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Creating Classroom Connections


Dr. Joseph Trimble organizes his seminars and small classes to build on people's fundamental need to connect with others. To accomplish his "connection" teaching objective, he has students participate in a series of activities and projects that emphasize their strengths as well as the importance of working with others in small group settings.


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How to Create a More Connected Class

Joseph Trimble, Director,
Institutional Assessment, Research, & Testing
Professor of Psychology
Western Washington University

As a psychologist, I'm keenly aware of the fact that everyone is hardwired to connect with others. As a recent report stated, "The mechanisms by which we become and stay attached to others are biologically primed and increasingly discernible in the basic structure of the brain. With this principle in mind, I organize my seminars and small classes to build on our fundamental need to connect with others. To accomplish my "connection" teaching objective, I have students participate in a series of activities and projects that emphasize their strengths as well as the importance of working with others in small group settings. The activities typically include:

  1. Relationship building through “The Schooling Exercise”;
  2. Use of sociograms or sociographs at the beginning and at the end of the course;
  3. Small group presentation of an research article based on the principles of Eliot Aronson’s “Jigsaw Puzzle Classroom technique”; and
  4. The conduct of a small research project in collaboration with other students in the seminar.

Originally developed in the 1930s by the controversial psychiatrist, Jacob Moreno, a sociogram (or often called a sociograph or sociomatrix) is a graphic representation of social links that people have that can be drawn on the basis of many different criteria such as social relations, channels of influence, lines of communication etc. A sociogram is constructed after students answer a series of questions probing for affiliations with other classmates and how they interact with one another. Based on student responses to a series of questions about their classmates, a visual diagram can be constructed that can be used to identify pathways for patterns of social acceptance among many others possibilities.

The technique identifies student shared understandings and meanings generated through their interaction with one another especially if they all concentrate their study in a specific academic field. In my seminars, I ask students to complete a survey at the beginning and end of the quarter because I’m interested in how the shared relationship patterns change over time. I’m especially interested in the influence seminar activities have on the sociometric choices after 10 weeks of working and studying together.

Small Group Research Projects

For a number of years I’ve been intrigued with a pedagogical technique called the “Jigsaw Puzzle Classroom” developed by the social psychologist, Elliot Aronson – intrigued by it so much that I’ve used variations of the “Jigsaw Puzzle” approach in my small seminars. Basically, the “Jigsaw Puzzle” approach is a cooperative, small group learning and teaching technique where each student's part is essential for the completion and full understanding of the final product ( “If each student's part is essential, then each student is essential; and that is precisely what makes this strategy so effective,” maintains Elliot Aronson. To achieve a successful learning experience students must work together to achieve a common goal – an assignment for which they all will receive the same grade. Each student’s contribution to the project is a puzzle piece and thus for the puzzle to be completed everyone has to finish their assigned task in good form.

In my seminars principally those designated as a capstone course, I require students to participate in small groups to complete two projects – two journal article reviews and a small research project. The learning objective for the activity is to create an opportunity for students to effectively describe, analyze and summarize scientific research articles that describe various social psychological topics.

The Schooling Experience Exercise

The exercise is a short activity that helps students become aware of other’s backgrounds while also assisting them to become aware of the influence of past experiences on their current status in life. It also helps build connections through relationship building. Set aside about 50 minutes to complete the exercise – if you have more than 30 students then it will take much longer.

You'll need at least five sheets of large newsprint paper, a means to attach each one to wall space such as masking tape, and felt tip makers (like "Sharpies"). On each sheet of paper write in big, bold letters at the top the following: "Elementary School"; "Middle School"; "High School"; "College"; and "Future in Ten Years." Ask each student to write or draw one memorable event from his or her personal experiences for each school. For the "future" sheet, have them write down some of their goals for the next decade; the goals should be aimed at understanding and building relationships. Allow enough time for each student to write or draw something on each sheet; encourage them to read what others have written when they finish. When everyone is finished reconvene the students preferably in a circle and ask each student to tell a story about one of the events they recorded on the sheets. Often I have them go to the sheet and point out where they drew a picture or wrote something. Following that activity, open the class up to a discussion and focus on the following questions: What did you learn from one another? What did students have in common? What was surprising?

References and Resources

Connectedness, The TLT Group, a non-profit corporation with a commitment to improving teaching and learning.

The TLT page is a rich resource on the importance of connectedness, and links to an article by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. According to Dr. Hallowell, Connectedness:

"is a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself. It is a sense of belonging, or a sense of accompaniment. It is that feeling in your bones that you are not alone. It is a sense that no matter how scary things may become, there is a hand for you in the dark. While ambition drives us to achieve, connectedness is my word for the force that urges us to ally, to affiliate, to enter into mutual relationships, to take strength and to grow through cooperative behavior."


Sociometry in the Classroom: How to Do It by Lawrence W. Sherman, Ph.D., Professor of Educational Psychology, Miami University

Free Sociogram software: Lewejohann, L. (2005): Sociogram (Version 1.0). [Computer software].

Sociograms: Visualizing Social Networks. Online sociogram creation web application.

Jigsaw Puzzle Classroom

Jigsaw Classroom’s Official web site, by Elliot Aronson, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of California, Santa Cruz.

How to Build a Better Educational System: Jigsaw Classrooms. APA Online.

Using Jigsaw in the College Classroom [PDF] by Susan Ledlow, Center for Learning and Teaching Excellence, Arizona State University (1996).

Schooling Experience Exercise

Cross, R. & Parker, A. (2004). The hidden power of social networks: Understanding how work really gets done in organizations. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. The exercise can be found on pp. 172-173 under the title, "The Decades Exercise."

About the Author

Dr. Joseph TrimbleJoseph Trimble, a Professor of Psychology, a Professor of Education in the Woodring College of Education, Director of the Office of Institutional Assessment, Research and Testing, and a Research Associate in the Center for Cross-Cultural Research at Western Washington University, was awarded a 2007 Presidential Citation from the American Psychological Association's Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues. The award recognizes Dr. Trimble’s 35 year career focused on promoting psychological and sociocultural research with indigenous populations, especially American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Dr. Trimble has been at Western Washington University since 1979, and received the Outstanding Teacher-Scholar Award in 1985, the Excellence in Teaching Award in 1987, and the Outstanding Faculty Research Award in 1999.


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