"Only connect": A mixed methods study of how first-year students create residential academic and social networks

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Higher Education


Vincent Tinto


Learning communities, Social network, Engagement, Residence halls, Integration, Academic networks

Subject Categories



A key component in the success of students' first-year experience is their successful academic and social integration into the college environment (Tinto, 1993). Researchers have specified integration in terms of student behaviors and perceptions (Berger & Milem, 1999; Hurtado & Carter, 1997) and also studied it in terms of engagement (Kuh, 2009) or peer effects (Astin, 1993). Educators ask the question not whether integration or engagement matter, but how to make it matter. In response, an increasing number of educators have begun to focus more attention on the residential and curricular learning communities that can structure a first-year student's academic and social interactions. Researchers have found generally positive relationships between learning community involvement and engagement, academic success, and successful college transitions (Inkelas et al., 2007; Pasque & Murphy, 2005; Pike, 1999; Stassen, 2003; Zhao & Kuh, 2004). However, we know very little about the specific character of engagement and the social and academic networks that students develop during their first year. These group environments may influence with whom and about what students engage. If student peer interactions are important, then the "socially engineered" environments administrators facilitate--such as residential learning communities or campus-wide organizations--also deserve careful thought because of their educational implications.

Typical analyses of student integration and success typically ignore the relational structure that underlies the actual process of relationship formation. Social network analysis is a tool that can be used to study the particular relationships among students in a community. Network analysis takes such relationships and social network structures as the fundamental unit of analysis, rather than individuals (Scott, 2000; Wasserman & Faust, 1994). This study used social network analysis along with qualitative methods to trace the process of academic and social peer relationship development within two specific communities--an arts-themed residential learning community and a random-assignment residence hall floor--and how those networks may be related to academic outcomes and involvement.

This project is a case study of two residential communities at a mid-size, private university in the Northeast. Two specific cases--a pair of floors involved in one arts-themed learning community compared to one random-assignment residence hall floor--made up the population of 140 students. Students responded to a paper social network survey once during November 2006 and once during April 2007. I interviewed 45 of the students once in Fall 2006 and again in Spring 2007, and 20 of the same students a third time in Fall 2007. I also used participant observation methods to observe floor meetings, classes, and field trips during the academic year.

Results of the study indicated that that the networks within the two communities developed along similar lines, but in the learning community the academic and social ties developed more quickly. Learning community students tended to create concurrent academic and social ties during their first semester, while the random-assignment floor students formed mostly social ties in the first semester and then both social and academic ties in the second. The learning community also created a higher percentage of academic and social relationships among students. The institution facilitated the structure of student relationships through homophily within the learning community and the institution's emphasis on major and professional socialization. Finally, network measures of a student's relationship to all other students in the community was predictive of second-semester extracurricular involvement, but not first-semester GPA. Membership in a learning community writing course did have a relationship with higher first-semester GPA. These results suggested that it was not the label "learning community" that influenced involvement, but rather the student's structural locations in their relationship networks, regardless of what the community was called, were important for facilitating campus involvement.

This study demonstrated the importance of understanding the specific structures of academic and social relationships within campus communities. It has implications for how researchers conceive of and measure academic and social integration, as well as how administrators create campus environments that foster relationship development within and across student groups. Empirically, this research furthers our understanding of how students construct academically and socially beneficial peer relationships over time within residential environments, which may lead to positive educational outcomes.


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