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'Speed friending' events to combat student isolation

Emma Kelley, UCL's Medical School, explains how she arranged events for her first-year tutees, to interact and get to know their new peers.

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16 June 2021

Emma Kelley, Associate Lecturer, is a personal tutor to 16 first-year medical students. She explains how she created an events series to support first-year medical students that have not had the opportunity to meet other students in real life.  

Transitioning to online learning 

The transition to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic means that first-year medical students have not had the opportunity to meet other students in real life. The issue of isolation for students adjusting to life at university is huge, particularly in the era of COVID-19.

Creating new friendships can be difficult at the best of times but for those students having to self-isolate, remain living at home or whose social bubble only includes their few flatmates has made forging new relationships harder than ever. 

Replicating real-life events 

I tried to find a way of replicating the networking that students may do in real life. There is a reluctance for students to talk in a large group online because everyone can hear their conversation, so I thought that breakout rooms would be a good solution.

Planning a separate social session meant that it was a break from work, and they could start to build relationships that they could then develop in their own time. Students were often saying they had not made any friends but did not feel they could reach out to others themselves, so setting up the situation made it easier for them. 

Introducing ‘speed friending’   

I arranged a “speed friending” event where a group of 14 students were put into pairs in breakout rooms and given four minutes to talk, then brought back to the main room where they could share common ground they had found.

One pair realised they “both love cats” and spent their time playing with one of their pets, another recognised they had the same taste in music and bonded over that.

This continued for an hour with the pairs rotating and getting to know each other. After the session, I left the students to chat amongst themselves with the function enabled to move into different breakout rooms and they stayed chatting for another hour.  

Positive impact on students’ online learning 

The following day was our fortnightly teaching session and the difference in attitudes to online learning was obvious; students were not afraid to answer questions and were much more vocal in our discussions.   

In subsequent individual meetings with students, they reported it had made such a difference and wished we had done it sooner. One student said he felt that he knew his group better now and was able to message them freely without fearing he would not get a reply.

Several had complained prior to the speed friending that they had not made many friends and did not feel they had a good social network but following the event, they felt it was a great start in creating those relationships.   

When students know each other, they are usually more comfortable asking questions, willing to share opinions and engage in discussions. My fourth-year online teaching sessions always begin with students checking in on each other and catching up on the latest news. This creates a positive atmosphere for learning before we start.

This idea of collaborative learning which has students work together to complete a task by developing pooled knowledge (Dillenbourg, 1999) makes learning a social process. When students have only met via Zoom during our tutorials, the dreaded silence following a question can be deafening. This compounded with the loss of instant feedback in the classroom setting has made it increasingly difficult to create engaging teaching sessions.

NBOURG, P. 1999. What do you mean by collaborative learning?: Oxford: Elsevier. 

Using technology to facilitate ‘ice breakers’  

Once I had the idea, it was only a matter of setting up a Zoom call and getting the students engaged with the idea, which was not difficult as they were keen to get to know each other.  

The hardest thing that I found during the session was ensuring pairs had not already been matched together, which is hard to overcome on Zoom, so I have since used a website called “Gatheround” which follows a similar principle, putting students into pairs or small groups in breakout rooms and answering pre-prepared questions together.

These range from the traditional: “What’s the meaning behind your name?” and “What's your favourite thing to cook?” to an amusing “Would you rather’” session with questions like “Have a foot-long belly button that dances along to whatever music is playing or accordions for legs?” and “Speak all languages or be able to speak to animals?” which students particularly enjoyed.  

Setting up a Gatheround session involves choosing separate groups from pre-prepared questions and adding my own for a more personal session. 

Social life is key to a positive student experience  

For first-year students, starting university is often a balancing act between practicalities such as where to go for lectures, studying the new content and attending Freshers’ week events to make new friends.

The transition to online learning due to the Covid-19 pandemic means that practicalities now include finding the links to online content and getting their microphone to work on Zoom.

During Freshers’ week, despite best efforts, new students at UCL did not have the opportunity to participate in face-to-face activities or the luxury of meeting other students in real life. A rich social life is key to being a student, so providing a platform for students to meet can be helpful. 

Scaling up to support year-wide events  

We held a year-wide event for all 380 first-year medical students to meet each other. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of technology with Zoom only allowing 50 breakout rooms and Gatheround only able to have 200 participants, we had two separate sessions and received great feedback on the events. 

The main feedback was to involve Academic Reps in the planning, which we have done for subsequent events and this has worked really well. 

We are planning more events for next year and will adapt them depending on COVID-19 guidelines. They may even be able to be in-person speed friending events.

Sharing best practice with personal tutors

This was a first for UCL Medical School, I have since shared the idea with the other personal tutors and we have run subsequent sessions with several groups combined that have been a success. 

When I first moved to London, I went to a speed friending event and found it was a fantastic way to meet lots of people in a brief period. Repeated lockdowns and social distancing measures have made it extremely difficult for students to socialise, so I thought online speed friending may be an effective way to fix this. 

Emma's top tips for hosting a similar event 

  1. Getting your students engaged is key, tell them why it will be beneficial for them as a chance to meet people.
  2. Using a different platform like Gatheround felt like a break for students and the prompt questions takes away the potential awkwardness.
  3. Ask your students what they want and what would help them to engage with their peers.
  4. Be strategic with when you plan events, we had one the day after their formative exam so that they could debrief.
  5. Students seem to be finding it harder to reach out and make the effort to engage with others, so they really appreciate the effort in supporting them and encouraging new friendships!