The impact of community on learning

When I learned that William Jewell College would be switching to online learning for the remainder of the semester in the wake of COVID-19, there were many challenges that I anticipated. What would class look like outside of the traditional classroom? Would I have a quiet space with good internet to get work done? How would I manage to keep up with school work while my mind was preoccupied with fears regarding a global pandemic? 

When I returned home, I had more time on my hands than I ever had before. I didn’t feel particularly stressed. I was fortunate to have a good study space and a healthy family. My professors did their best to provide positive learning experiences through Zoom and Moodle assignments. They were kind and understanding, cutting down on my workload significantly and providing extensions when needed.  

So, with all of my previous apprehensions soothed, I didn’t understand why school had become such a struggle. As a motivated and hardworking student, I was caught off guard by how little I suddenly cared about the work I was doing. I was putting off assignments later than I ever had before. The quality of my essays had taken a massive hit, as had my ability to focus.

It turns out that while my initial apprehensions all had some degree of validity, the biggest challenge online learning posed to me was one I hadn’t anticipated. It was the lack of community.

“We are critical thinkers in community pursuing meaningful lives,” reads William Jewell College’s philosophy. The phrase “critical thinking” has become pretty familiar to most Jewell students, as has “meaningful lives.” Many of our courses frequently emphasize these two important values. However, I have now had to grapple with a very different conception of community. This period of isolation has made me realize that community is the most important aspect of the college philosophy to my personal Jewell experience. 

The aspect of my community I thought I would miss most was my social life. I knew I would miss eating every meal with friends, having people across the hall to talk through problems with and professors to visit during office hours. I was prepared to struggle without the larger-scale meaning of community, as well. No more Kansas City or Liberty, which has become my home away from home. No in-person activities, like Nonprofit Leadership Association or Greek Life. These examples of community are things that I miss dearly, but the reason online education has been a struggle goes deeper.

I have always thought of myself as a self-motivated person. However, online schooling has taught me that I am actually very much other-motivated – and I don’t think I’m alone. When I hear my roommate wake up early on a weekend and start working on homework, it motivates me to do so, too. I apply for opportunities because I see my peers applying. I start a paper early because I want to start it before any of my classmates do. Call it hyper-competitive or call it inspiration – either way it’s motivation that has gone missing.

When I have no roommate to hear waking up early in the morning to study, I sleep late. When I don’t hear my peers talking about applying for an opportunity, I let the application date pass. When I never see my classmates working on a paper, I wait until the evening it’s due. Community is the cure for complacency. It creates our drive by positively reinforcing studious behaviors and punishing procrastination. 

In a world of stay at home orders, there is no punishment for procrastination. There isn’t an event I’m going to have to skip if I put my paper off to the last minute because there are no events. My friends won’t be upset with me if I have to bail on dinner to study because we won’t be dining together anyway. 

However, it’s not only the motivation to do schoolwork that suffers without community. It’s also the quality of work. Ideas find their birthplace in community. Whether it’s a heated discussion in class or a casual conversation with a friend in the PLC, the best inspiration tends to strike in the company of others. 

At Jewell, I have been grateful to always be in good company. Jewell students consider the typical cardinal to be a high achiever and extremely involved. In fact, many students even feel that the environment is a little too competitive. I have noticed that students frequently argue about who is the most busy, as if getting the least amount of sleep is a competition to win. Clearly, this need to achieve can be toxic. However, in moderation, it is what makes Jewell students successful. 

The transition to online school has made me realize that many of my successes would have never been possible without my community – and not just the professors or friends who directly helped me. The culture of Jewell as a whole always inspires me to work harder and be better. While living outside of that environment has made me less stressed, it also has made me feel unsatisfied with myself as both a student and a person. 

We can have successful Zoom classes, create calm, quiet study spaces with WiFi hotspots and even be fortunate enough to have healthy family members and financial stability in the midst of a global pandemic, but these things alone are not enough to replicate a productive learning environment. It is our community that challenges us, inspires us and motivates us. Our community gives our lives meaning, which is why it is so important to take proper distancing measures to protect the health of our community. 

I look forward to the day our Jewell community can come back together, both because of how much I miss it and because of the positive impact I know it will have on my learning. Until then, we must remember to push, support and inspire each other creatively and intellectually from afar.

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