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Reducing the Psychological Size of Your Campus

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Have you considered the psychological size of your campus? Its physical span across a number of acres or miles may be well established, but the psychological size is another terrain altogether. For starters, it’s unique to each student. 

Psychological size is a term used by Dr. George Kuh to describe how big a campus feels to a student. If a student is part of a tight-knit community or has a strong personal network, it helps make a large campus feel smaller. If a student does not have these connections, however, a large campus can become very overwhelming. 

Dr. Kuh talks about psychological campus size in his book, Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter. He also referenced this idea in a recent talk he gave at Knack Headquarters during the 3rd Annual USF National Student Success Conference. During this short presentation, Dr. Kuh discussed how initiatives can best support student success, exploring how high-impact practices, in particular, can “foster belonging by shrinking the psychological size of the institution.”

What do efforts to reduce the psychological size of a campus look like? What are the benefits? Here are a few things to consider. 

Current Programs Leading the Way 

To the credit of higher education as a whole, a tremendous amount of time, energy, and strategic planning is already being put into efforts that help reduce the psychological size of campuses across the country. Whether it’s called “building community,” “creating connections,” or “increasing student engagement,” campus administrators know this is important, and there’s plenty of research to prove it. Specifically considering the psychological size of your campus, however, offers a new framework from which to understand a program’s value in helping an institution reach its goals for student success. 

Residence halls and the initiatives they administer certainly help reduce psychological campus size for students who live on campus. From the design of buildings to the facilitation of programming, these spaces are an excellent vehicle to make large campuses feel a bit more like home. Focused efforts such as living-learning communities support both academic and social success — reducing psychological campus size is a natural byproduct.

Student clubs and organizations are another mainstay that help reduce the psychological size of your campus for students. The bonds students make as members of a student group, while taking on leadership positions, serving in volunteer opportunities, or going on service trips, help to support their overall well-being. Specifically, involvement in campus activities helps to prevent students from feeling isolated, detached, or lost, especially on a large campus. The more you can drive student engagement, the more the psychological size of your campus can be reduced as students find their place among their peers. 

Social events specific to certain academic majors or areas of concentration are another great way to reduce the psychological size of your campus. Efforts like Berkeley Connect, which was featured in one of our Knack Spotlights, seek to increase social comfort in an academic environment by fostering personal connections based on intellectual interests. Reducing the psychological size of the Berkeley campus appears to be a driving force of the program as it aims to “combine the intellectual strength of UC Berkeley with the supportive community that you might find at a small liberal arts college.”

As mentioned, high-impact practices (HIPs) can also help reduce the psychological size of your campus. HIPs such as service learning, collaborative assignments, learning communities, and first-year experiences help students feel more connected to their peers. Reducing the psychological size of your campus also comes in “campus environments that challenge and support students in distinctive ways,” as noted in this paper by Dr. Kuh and Dr. Kathleen Manning. Their joint work details five suggestions to reduce the psychological size of a campus, including considering the physical environment, local community, and traditions/ceremonies that bond students to one another and to the institution. 

Positive Effects and Prevention 

Reducing the psychological size of your campus creates positive effects on the student experience, while also serving as a tremendous prevention tool. Positive effects include a greater sense of belonging, higher confidence, and more social connectivity with others. This not only helps students feel more at ease in building relationships with peers but can also make establishing relationships with faculty feel less intimidating. All of this can work together for increased rates of student retention, persistence, and student success.  

Just as there is a difference between the physical size and psychological size of a campus, the same is true of physical safety and psychological safety. Reducing the psychological size of your campus can help to increase the psychological safety your students feel in their campus environment. This combination means that instead of feeling overwhelmed or lost in a sea of faces, students feel connected to a few key people and, as a result, feel safe taking risks and being vulnerable during their college career. This isn’t just a psychological relief for students — it also fosters their growth and development, allowing them to maximize their overall college experience. 

Reducing the psychological size of your campus can also be a prevention tool, especially during the first six weeks of college when students are at the highest risk in terms of health and safety. Campuses already work very hard to get students exposed to resources and education during this critical time in an effort to prevent or reduce incidents. Programs, events, meet-and-greets, game nights, and welcome weeks help students build connections and create familiarity with their new campus.

All of these efforts aim to prevent or reduce feelings of isolation, loneliness, and homesickness, which can impact mental health and student success. We know that students who begin their college experience feeling alone, lost, or overwhelmed are at a higher level of social and academic risk. Reducing the psychological size of your campus helps to smooth the adjustment to college life, ultimately resulting in higher levels of persistence and retention.

The Role of Peer Programs

Peer programs offer a unique type of social connectivity that helps to greatly reduce the psychological size of your campus. Peer leaders like resident advisors and orientation leaders are key in building a great student experience. That said, these type of roles primarily engage with large groups of students at a time, whereas peer tutoring and mentoring programs can offer a 1:1 dynamic.

Given the structure of these peer relationships, students are often able to build trust and familiarity more quickly. As a result, the relationship has a better chance to become a solid, consistent source of support. After all, reducing the psychological size of your campus to the level of a one-on-one relationship is the most reduced you can get. 

The students working as peer tutors and mentors also benefit from these relationships in terms of their effect on reducing their psychological campus size. While other student leader roles may involve engaging with bigger groups of students, which can create pressure to be “on” while working, the more personal dynamic of tutoring and mentoring offers a relaxed, casual atmosphere where peer leaders can simply be themselves. While peer tutors and mentors are not usually the students who have the greatest need for the psychological size of their campus to be reduced, opportunities to develop meaningful relationships can surely help them flourish. 

The benefit, then, of peer tutoring and mentoring programs is that they support the increased social connection of both students in the relationship, making them a double-value effort to reduce the psychological size of your campus for more students.