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Foster a Sense of Family on Campus with Lessons from Military Family Research

After years of researching close-knit families on military installations, this professor realized their lessons could help students build campus connections, too.

Educator

Mallory Lucier-Greer, PhD

Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies, Auburn University

PhD in Human Development and Family Studies, MS in Human Development and Family Studies with a specialization in Marriage and Family Therapy, BS in Psychology, BA in Speech Communication and Rhetoric

There are times in life when we are inclined to feel invisible. College can be one of them.

When Dr. Mallory Lucier-Greer first began teaching at Auburn University in Alabama, she was reminded of one of her own notable “invisibility” experiences as a freshman, sitting in a cavernous lecture hall alongside hundreds of students who were strangers to her.

“I remember thinking, ‘No one will know if I’m absent or failing. No one even knows who I am,’” she says. “Now as a professor, I want my students to know that I see them.”

Today, her research on military families contributes to the dialog on family resilience, but it also has helped her to create community as a teacher. She notes that in times of stress and crisis, military communities tend to rally together to support one another. Thus in her teaching, Lucier-Greer wants students to feel seen by her, and she has found strategies to help students “see” one another and rally together when needed—with visible results in the dynamics of her class.

Innovation: Applying family research and theory to build college community

For years, Lucier-Greer has researched the functioning of people within the family unit, as well as the functioning of the family unit itself. Much of her work has focused on the dynamics of military families, including how they stem feelings of loss, communicate during deployment, and build resilience. She has also done general research into parenting behavior, the role of neighbors and community, and strategies to enhance relationships.

Over time, Lucier-Greer noticed some striking connections between her research participants and her students. “There are clear similarities between the family/neighborhood ecosystem and the student/college campus environment,” she says. “I’ve found new ways to build and grow connections between students and watch their positive effect in real time,” she says.

As a result, she has been integrating more family theory into her classes, working to apply that thinking to every lecture and lesson. She also teaches softer skills, such as empathy, compassion, and active listening—all of which are equally important in a nuclear family or a mega-sized class.

Overall, she says, teaching is similar to parenting. “When instructors have control over their classroom—clear syllabus, clear expectations for the class, structure for the learning environment—plus the all-important goodwill and kindness, student outcomes are positively impacted.”

Context

“My teaching process differs depending on whether I am in a large lecture hall, small upper-level course, or mentoring an individual, but my approach is similar: I care about the students and care about the material. I offer clear examples of how to intentionally create different layers of community.”

— Mallory Lucier-Greer, PhD

Course: HDFS 3060 Patterns of Family Interaction

Frequency: Two 75-minute sessions per week

Class size: 50

Course description: This course is designed for the professional who will work with families, and who will have the opportunity to assist families in effectively coping with the patterns of interaction when change (stress) occurs across diverse family forms. Topics include change (stress) in family interaction within general family stress, developmental family forms, transitional family forms, family and community violence, and families encountering sickness, poverty, and death. We will be studying patterns of family interaction from a theoretical and practical point of view—including major theory groups, research and application of findings. Important aspects of the family’s experience of change include the meaning surrounding the event, coping, and social support in the context of the family. Our gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and family structure all interact to create advantages and disadvantages that are often reflected through patterns of family interaction within the family system and between the family and the larger society.

See resources shared by Mallory Lucier-Greer, PhD

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Lesson: Use a layered approach to build family-like connections within the classroom

Lucier-Greer constructs each of her classes to create stronger community engagement, in and out of the classroom. Here is how she does it.

Create moments for in-person connections

To start the semester, Lucier-Greer uses placards and seating charts, because “there’s something important about hearing your name to facilitate engagement.” If the class has fewer than 75 students, her goal is to know each of their names. Sometimes she will start the morning by asking students to turn to a neighbor and give them a fist bump or ask them about the “high and low” of their day. It is a small gesture that she says slowly breaks down the barriers today’s students create when they are consumed with their phones or computers.

Model compassion using family crisis theory

“I see the world through what is known as the ABC-X Model of Family Stress and Crisis and recognize that those around me, including my students, balance numerous stressors and responsibilities in their everyday lives,” says Lucier-Greer. (See below for an overview of the ABC-X Model.)

Following that theory allows Lucier-Greer to give her students the resources they need to succeed. “I do not lower my standards, but I have policies that account for student needs,” she explains. “For example, in a class comprised of underclassmen, students often do poorly on the first exam [because it] requires them to apply course material. I allow students to drop an exam if they take a comprehensive final. Most recently, 30% of the class voluntarily took the final and 93% increased their grade.”

Show what it means to be actively engaged

Lucier-Greer prides herself on outlining clear expectations, promptly responding to student needs, and grading assignments quickly. In return, students are expected to pull their weight, particularly by participating fully in class. This includes work on the seven in-class assignments—from quizzes to presentations—that are required and occur at random throughout the semester.

Give students opportunities to create

There needs to be heavy participation in order for long-term connections to take place, says Lucier-Greer. So she builds requirements that encourage that kind of participation.

“I actively facilitate an environment that is safe for discussing ideas, and I generate assignments that require the synthesis of material,” she says. “It is important to me that students consume and translate research into usable information.” In one class, her students write a research paper and then create a billboard to succinctly convey their topic. “Their creativity and thoughtfulness regularly impress me,” she adds.

Introduce the class to the community

To show students how relevant their family studies are to real life, Lucier-Greer suggests that they do some form of outreach work. For example, students might become involved with on-campus centers, such as the Office of Student Involvement, which provides volunteer and community service opportunities. She also sponsors a program within her department for students to become Certified Family Life Educators.

“My goal is to launch professionals who can positively impact the world using ethical decision making and compassion,” she says. “I have become widely known for my end-of-class salutation: Make good choices. Stand up for what is right.”

Outcomes

Over 90% of all students rated Lucier-Greer’s course content as “Excellent” and indicated that she “stimulated interest in the subject matter” and “demonstrated respect for students.”

Themes from student feedback include an appreciation for her enthusiasm and for lessons that extend beyond the classroom. Students even noted some surprise that professors actually care about their students.

“This class was so much fun. Thank you for caring for your students.”

“I will never forget all that you did for me and how important you made me feel.”

“Dr. Lucier-Greer doesn’t just teach that material, but teaches real life lessons that I’ll carry with me.”

“I was always excited to come to class. Dr. Lucier-Greer is very thorough with the course content and her expectations. She makes all students feel very welcomed and comfortable. She actually seems like she cares about each and every one of us.”

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