Many students are craving more connection with their peers

After a difficult few years of remote study and campus ‘ghost towns’, how can universities bring students back together and increase their feeling of connectedness and belonging?

That’s one of the areas explored in this year’s Australian and New Zealand Student Wellbeing Survey*, commissioned by online study service Studiosity, and now in its eighth year.

The survey asked university students whether they connected with peers as much as they would like, for which two in three answered ‘no’, they would like to connect more, and this was slightly higher for first-year student cohorts (70%). The survey also asked those studying on-campus what would make them want to come to campus more often, and the most common response was “knowing more students”.

There was also an evident correlation between students’ level of connection with their peers and feelings of stress. Students who didn’t connect with other students as much as they would like were stressed more often.

Why aren’t students connecting?

What’s interesting is that universities are filled with clubs, societies and peer support programmes. They are a hallmark of the university experience. So why do so many students in 2023 feel like they’re not connected enough?

Professor Sally Kift, a leading scholar on the first-year student experience and a member of Studiosity’s Academic Advisory Board, says: “Peer support programmes like PASS (Peer Assisted Study Sessions) are invaluable for students who know about them and take up the opportunity to participate in peer-facilitated learning.

“For those who do, there is robust evidence that they will get better results, have lower failure and withdrawal rates and be retained and graduate at higher rates. To accommodate demands for greater flexibility in 2023, institutions need to meet students where they are – online and-or face-to-face – and offer integrated opportunities for connection, relationship-building and social learning in ways that fit in with their often complex lives.”

The 2023 Student Wellbeing report shows that only 28% of students make use of their university’s peer support services. The main reasons for not engaging with this type of programme were lack of need (47%) and lack of awareness (30%). Others were too self-conscious to engage or were not sure how to reach out. Others claimed they were too busy.

Reaching out vs ‘checking in’

There still seems to be something of a stigma around reaching out – asking for help. Every first-year student can benefit from educationally purposeful peer interaction – activities designed for students to work both academically and socially with one another.

But so few actually seek out these services and opportunities for fear of judgment or lack of understanding or awareness. Nearly half of the students surveyed (46%) also admitted that they found it hard to ask other students questions when they first enrolled.

When it comes to how students really want to connect with one another, 45% said they would prefer someone to ‘check in’ on them, rather than them reaching out. This rose to 55% for the 18- to 19-year-old demographic.

It indicates that universities have an opportunity to create routine, embedded peer connection activities that are outbound from the institution, as well as inbound from the students.

‘Belonging opportunities’

As Kift says: “The first-year experience is a critical area of focus for universities. Early student experiences – whether new learners settle well into university – are key to building a sense of belonging and self-efficacy. A positive transition-in experience and instilling that sense of ‘I belong here’ for every student sets them up for learning, persistence, success and well-being over the course of their degree.”

“Negative first interactions can make students feel like they are ‘imposters’ who don’t fit in or belong. We should treat every interaction that we have with students as a belonging opportunity,” says Kift.

“This latest research report echoes findings from similar studies conducted internationally, providing some interesting insights into what students actually want in that regard. They want to feel more connected to one another and be better and more flexibly supported by their institution.”

Fortunately, 74% of first-year students agreed there is a ‘strong sense of community’ at their university, so Australian and New Zealand universities are definitely doing something right. Sense of community was also found to be related to levels of stress, with those who felt they had a strong sense of community slightly less likely to be stressed weekly or more (69%) than those who did not have this community sense (77%).

Creating connections, at scale

There is a clear appetite among students, particularly first-year students, for more connection and many universities are starting to facilitate those purposeful peer connections as part of the routine for first years in a scaled, online way in 2023 – a precursor for them to physically return to campus, as the survey shows.

Institutions can leverage this preference data to deliver the experience students want and engage them early on in their learning communities.

It is well documented that students who feel connected to their university, their peers, and feel part of a learning community, tend to do better – both academically and in terms of their well-being. They are engaged in their learning and see their university experience as valuable and beneficial. For first years in particular, growing peer connections and a sense of community will undoubtedly reap benefits for individuals and institutions alike.

Jack Goodman founded Studiosity in 2003 in Sydney. Studiosity now partners with universities around the world to grow student success at scale by connecting students to experts and peers, helping thousands to progress and succeed with their studies, regardless of their study mode, background, personal circumstances or location.

*Research was conducted and analysed by YouthInsight and Student Edge. The data is based on analysis of over 1,000 Australian and New Zealand university student responses in November-December 2022. The students who participated in this study were 18-30+ years old and consisted of a mix of both domestic and internationally enrolled students. You can download the full chapter with the above data here.