Chapter 7: Encouraging Student Cohesiveness
    Chapter 7: Encouraging Student Cohesiveness

    The fourth of the Four Conditions relates to the mutual support students provide to one another. Tinto (1993) suggests that students’ relationships are an important condition influencing degree completion. Numerous studies have determined that positive peer interaction correlates with degree completion (Bair & Haworth, 1999). Peer support was found to be critically important for women and "minority" students, who reported lower levels of support and have higher attrition rates (Rocha-Singh, 1992). For instance, female students placed a greater value and need on academic-based peer support groups, especially for science courses. Additionally, Adkins-Hutchinson (1996) found that academic and social integration improved the academic success of black doctoral students. Programs that provide and encourage social support increase the likelihood of full integration into a graduate program.

     

    As echoed in the research, doctoral student cohesiveness is extremely important in doctoral education (Lovitts, 2001). In order to ensure nurture positive relationships among students, we first asked current doctoral students and faculty to describe student cohesiveness in their programs. We also examined the methods programs were utilizing to facilitate these relationships. Last, we studied what program practices would be most effective for promoting doctoral student cohesiveness.

     

    Both faculty and doctoral students in the current study suggest that due to the challenging nature of doctoral education, other students can provide a sense of community and support. One student echoes the importance of student support by stating, "If you didn’t have it [support], it could be so alienating and isolating to be a graduate student." One faculty member respondent explains that cohesiveness occurs because, "Anytime one's self image is challenged as it is for most people going into a graduate program, it's only natural for people to reach out to others and form bonds to help them through." Students experience a sense of community that can be helpful during both the successful and the more difficult periods of doctoral education. For example, one participant states, "During preliminaries, we get together and share notes...we usually have parties when people get jobs. When people fail prelims we gather around them…Therefore, I think there is a supportive culture." Beyond the realm of graduate school, faculty also report that this social support is important for developing collegiality which will be an asset in their professional careers.

     

    However, our findings also indicate that students do not always demonstrate positive relationships with one another. For instance, students were sometimes (either intentionally or unintentionally) divided within their program by differences in culture, separate research teams, or by cohort. Additionally, many of the participants reported that the sense of community can decline during the later years of doctoral education due the potentially competitive and/or isolating nature of research and academic pursuits. One student describes it this way, "Independent research and writing scholarship is a pretty solitary pursuit and writing a dissertation is a solitary pursuit. So, there is not much that a sense of community has to offer to people in a situation like that."

     

    The majority of the programs (94%) did sponsor and support activities designed to foster social support and collaborative learning. Some programs have students serve on departmental committees and task forces. Others develop organizations that encourage participation by both faculty and students, or form professional organizations and journals specifically for students. Another way the participating programs increased interactions among students is through establishing physical spaces, such as connected offices or a student lounge, that encourage dialogue.

     

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