Creating community in the classroom
by Rachel Holloway

As Virginia Tech reaches toward top-30 research status, families and alumni may wonder if classes can still be implemented in a caring environment, providing personal and professional usefulness long after students earn a final grade.

New undergraduates also may express concern about feeling disconnected at a research institution. They often find a niche in a residential community or a student organization. Rarely do they expect to find a "family" in a classroom.

Yet, it does happen at Virginia Tech. One example is a class that helps students create connections with each other, the instructors, and the university. The Department of Communication created a freshman experience that focused not only on the foundational writing and speaking skills essential to academic success, but also on the building of community.

Research on learning tells us that students will be more motivated if they feel connected to relevant course material and to the people with whom they are learning. Marlene Preston, assistant professor of communication, incorporated this scholarship of teaching in her design of two Core Curriculum classes, Communication Skills I and II. "Students need to feel engaged and safe so that they are willing to accept challenges, work hard, and take some educated risks," she explains. The resulting sequence has transformed the first-year experience for hundreds of students.

After the courses were tested, students in the Pamplin College of Business and the Department of Communication were invited to enroll. CommSkills I teaches students basic communication theory as they develop their writing skills through a range of assignments--memos, reports, letters, and essays--and learn the foundations of conflict resolution and group communication.

In CommSkills II, most students stay with their classmates and instructor as they broaden their expertise with group interaction, and then develop individual research projects resulting in both oral and written presentations. Students conduct research and make presentations about campus resources, ensuring that the entire class is fully informed about these services.

Both semesters involve projects in which students study group dynamics, problem-solving, and team presentation skills. Their practice of speaking and writing in small groups reinforces their community, builds confidence, and prepares them for academic and professional settings. Later, they find that the relationships grow in other ways, further establishing the sense of belonging that students need in a university setting. The class educates young people for life, influencing their relationships while building knowledge of content and skills.

Four years ago, David Attardi wrote in his freshman essay that "This class is about community; it is about practicality of work and its importance in our lives; it is about an environment that is nurturing yet pleasantly demanding. This class is set up for the students to succeed, not fail. It is a class with values and lessons that extend far beyond the walls of the classroom."

In her essay, Mandy Ranalli said, "I look back and see myself, a scared college freshman, just beginning this incredible journey called college. CommSkills has played an integral role in aiding my growth this year. Not only did I enjoy the class, but I also know that the content will benefit me greatly in future situations."

And James Freeman wrote, "This class has already helped me in my college career. It gave me a chance to have a bit of fun while learning and making new friends."

As part of an ongoing course assessment, Preston recently met with some of her former students who are now seniors preparing for graduate school or job interviews. "Students confirmed the long-term benefits of CommSkills as they discussed their academic and professional experiences, including internships and study abroad," Preston says.

Mary Beth McClung explains, "It was a great transition class because Dr. Preston gave us enough guidance, but she always let us grow, too. I learned a lot about time management and how to handle college courses. I also learned a tool for writing that I have been able to use throughout college. Basically, I now apply Comm-Skills every day. I'm taking more than just communication skills with me; I'm taking lifelong friends, too."

Cami Chapin agrees. "CommSkills makes Virginia Tech a lot smaller than it is. That was the only 8:00 am class I had, and that was the only class I never missed. CommSkills exhibited the most friendly, accepting, and non-intimidating environment that I have experienced through my four years of college. I did an internship last summer, and I can't think of many instances where I was working alone. We are going to be working with teams constantly, and that is what CommSkills prepared us for."

As graduation approaches, these and other CommSkills students are close friends, roommates, and colleagues--because one faculty member applied her research and scholarship in a classroom and then extended her expertise to a team of instructors. Since then, students have found life-long friends in a classroom community as they developed the foundation for life-long learning.

Rachel Holloway is head of the Department of Communication.

In their own words

Graduating seniors offer more feedback on the benefits of their freshman CommSkills class:

Ben Coit: "We couldn't be just a number in this class. The class was like one big family with very open communication both teacher-to-student and student-to-student. We helped one another become stronger in all areas of communication, but also life in general."

Mike Winter: "The ability to work in groups has been very beneficial. When I go into a group with others who haven't had my background, I tend organize the group because I have the tools to help the group run successfully. I am going through job interviews now, and almost always there is a question about working in groups. I don't remember an interview when I haven't talked about CommSkills."

Sarah Sutter: "My friends from CommSkills have helped me all four years of college. The learning environment in Comm-Skills is unique because it allows everyone in the classroom to interact, not just the outspoken students and the teacher. It also emphasizes growth as a student and a person."

Mandy Ranalli: "In one of my classes, we worked with a textbook company, and I used everything I learned in Comm-Skills. We actually did a whole presentation for everyone in the company, including the CEO. CommSkills has never come into play more than in that experience--my people skills, my speaking skills, the PowerPoint, and the organization."

Jonathan Sparks: "When we were interning in Switzerland, we knew how to do the presentations. Those communication skills will definitely be necessary in the business world when we get jobs."