The need to belong and feel a sense of community is decidedly
important during the undergraduate experience. In this study,
undergraduate perceptions of classroom community were examined using a
modified version of the College and University Community Inventory
(CUCI). Results illustrate that students regard their teachers more
highly in their favorite classes and peers more important in their least
favorite classes. Female students also reported a stronger sense of
community in their favorite classes than did males. Directions for
future research are discussed.
As undergraduate enrollments increase across the country,
institutions of higher education are facing an influx of diverse
populations of students. A critical charge for these colleges and
universities is to create a sense of community among various demographic
groups. Multiple terms are used in the literature on campus community,
including "belonging," "relatedness,"
"classroom connection," and "engagement," to name a
few (Osterman 2000). However, what really is campus community and how is
it fostered? Discussions of campus belonging include a myriad of
influences on the college student experience, such as the effect of
engaging student affairs programming, athletic participation,
faculty-student interactions, and residential learning communities. Of
particular interest in the current study is the academic classroom as a
source of student sense of community on a college campus. Specifically,
within this environment what role do faculty and peer interactions have
on student perceptions of community in an academic setting?
A well-established tenet in the student persistence literature is
the importance of student involvement in degree attainment (Astin 1993;
Cabrera, Nora, and Castaneda 1993; Stage 1989; Terenzini et al. 1994).
In particular, the more a student is involved in the life and activity
of the campus, the more likely they will persist until graduation. In
empirical and theoretical discussions of classroom community, the
primary issues of analyses have been what students do outside of the
classroom setting. Specifically, student affairs programming,
involvement in co-curricular activities, and intercultural programs all
act as vehicles by which students can develop a sense of connection to
their campus community (Cheng 2004; Schroeder, DiTeberio, and Kalsbeek
1989). However, less is known about how classroom social interactions
between student-teacher and student-student affect relatedness, or
connection, in the learning environment. Classrooms, with their emphasis
on knowledge, discovery, and social integration are places where faculty
and student bodies traverse (Tinto 1997). It is important to study this
dynamic because the degree and nature of interaction between these
groups is critical in uncovering identifiable determinants of classroom
The aforementioned principles of engagement and participation in
campus social activities can be applied to research on classroom
community. That is, when students are active participants in class,
volunteer, ask questions, assist other students, and reflect on their
learning, they show higher levels of learning and a more positive view
of the course and instructor (Nunn 1996). Cheng (2004) notes, "The
most important principle of community involves faculty and students in a
common commitment to teaching and learning" (228). To what end are
faculty and student interactions a factor in perceptions of
belongingness? In particular, when undergraduate students consider their
favorite and least favorite courses, how do faculty and other classmates
add to or detract from a sense of community?
This line of research is especially critical in understanding how
the actions of faculty and peers can influence student views on their
sense of relatedness to others in the classroom setting. To disentangle
this problem, one needs to look no further than the body of research
that has explored the college classroom experience (Auster and MacRone
1994; Endo and Harpel 1982; Salter 2003). The college classroom, with
norms and values often in odds with student developmental needs, can be
both a facilitator and hindrance to classroom community. When students
perceive barriers to learning and acceptance, they disengage which
subsequently affects their academic effort. Evidence shows that academic
and social integration can often be at odds for certain demographic
groups of students; in particular, first year and ethnic minority
students (Rendon 1994). For these groups, the classroom is a source of
stress or discomfort due to perceived indifference or ambiguous
expectations from teachers. In contrast, supportive environments are
more likely to increase student effort and engagement (Smoke and Haas
1995; Treisman 1992).
What role does the peer group play in classroom community? Another
piece of the puzzle involves interactions among classmates in learning
environments. Evidence suggests that fellow students in a course can
have a significant influence over student perceptions of classroom
belonging (Pascarella and Terenzini 1991; Tinto and Godsell 1994). As
expected, student evaluations of their classes are higher when they
perceive a mutually respectful relationship between classmates. Also,
when students are allowed to voice opinions, collaborate, and use study
groups, they have more positive views of the class environment.
Clearly, research indicates that both faculty and students can play
a significant role in establishing feelings of belongingness in the
academic learning environment. However, the purpose of the present study
is to explore the degree of influence instructors and peers have on
student perceptions of classroom community. It is anticipated that
findings from this research can be used to plan effective academic
interventions and programming.
Survey data was collected from 171 undergraduate students at a
large public research university in the Southeastern United States. The
largest percentage of respondents was fourth-year students (63%),
followed by third-years (15%), first-years (12%), and second-years
(10%). The majority of students lived off campus (61%) and most were 21
or older (67%). More females (65%) than males participated in the study.
Most students reported being social science majors (40%), followed by
humanities (25%), professional schools (19%) [i.e., business or
education], and math or natural sciences (16%). See Table 1 for a list
of sample demographic information.
Procedure and Instrumentation
After obtaining Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, students
were recruited from four classes on campus. Three of these classes were
housed in the education department; the other class was in the history
department.Amodified version of the College and University Community
Inventory (CUCI) [Boyer 1990; McDonald 2002] was used to survey student
perceptions of community in their favorite and least favorite courses.
Sample items included, "An instructor in my favorite class
encourages students to speak and listen to one another carefully."
"Classmates in my least favorite class are helpful and civil to one
another." All items were scored on a 5 -point Likert scale ranging
from not observed (0) to strongly agree (4). Mean scores were developed
for students' instructors in their favorite and least favorite
classes, as well as for peers/classmates in their favorite and least
favorite classes. Cronbach's alpha coefficient for all 34 items on
the scale was .826, suggesting a strong and reliable measure.
Data were entered into a statistical software program. Descriptive
statistics were run for demographic categories, such as major, age, and
gender. Frequency tabulations of key findings will be presented. In
order to determine differences among students groups, a composite score
was developed for each scale: Favorite course-instructor; Favorite
course-classmates; Least favorite course-instructor; Least favorite
course-classmates. Correlations were also run to determine relationships
between demographic variables and student reports of community in their
favorite and least favorite classes.
Table 2 shows the percentage of positive responses to selected
items on the survey. When asked to report on their favorite courses,
most students experienced helpful and beneficial classroom interactions
from both faculty and students. In fact, students reported faculty in
their favorite courses as having the most influence on their sense of
belonging in their classroom (M= 3.25, s=.69); followed by peers in
their favorite classes (M= 3.17, s=.74). Not surprisingly, in
considering their least favorite classes, instructors did not rate as
highly (M= 2.02, s=.75), nor did peers (M= 2.09, s= .86). These findings
are corroborated in correlational data, that showed a significant
relationship between ratings of instructors in favorite classes and
peers in the same class (r= .59, p<. 001) and between ratings of
instructors and peers in students' least favorite classes (r= .57,
In examining group variations, no difference was significant except
for gender. When investigating student reports in favorite classes,
female students gave higher ratings to their instructors than did males
(F= 6.98, p< .01). Specifically, females evaluated their favorite
instructors with a Mean score of 3.34 versus only 3.04 for males.
The previous study examined student perceptions of their classroom
community via interactions with faculty and peers. Another layer was
added to the investigation, by asking students to consider their
favorite and least favorite classes in rating their experiences. The
findings show two very different pictures of student sense of belonging
and community within the college classroom. In their favorite classes,
more students attributed positive experiences and a sense of connection
to their faculty instructor. Similar to what one might expect, in their
least favorite classes both faculty and peers scored lower. However,
with respect to their least favorite classes, experiences with
classmates appeared to be slightly more positive than students'
evaluations of the faculty. Perhaps in fully engaging classes, students
are more likely to attribute constructive experiences to their
instructor but, in their less favored classes, they give a trace more
weight to their peers.
Another interesting result appeared in the examination of group
differences, specifically gender. Female students rated instructors in
their favorite classes higher than male students. Future research could
explore female perceptions of classroom community more fully to consider
this finding and investigate other factors related to student sense of
belonging in this demographic of students.
Limitations of the study
One weakness in the study is the overrepresentation of females and
seniors in the sample. These two groups of students have experiences and
viewpoints that could have significantly influenced the findings. Also,
the primary data collection method in the present study was a
self-report survey. Survey research is appropriate for measuring the
attitudes of a large group of people (Johnson and Christensen 2004), but
does not provide for in-depth exploration of a particular topic. This
study did not incorporate an observational component in the methodology
that would be beneficial in future studies. It would be useful to have
formal observations of what occurs within college classrooms and to
decipher the techniques and strategies faculty use to help students
connect to one another. Also, incorporating individual interviews with
students and faculty could shed light on the experience of classroom
community more fully with a focus on individual perceptions of
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Keonya C. Booker, Ph.D., Assistant Professor-Curry School of
Education, University of Virginia.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr.
Keonya C. Booker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Table 1 Sample Demographics
Female 65% 112
Male 33% 57
Freshman 12% 20
Sophomore 10% 17
Junior 15% 26
Senior 63% 108
On-campus 37% 64
Off-campus 61% 104
Social sciences 40% 68
Humanities 25% 42
Pre-professional 19% 33
Natural sciences 16% 28
Table 2 Selected Student Responses to Survey Data
An instructor in my favorite class creates an 49% 37%
environment where students trust one another
An instructor in my favorite class creates a 54% 40%
climate of civility and protects the dignity of
An instructor in my least favorite class creates an 5% 33%
environment where students trust one another
An instructor in my least favorite class creates a 6% 47%
climate of civility and protects the dignity of
Peers in my favorite class speak and listen to one 41% 50%
Peers in my favorite class appreciate achievement 30% 49%
and success of all students
Peers in my least favorite class speak and listen 7% 30%
to one another carefully
Peers in my least favorite class appreciate 7% 26%
achievement and success of all students