existing strategies that can help encourage student collaboration and connection.
The key seems to be in creating activities that inherently require interaction, discussion, and collaboration - otherwise, students will revert to what is comfortable, known and easy. They’ll stick with their existing friends and they’ll complete group work only by patching together pieces of assignments they’ve worked on separately.
At a time when there are widespread, public debates about race and gender, and an apparent increase in ‘us vs. them’-isms, universities play a pivotal role in the promotion of tolerance, understanding and global citizenship.
This starts in the classroom and universities must do more than simply bring us all together to break down barriers.
The next stage of my research aims to uncover more about what differs from faculty to faculty and why some faculty contexts are more encouraging of student-to-student interaction and others are not.
In other words, why do trees separate where we expect them to meet?
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