Student Social Isolation and University Life

Most students experience various forms of isolation during their studies. This can be a more or less persistent feeling that impacts students’ wellbeing and/or their capacity to fulfil their study potential. Whether the causes are academic, environmental, socio-cultural or health related, social isolation can be remedied at the point of crisis or as a preventative measure throughout students’ university life. This has never been more so since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Causes of Social Isolation

At The University of Sydney Business School (USBS), the risk of social isolation is significant for its students because of the school’s large class sizes of very diverse students. Large classes are an issue because of the distance from lecturers and tutors it creates and the anonymity it engenders. Great heterogeneity in students is a challenge to establishing connections and developing a sense of community. The combination of large class sizes and increased diversity can, therefore, be central to students’ poor experiences at university.

Social isolation is a complex issue. The term is used to refer to a cause or an impact. It is synonymous with loneliness, depression and anxiety and general feelings of being disconnected from a place or others. Social isolation can be punctual or persistent, time and space sensitive. The causes and impact of such feelings depend, among other things, on an individual’s circumstances.


Research conducted at USBS shows that although the causes, coping strategies and impact can become locked into a downward spiral, this is not an irreversible process. Indeed, this spiral can be interrupted by a ‘functional’ intervention of the student themselves (i.e. self-help); or the intervention of an external party (e.g. family, a friend, university staff). Whether a one off or ongoing intervention, this can directly or indirectly prevent, mitigate or remedy the causes and/or the impact of social isolation.

A wholistic approach to remedying causes and impact of student social isolation

At a university level, to remedy student social isolation, it is important to adopt a collaborative, student-centric and wholistic approach (Kahu & Nelson, 2018). We can also better engage with students at risk or experiencing social isolation at critical points in their university journey. This can be done through existing support services but also through pedagogical strategies that enhance connection and agency (Schar et al., 2016). Finally, it requires the appropriate resourcing to implement and manage academic, socio-cultural and health support, services and programs. We can also train staff and regularly evaluate and adjust the approaches we take.

You can read the full report in the university library repository. We would love to hear from you about successful approaches you have used to mitigate student isolation in your courses.


Kahu, E. R., & Nelson, K. (2018). Student engagement in the educational interface: understanding the mechanisms of student success. Higher Education Research & Development, 37(1), 58-71.

Schar, M., Harris, A., Witt, R. J., Rice, R., & Sheppard, S. (2016). Connecting for Success: The Impact of Student-to-Other Closeness on Performance in Large Scale Engineering Classes. Paper presented at the ASEEA 123rd Conference, New Orleans.

Banner photo credit: Ahmed Nishaath on Unsplash

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