Many students in our current undergraduate cohorts are different from those before them. Lockdowns and online learning provided an enhanced digital landscape as an alternative to a vibrant social campus.
‘Back to normal’ is a fallacy that can leave these students without the social supports included in a typical university experience. Clubs and other formalised services privilege confident, out-going students. A growth in social anxiety has been actively observed by both our teaching staff and the students themselves, where the culture of university has become a ‘tap-in tap-out’ service rather than a community of learning. In a most recent TD Elective subject, we sought to address this.
A number of teams referred to the challenges they perceived for their cohort in having the confidence to connect socially. They felt informal, fun activities could support not only their mental health but also their engagement with their academic work and motivation.Monique Potts, Tutor
Introducing a B-plot for social interaction
So, how can we support students to interact and form organic social connections in a classroom setting? I propose that introducing a ‘B-Plot’, or secondary narrative, that runs parallel to class content can support informal moments of social interaction.
Inspired by the NBC tv show ‘The Office’ (S2 E3, 2005), I ran an ‘Office Olympics’ throughout the 6-day intensive subject that I coordinated during the July Session 2023: Reframing, remixing, reimagining societies. This involved a daily 15-minute activity run before lunch for those who had completed their self-directed content. Activities included Paper Planes, Cup Towers, Cookie Race, Flip Cup (without the drinks), Trashketball and a Grand Final relay of all previous activities. Tutors Kate Elton, Monique Potts and Sean Walsh each supported this process by encouraging student participation in their tutorial groups each day.
The Office Olympics were designed to alleviate some of the social anxiety in the cohort and provide an incentive to complete work in a timely fashion, but they also allowed moments for mental rest. Building in these pauses supported students to subconsciously think through what they learned and recharge for the afternoon session. The implementation of physical games, as opposed to mental/word games also allowed for social interaction without eye contact or personal reflection, leading to laughter and organic, casual conversation.
The activities weren’t hierarchical or high stakes (besides the biscuits) – quieter students were more likely to step up and participate. Similarly, the ‘class dominators’, because the games were not high stakes, tended to not involve themselves, giving space for the others to engage.Sean Walsh, Tutor
While scheduled in the subject timetable, the Office Olympics was left vulnerable to changing class conditions and student needs. Inclusive considerations were taken into account for each activity where activities were readily updated and altered to meet student needs (such as asking about food needs the morning of the cookie activity and providing nut-free/vegan options such as Oreos).
Students were actively invited to collaborate in adding or altering the events in the Office Olympics. While students didn’t directly approach teaching staff to change the program, they were very happy to take up roles they were offered in the moment (e.g., giving out awards, being an MC or a judge). Others actively made changes to activities that improved them, such as dictating the length of the paper planes competition, playing music to accompany real-time reactions or changing the order of events during the grand final to run more smoothly.
In the end it was a great way to wrap up the subject, with students taking over the MC role and self-organising for the final round.Monique Potts, Tutor
The Office Olympics had an observable impact on community building as well as group dynamics when working on their assessment, and therefore academic performance. Students stayed in the classroom longer, often staying behind after class to keep working with each other or just ‘hanging out’. Even students who did not directly interact with the Office Olympics activities were impacted by others who brought that sense of community back to the tutorial groups.
I definitely feel as though the Office Olympics helped establish a sort of ‘camaraderie’ among my class (who seemed to win almost every single event!) and created a nice bond between myself and all the students, making the class environment more fun and personable.Kate Elton, Tutor
Constructive engagement: while only a small cross-section of the class engaged in each activity, I felt that these people when re-distributed into their respective teams and tutorial groups helped catalyse the cohesiveness of the teams/class.Sean Walsh, Tutor
The increased familiarity between students directly impacted the quality of work produced in the large group assessment for this subject. Student groups were asked to address complex challenge spaces about resiliency, climate change and youth engagement for the industry partner, The Australian Red Cross. Rich, well-researched suggestions for system change were produced by the student groups. This was noticeably observed by guests at the final presentations in each tutorial room including three industry partner representatives in attendance (Angela Guestrau, Joel Mackay and India Roberts-Smillie) who have since asked some students to present extended work to their organisation.
I was inspired by their vision and creativity and touched by their passion for and belief in Red Cross and look forward to linking in with them in future to see where can take their ideas.Joel Mackay, Industry Partner Representative from the Australian Red Cross (Senior Manager Government Engagement)
A powerful collaboration that reframes student thinking, taking them out of their UTS disciplinary to focus on effective ways to mobilise the power of humanity for Australian Red Cross in communities across our nation.Angela Guestrau, Industry Partner Representative from the Australian Red Cross (Strategic Delivery Partner)
From a subject coordination perspective, there was also a large reduction in student complaints about their group members brought to teaching staff in person or over SPARK (the peer review software used for assessment moderation). The subject being largely group-work driven increases the importance of these social connections to facilitate the exchange of ideas and rich work to then be produced.
Overall, the activities supported social interaction, and can support team dynamics – also a point of ‘fun’; to release tension from the high stakes brief (ie, assessment activity).Sean Walsh, Tutor
For future iterations of the Office Olympics, I would explore more opportunities to give students agency in designing and facilitating the events themselves, driving further engagement and meeting their interests. This is one of many different ways to generate a B-plot narrative in a subject for social interaction and it would be great to hear others. Any feedback or extension on this concept by teachers inside and outside the university context (e.g. facilitators) is very welcome – please add any thoughts in the comments box below!