The role of instructors and peers in establishing classroom community.
Article Type:
College students (Beliefs, opinions and attitudes)
College students (Social aspects)
Teacher-student relationships (Analysis)
Social acceptance (Educational aspects)
College environment (Social aspects)
Booker, Keonya C.
Pub Date:
Name: Journal of Instructional Psychology Publisher: George Uhlig Publisher Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2008 George Uhlig Publisher ISSN: 0094-1956
Date: March, 2008 Source Volume: 35 Source Issue: 1
Event Code: 290 Public affairs
Product Code: E197500 Students, College
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
Full Text:
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?

Literature Review

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 community.

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, p< .001).

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 belongingness.


Astin, A. 1993. What matters in college: Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Auster, C. J., and M. MacRone. 1994. The classroom as a negotiated social setting: An empirical study of the effects of faculty members' behavior on students' participation. Teaching Sociology 22: 289-300.

Boyer, E. 1990. Campus life: In search of community. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cabrera, A. F.,A. Nora, and M. B. Castaneda. 1993. College persistence: Structural modeling of an integrated model of student retention. Journal of Higher Education 64: 123-139.

Cheng, D.X. 2004. Students' sense of campus community: What it means, and what to do about it. NASPA Journal 41: 216-232.

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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
Table 1 Sample Demographics

                             Percentage    N

          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

                                                        Agree     Agree

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
  all students
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
  all students
Peers in my favorite class speak and listen to one       41%       50%
  another carefully
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
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