Building Connection and Engagement in Higher Education


The last couple of years has left all of us a bit confused about making and maintaining real connections. The loss of in-person contact due to Covid-19 has many of us longing for more connection but unsure how to achieve it in our new normal. Higher education is no exception; returning to regular campus life is easier said than done, with so many of those attending or working in higher ed navigating social challenges and mental health struggles.

In fact, professors across the nation are reporting that their students are less engaged than ever, both academically and socially. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently interviewed a variety of higher education faculty and students and discovered that this struggle to connect is apparent across a range of community colleges and public universities, private colleges, and even highly competitive schools. Students have not only experienced a lack of in-person connection, but also health issues, financial insecurity, and the loss of family and friends. Professors are seeing the cumulative weight of life holding their students back academically.  

“My students are struggling to focus within and outside of class,” one professor noted. “They feel overwhelmed and pressed for time. They cannot separate the existential dread of Covid and now Ukraine from their daily ability to live.”

Students aren’t the only ones having a hard time connecting and engaging in academic environments. One of the ways to improve learning environments and increase academic success is to build more real connections via open conversations. By providing opportunities to enhance soft skills like openness, curiosity, and empathy, we can begin to rebuild the successful academic and social environment that higher education wants to provide to every student.


Creating an Open Dialogue

Creating an open dialogue isn’t just something higher education should aspire to – it’s also a soft skill that will be valuable to their graduates as they enter their careers. There are a lot of variables that contribute to your campus and classroom culture, but this Forbes article points out three solid starting blocks for anyone looking to have an open dialogue:

Know that you aren’t always right. That knowledge will naturally help you be more open to the thoughts, opinions, and suggestions of others. When students and coworkers notice that you’re not infallible, they’ll be more likely to contribute to discussions.

Build a diverse group. Open dialogues need diversity because you can’t be open minded to new ideas when everyone in your group has the same history, experiences, and skills. Intentionally include everyone in your classroom or cohort. 

Be transparent. Real connections are made when people trust each other, which requires higher education to be dedicated to transparent communication. 

An open dialogue doesn’t happen by accident. Higher education must intentionally and transparently work to implement open dialogues across their curriculum. When professors talk about their class environment and their expectations, students are more likely to engage and connect.


Fostering Empathy and Curiosity

It is always easier to connect with people when we are genuinely invested in each other. The struggle is, to foster empathy we must be genuinely curious and have the opportunity to learn about others. 

Pamela Fuller, FranklinCovey’s Thought Leader, Inclusion and Bias, wisely asks “What builds empathy more than a good story?”

She references the popular social media campaign “Humans of New York” as an example of how a story, even a very short one, can quickly build empathy and consideration for people we’ve never met. How much stronger would our relationships with fellow students and faculty be if we knew more of their stories?

Professors, residential advisors, and teaching assistants should be leading by example and finding opportunities to share their own stories. Their example will build confidence in students, helping others to be more open. When learners engage with empathy and genuine curiosity they find valuable connections and begin to overcome biases (even ones that they may not be aware of in the first place). The result of this kind of atmosphere is emotionally intelligent learners, who will be more successful as future leaders.


Meaningful Connections in Diversity

The U.S. Department of Education issued a report titled Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education that aims to promote building more accessible, inclusive, connected student populations to increase diversity in higher education. It specifically addresses how underrepresented student communities need help in being successful in higher education, but the recommendations will naturally build more connection and inclusivity among all students and faculty. Among their suggestions were:

Enhancing public information and transparency through additional research in areas that highlight inequities and achievement gaps for underrepresented populations.

Updating and improving the process of applying and being admitted to higher education institutions, making sure they are not overly complex and offer opportunities for coaching.

Providing strong student support through advising programs, mentors, social activities, and student organizations that are accessible to diverse populations. Partnering with non-profit organizations or external educational partners can help accomplish this goal.


Connecting Education to the Future for Students

Faculty also reported to The Chronicle of Higher Education that they are working to adjust their curriculum to connect more realistically with students, showing the practical value of their classroom time as it relates to their future careers.  

“Two ideas come up most frequently in the discussions professors say they are having with one another, and in their observations of their own teaching: increasing experiential learning and redesigning courses to connect more closely to students’ lived experiences and prospective careers.”

Professors reported a variety of methods to make better academic connections, such as assignments that related to current events, field trips, podcasts, and other resources. They’re also adjusting their assignment structure, providing more shorter assignments rather than larger, stressful ones that feel like they’ll make or break a grade. 

One way students can tie their education to their future careers is to supplement with skills-based courses that are relatable, accessible and can help them be successful both now and in the future. FranklinCovey’s LeaderU is designed to foster connection, communication, and empathy among students. Contact us to learn how our courses can help students rebuild their communication and leadership skills that will help them be successful. 


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