Peer Interaction and Learning in Compositionally Diverse Residence Halls

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2007-12-18

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This collective case study investigated how peer interactions occurred in two racially and ethnically diverse, first year residential communities at a mid sized public research university. For each case, minority students from two or more racial or ethnic identities composed at least 40% of the floor's population. The study provides descriptions of diverse peer interactions and subsequent learning outcomes as described by residents. Characteristics and conditions which support or impede diverse peer interactions and impact learning are suggested.

Anxious to make friends and seeking support to reach academic goals, first year students developed relationships with other residents in close proximity to them regardless of perceived differences before later branching out to form relationships outside of the floor. The strategies residents used to interact with diverse peers and included: 1) participating in neutral activities, 2) finding similarities, and 3) joking. By observing the living environments and actions of diverse others and by participating in neutral activity residents discovered hidden similarities. Residents in these diverse environments avoided serious conversations about race and ethnicity instead navigating diverse peer relationships by joking about differences. Prior diversity experiences, heightened emotions and desire for friends influenced students' initial comfort with diverse peer interaction, but over time students with and without prior diversity experience engaged in diverse peer interaction due to diverse composition of floor and expectations of sustained contact. By living in close or intimate quarters with others different from themselves, residents encountered simple cultural differences. Observations of similarities and simple differences stimulated questions and conversations. Curiosity, proximity and increased comfort allowed students to encounter new values and beliefs creating both confusion and excitement. Diverse peer observations and interactions facilitated a variety of desirable learning outcomes including increased openness to diversity, willingness to consider new ideas, reduction of prejudice and stereotyping, increased perspective taking, better listening and communication skills and an increased willingness to compromise and act with polite consideration of others. Interacting with diverse peers in a compositionally diverse residence community provided the challenges necessary to prompt new ways of seeing the world.

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