Palgrave Teaching and Learning

by Sally Brown (Series Editor)

Social and interpersonal literacy

There are high expectations in the 21st century that students will be capable of learning in social contexts: in virtual contexts this is becoming as important as in face-to-face environments, since group tasks, peer support and peer evaluation are increasingly expected of all students in all environments. The ability to work productively as a member of a group is highly prized by employers and fellow citizens alike, and a goal of good higher education is to produce students who can relate to others and demonstrate what Salovey and Mayer (1990) describe as emotional intelligence. Such students, they suggest, can perceive accurately what others are thinking and doing, appraise and express their own emotions appropriately, access and/or generate feelings when they facilitate thought, understand emotions and emotional thought and regulate their own emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth.

Mortiboys (2005) argues that emotional intelligence can help students be more effective learners by:
  • Being better at understanding and working with others;
  • Employing empathy to achieve the ends they are seeking;
  • Noticing and using non-verbal cues from others;
  • Productively considering how their own non-verbal cues are being perceived;
  • Understanding, expressing and regulating their own emotions;
  • Improving their own capacities for flexible planning and creative thinking. (After Mortiboys, 2005)
We recognise today that being single-minded and highly focused on one’s own achievement might well achieve high scores, but may not be enough to help a graduate have a fulfilling and productive life. Universities and colleges have always been social communities, but this is an increasingly important aspect of their purposes. If we can encourage social and interpersonal literacy among our students, this is likely to be conducive to collaborative learning and collegial behaviour, helping students work together well beyond face-to-face classroom time.

Advice on helping students develop social and interpersonal literacy:
  • Offer coaching and other support to enable students to develop autonomy and independence in their academic lives, rather than always expecting reading and other learning tasks to be directed.
  • Give them opportunities to practise good leadership and good ‘followership’ in group work, participating collegially and in a mutually supportive fashion, rather than acting in domineering or passive aggressive ways.
  • Help them recognise when it is acceptable to interrupt to ask questions and voice opinions in classroom sessions, and when it is best to hold back.
  • Encourage them to give positive and developmental feedback during peer assessment, avoiding excessive negativity and what David Boud terms ‘final language’ that can be damaging to fellow students and make them feel as if they have nowhere to go.
  • Help them recognise when they need to seek personal and/or academic support, and when it is best to go it alone.
  • Encourage them to be socially and culturally inclusive towards fellow students very different from themselves (inclusivity specialists indicate that much discrimination in higher education stems from fellow students rather than other sources).
  • Set out expectations about responsible behaviour in relation to other students in social media contexts, without scape-goating, excessively embarrassing or bullying others.
  • Foster in them the resilience necessary to cope with setbacks and problems within the academic context, and the intellectual stamina to complete tough and lengthy tasks.


Mortiboys, A. (2005) Teaching with Emotional Intelligence, Abingdon: Routledge.

Salovey, P. and Meyer, J. (1990) Emotional intelligence, Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9(3),pp. 185–11.

For more detail on this area see Chapter 6 in Brown, S. (2015) Learning, Teaching and Assessment in Higher Education: Global perspectives