By William Harms
Photo by Robert Kozloff

A class project for one of psychology graduate student Elizabeth Majka’s seminars on social connectedness led to a group “laugh-in” in the Social Sciences Quadrangle.

“I asked those students to conduct a literature review related to the course theme and then design an activity that would improve social connectedness on campus. It turns out that in India, groups of people get together every morning for laughter clubs and just laugh together,” she says.

Some of the students did research on that (and, more generally on the physical and psychological benefits of social laughter) and organized a similar event in which they invited people to join them in laughter during the week before final exams.

Anecdotally, Majka says the event seemed to not only put students in a good mood, but connected them with strangers. “As a researcher, I am interested in helping people maintain a sense of belonging—our most fundamental human motivation. It was awesome to see students take what they had learned from their scholarly work and use it to positively impact their local community.”

One group surveyed Chicago Public Schools teachers and looked at how teachers perceive and foster a sense of social connection in their classrooms. Another group looked at how participating in Greek life effects social identity and academic outcomes.

In addition to the seminar on social connectedness and lab courses for research assistants in her psychology lab, Majka has taught introductory psychology, statistics, and research methods. She also has pursued the certificate in university teaching through the Center for Teaching and Learning.

“I try to think very carefully about my course objectives—and then every component of the course flows from those objectives. It’s not just about “covering material. In terms of how I structure my classes, I always incorporate some kind of final project, but it is preceded by frequent, low-risk assignments to scaffold students’ learning and provide them with feedback.

“We can’t assume that our students—even brilliant U of C undergrads—know the basic 'tools of the trade' when they walk into our classrooms. In most of my classes, for example, students practice generating theoretically derived hypotheses, graphing their predicted results, and articulating the underlying mechanisms. These are skills they need to develop by practicing and receiving feedback,” she explained.

Majka has worked with undergraduates as a preceptor for the Department of Psychology and as the graduate student adviser for Psi Chi, the UChicago psychology club. She also mentors research assistants and helps advise honors theses. Many of her students have presented research at undergraduate and professional conferences.

A bachelor’s graduate of Beloit College and a master’s graduate of the Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences at UChicago, she hopes to find a teaching/research position at a liberal arts college after earning her PhD.

“I really thrived in the learning atmosphere of a small liberal arts college, and I look forward to teaching and mentoring students in that tradition. It just feels like home,” she says.

Originally published on June 3, 2013.