Decades of research demonstrates that student learning and well-being in higher education are enhanced by positive relationships with peers and instructors (Felten and Lambert 2020).

Yet, one common challenge with relationship-rich education is scale. How is this possible when I’m teaching so many students? Sometimes the challenge is a single course with hundreds of students. Other times the number of students adds up over several sections an instructor is teaching in the same term. And sometimes the total isn’t all that large but plans for teaching and feedback (and everything else on an instructor’s plate) feel overwhelming.

I don’t want to minimize the difficulties of teaching and learning at scale, yet I believe three practices can make relationship-rich education possible no matter how many students you teach.

First, explain to students that educationally purposeful peer relationships will support their academic success and well-being. Students, particularly first-generation ones, often don’t know this —and some students became disengaged and isolated when Covid disrupted their educations. To help them to actively build constructive relationships with peers, we need to tell them that these peer relationships matter. Martha Mullally, a biology professor at Carleton University in Canada, does this regularly in her large courses (Supiano 2023). Professor Mullally tells students, “The reality is that science is a team sport” so if you want to be successful as a student and professional in STEM fields, you need to learn to work well with diverse people. She also stresses that learning with peers is more effective than studying on your own—plus it’s more fun. Making the benefits of peer relationships explicit to students is a vital first step toward relationship-rich education.

Second, use structured active learning to help students develop those peer relationships during class time. In STEM education, the research is clear that active learning increases student learning (e.g., Freeman et al. 2014) and narrows achievement gaps (e.g., Theobald et al. 2020). Active learning pedagogies are what my co-authors and I call “relationship accelerators” because these approaches spark and support educationally purposeful student peer connections (Felten et al. 2023, Chapter 7). However, simply offering optional chances to connect is not enough, particularly in large enrollment courses where students often feel (and are) isolated and anonymous. Instead, active learning should be structured into the design of your course, making this relationship accelerator required of and rewarding for students (Hogan and Sathy 2022, p. 32). One particularly impressive study shows that these structured interactions are central to student learning (particularly for Black and Hispanic undergraduates) in large enrollment biology courses, regardless of whether those are taught online, in-person, or in a hybrid format (Gavassa et al. 2019). Making the peer-peer educational interactions integral to a course is a second step toward relationship-rich education at scale.

Finally, balance student- and instructor-created groups to help students develop diverse and meaningful peer connections during structured active learning. Annika Fjelkner Pihl, a business professor at Kristianstad University in Sweden, has done particularly helpful research on this topic. For several years she has taught large enrollment (~200 student) first-year courses in business at her university. She noticed that when given the opportunity to form their own groups for active learning and assignments, her students tended to pick peers who were like them in significant ways (e.g., immigrant/international or Swedish native; residential or commuter). Since her academic program prepares students to work in diverse professional settings, this homogeneity concerned her; however, when she formed student groups, she found that students reported being more stressed and anxious because they were working with unfamiliar peers.

Her research suggests one effective way to support student well-being and also to help students learn to work with diverse peers. She begins the academic year with students regularly working in teacher-assigned small groups on low stakes (not significant for the course grade) learning activities. She frequently changes group composition at this stage so students have the chance to collaborate with many peers. Then, as the course progresses, she increasingly shifts to students selecting their own groups for higher stakes learning activities. This approach leads to students choosing more diverse peers than they would have at the beginning of the year, but not reporting higher stress or anxiety. Figure 1 illustrates this pattern.

A four-quadrant graph with the following labels: "teacher assigned" at the top, "student selected" at the bottom, "low stakes" on the left, and "high stakes" on the right. Text in the top-left quadrant says "start here," and text in the bottom quadrant says "end here."
(adapted from Fjelkner Pihl, 2021, p. 93)

Sequencing how student groups are formed seems to achieve two important academic goals in a relational way: preparing students to work and learn with diverse peers while attending to their well-being.

These three steps are not the only path to relational education at scale, but they do suggest that by designing our courses for structured peer learning we can give students the benefits of relationship-rich education without overwhelming already busy instructors.


Felten, Peter, and Leo Lambert. 2020. Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Felten, Peter, Leo Lambert, Isis Artze-Vega, and Oscar Miranda Tapia. 2023. Connections Are Everything: A College Student’s Guide to Relationship-Rich Education. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Fjelkner-Pihl, A. 2021. “Building Study-Related Relationships.” Doctoral Dissertation; Sweden: Lund University.

Freeman, Scott, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth. 2014. “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111 (23): 8,410–8,415.

Gavassa, Sat, Rocio Benabentos, Marcy Kravec, Timothy Collins, and Sarah Eddy. “Closing the Achievement Gap in a Large Introductory Course by Balancing Reduced In-Person Contact with Increased Course Structure.” CBE—Life Sciences Education 18 (1).

Hogan, Kelly A., and Viji Sathy. 2022. Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom. West Virginia University Press.

Supiano, Beckie. 2023. “Why One Professor Urged Students to Make a Friend in Her Course.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (Teaching). August 24, 2023.

Theobald, Elli J., Mariah J. Hill, Elisa Tran, Sweta Agrawal, E. Nicole Arroyo, Shawn Behling, Nyasha Chambwe et al. 2020. “Active Learning Narrows Achievement Gaps for Underrepresented Students in Undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 117 (12): 6,476–6,483.

Peter Felten is Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning, Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning, and Professor of History at Elon University. He has published six books about undergraduate education including most recently (with Leo Lambert, Isis Artze-Vega, and Oscar Miranda Tapia) Connections Are Everything: A College Student’s Guide to Relationship-Rich Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023).

How to Cite this Post

Felten, Peter. 2024. “Relationship-Rich Education at Scale, aka the Too Many Bodies Problem.” Center for Engaged learning (blog), Elon University. April 16, 2024.