Fostering a Sense of Belonging in Our Students, Part II: The Hevruta Method
By Annette Finley-Croswhite
Sharing ideas is often the basis of learning. Traditional Jewish learning supports intellectual development through the practice of hevruta, or studying Torah in pairs or small groups. Within each hevruta grouping, students communicate with each other on a regular basis to enhance learning and solve problems. Hevruta (also spelled havruta) is Aramaic for "friendship." The word emphasizes the centrality of the human need for communicative interaction and reflects the benefits that come from shared exploration. When hevruta groups meet together, they are referred to as hevrutot.
In the 21st century, educators in the wider world have adopted hevruta as a pedagogical strategy that stresses the importance of students helping each other. Applicable in any classroom, it is peer-guided work in which the teacher takes a step back and encourages students to learn on their own - in other words, practice "active learning." The hevruta method also supports the scholarly literature on "sense of belonging." "Belonging" is tied to "mattering," and humans need to feel connected to know they matter.
In my fall 2021 course, I experimented with the hevruta method to build community in my class and also to help students learn course material. I created groups of three students to form hevruta study units and charged them to work together over the course of the semester. Students were then tasked with meeting in hevruta for at least 30 minutes per week, via face-to-face interaction, Zoom, FaceTime or other video methods, or by telephone. Communicating only via email was not acceptable, as the point was to make connections with fellow students by meeting together and sharing ideas about the weekly readings in order to prepare for upcoming classes and/or debrief after classes.
In addition, early in the semester each hevruta group was asked to make a class presentation in a low-stakes assignment. The hevruta groups were also used for peer review of written work before assignments were submitted. Near the end of the semester, the hevruta groups met during class and were prompted to discuss specific questions tied to the entire course; a final discussion brought all the groups together for a larger exchange of ideas. While the final course reflection was produced as independent written work, it was based on the last hevrutot discussion synthesizing course material. I ended the course by using a Google form to collect material from the students about their experience learning in hevruta.
I was pleased with the results and will use the hevruta concept more and more often. By placing students together who might not have otherwise spoken to each other, I felt that community was better forged in the classroom and that professional associations, if not real friendships, were established. Student responses indicated that they enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate and especially to "lean on each other for support." Others indicated that their study group partners were important for digesting difficult material and "working through" complicated readings. When asked to list three terms that described the experience, students wrote positive responses. Some included: "Reflective, Supportive, Friendship"; "Productive, Helpful, Interactive"; Collaborative, Intelligent, Scholarly"; and "Supportive, Affirming, Perspective-Changing." None of the students listed negative terms, so I consider the experiment a success.
Nonetheless, from critical responses to survey questions I learned that students wanted more structure in the hevruta process. They enjoyed the late-semester meeting in which I provided guiding questions, and wished that I had done that more often. I hadn't because I did not want to use the hevruta method like a face-to-face discussion board. Even so, students stated that they wanted prompts. I also felt that a mid-semester survey form, much like the one I used at the end of the course, would have allowed me more insight into the student learning experience early on. A mid-semester form would have also helped me correct any problems students might have had.
The hevruta method creates micro-communities within classrooms while simultaneously promoting collaborative learning. It can work with any size class, even in large lecture sections where anonymity is a problem and "sense of belonging" harder to achieve. Instructor oversight remains critical to ensure student participation and to mitigate any problems, especially if participation is uneven among student groupings. With large lecture sections, graduate teaching assistant oversight could be particularly helpful.
The hevruta method is an ancient form of learning. It remains highly effective today in helping students share knowledge and develop sense of belonging.
Kent, O., & Cook, A. (2012). Havruta inspired pedagogy: fostering an ecology of learning for closely studying texts with others. Journal of Jewish Education, 78, 227-253.
Shargel, R., & Laster, B. P. (2016). Partner learning (Havruta) for close reading comprehension. English Journal, 105(3), 63-68.