Feature

Undergraduate students might get lost in the crowd in the psychology department at Metropolitan State College of Denver (MSCD). The department employs about 24 full-time faculty and 22 part-time faculty, and it enrolls about 800 psychology undergraduate majors. But MSCD faculty members want to ensure students feel like they are more than a name on the class roster. So, with students' help, they've fostered a stronger sense of community by creating a student lounge and sponsoring student-faculty activities, such as a bowling tournament—to name just a few of their moves.

Cindy Oliver, who earned her bachelor's in psychology from MSCD in the spring, says such community-building projects helped bring her closer to the psychology program, its faculty and her peers. She says the department's approach taught her that the "more you get involved, the more you get from it." In her case, she gained friendships, advice, letters of recommendations and chances to attend psychology conferences.

Students who feel a sense of community in their department tend to participate more in school activities, drop out less and stay motivated, according to a study in the Journal of Community Psychology (Vol. 24, No. 4, pages 395-416). Research also shows that community building decreases student anxiety, depression and loneliness.

Faculty in community-oriented departments have found that several strategies can help build student connection, including publicizing departmental activities, holding informal events, offering orientation workshops or courses, creating "student spaces" and, in general, not giving up.

Generate publicity

At MSCD, faculty believed that students didn't show up to their psychology club events because of their busy schedules and the fact that MSCD mostly is a commuter campus with many nontraditional students.

"[The students] said we were wrong—they weren't involved because they didn't know about it," says Mark Basham, PhD, an assistant psychology professor at MSCD.

So, they created a bulletin board in the psychology department's main hallway that lists psychology club meetings, events and opportunities. The promotion has paid off, with MSCD clubs posting their highest memberships in years.

Still, Basham says, even with publicity—such as by sending mass e-mails to students and postings on the bulletin board—it can be a challenge to get students to attend events.

"The best publicity is to get students to start talking about it," Basham says. To do that, MSCD has found using "social leaders" effective.

"You want the outgoing students who can be enthusiastic when talking to others about it," he says. To recognize the importance of student social leaders, they even created a new award for "outstanding student leader," which complements their other awards for outstanding scholar and researcher. "They might not be the best academic or research students, but they still contribute to the department in an important way," he says.

Plan student-faculty activities

From potluck dinners to student and faculty intramural teams, many departments offer student-faculty social activities to help them get to know one another.

Every fall, the psychology department at Belmont University in Nashville hosts a cookout to welcome new students and allow them to mingle with psychology faculty and officers in the university's psychology clubs, such as Psi Chi and its Psychology Club.

"It helps humanize us," says department chair Peter J. Giordano, PhD. "This helps break down barriers and makes students more comfortable in approaching faculty and talking to them informally."

During the event, department faculty highlight psychology-related opportunities for students, such as how to plug into research and leadership.

Belmont faculty members also host Psi Chi student inductions at their homes with a dinner and ceremony. And they host a Psychology Undergraduate Research Symposium (PURS) to provide undergraduate students an opportunity to present their independent research. Last year, PURS became part of a broader Sciences Undergraduate Research Symposium to also include other university undergraduate science departments and spark more interdisciplinary undergraduate science research.

At Arkansas State University, the department occasionally plans a students versus faculty volleyball game, a winter break luncheon for students to socialize with one another and faculty seminars based on students' expressed interests, such as on culture or evolutionary psychology.

To get students involved, MSCD faculty have also considered ideas such as hosting psychology-themed movie nights, which are followed with faculty-student discussions of psychology topics; developing a psychology social group that meets to plan social events; and maintaining a network of alumni to advise students.

Tap into psychology classes

One way the psychology program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI)—largely a commuter school—builds community is through requiring all psychology majors to take a one-credit course—"Orientation to a Major in Psychology." The class exposes students to university resources available to psychology majors—such as psychology clubs, peer advising and the writing center—as well as a chance to learn about career opportunities and interact with their psychology peers. Students also are required to participate in four psychology-related activities during the class, such as a psychology open discussion or colloquium, a psychology department social gathering or an advising session with a peer adviser in the Psychology Advising Office.

Drew Appleby, PhD, director of psychology undergraduate studies at IUPUI, says that such activities help familiarize students with what's available to them and keep at bay "parking lot classrooms," in which students roar into campus, run to their classes, pack up early and head out.

"While that is one way to earn a college degree, it is not really going to allow them to...develop the skills and networks they need," Appleby says.

Another way the class helps students build those networks is by creating "family" units, composed of a teaching assistant and up to four students who provide feedback to one another and assume responsibility for one another's academic success in the class. Each family is responsible for investigating a student resource available in the department, such as the writing center, psychology club or department Web site or listserv, and then presenting a brief oral report about the student resources to their classmates.

Appleby doesn't underestimate the use of food in building community in his classes either.

"Feed them, and they will come," he says, adding that each family caters one class during the semester—with offerings ranging from sushi to cake. At the beginning of each class, the students eat and listen to music.

"I see people sitting in class socializing before class and talking about other classes," Appleby says. "It's a bonding situation for students."

Make room

Another good way to cultivate student socializing is to give them their own space. At MSCD, faculty transformed a vacant classroom into a student lounge and then invited students to decorate it. They outfitted the room with furniture, posters, a coffeemaker—for which faculty buy coffee—and a microwave. Students also nixed the drab florescent lighting and brought in cozier table lamps.

The students knew what they wanted in a lounge, Basham says, and they were persistent that they didn't want it to become a study space—which there are plenty of places for on campus. Instead, they wanted a social space to interact with their psychology peers between classes, he says.

Oliver says that the lounge serves as a great meeting place for psychology majors—from freshmen to upper-level students.

"It was a chance to get to know the people in your class," she explains. "We have a commuter campus so it's important to have community within the psychology program so you can find people you can rely on. Otherwise, you can have a really hard time getting to know anyone."

Move on from failed attempts

However, even the best ideas can lead to an unsuccessful attempt at building community, Basham acknowledges. For example, attendance at MSCD's Psi Chi-sponsored professional development day was down last year compared with previous years and has yet to attract the attention that faculty and Psi Chi would like. Faculty and students attribute that dwindling turnout to the full-day commitment it requires. This year, they plan to space the event over several afternoons.

"The key is that when something doesn't work, figure out why," Basham says.

Also, Basham notes, building stronger ties in a psychology program doesn't happen overnight.

"We went into it thinking we'd do a bunch of things, and by the end of the semester all of our students would feel part of the psychology department and have a great sense of community, but that's not the case," he says.

A long-term commitment of faculty in community building is critical, agrees David Saarnio, PhD, a psychology professor at Arkansas State University.

"A lot of learning and thinking goes on outside the classroom," he says. "There are so many possible benefits for students with community building. Students are more likely to get involved in their programs, better understand psychology as a profession and be better prepared to get into graduate school."