How to foster belonging to advance equitable learning in your classes

We must extend belonging to help students feel they’re cut out for college, lower barriers such as impostor syndrome and ultimately support learning, says Flower Darby

Flower Darby's avatar
University of Missouri
24 Feb 2023
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Welcome sign for belonging at university

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What does it feel like when you’re part of the group? When you feel accepted and respected for who you are? I often ask this question in keynotes and faculty workshops. The responses are invariably positive: affirming, validating, supportive. In a word: good.

Then I ask the flip side. What’s it like when you’re not? When you don’t feel part of the group? Answers poignantly reveal why psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that the need to belong is fundamental to the human experience. Faculty participants tell me they feel excluded, shamed, demeaned. It feels bad when you’re not part of the group.

This thought exercise drives home the importance of belonging for college students. Decades’ worth of research shows that when students feel they belong at a college or university, when they sense that this is their place and we are their people, academic persistence and achievement improve significantly. We can meaningfully advance equitable learning outcomes when we help students feel they belong in our classes, especially minoritised and other under-represented student populations.

Recognising the impact that belonging has on student retention and success, colleges and universities are investing in efforts to help students feel welcome and included. But there’s much more we can do within our classes, as my co-authors and I argue in The Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching. While college-wide efforts are helpful, students spend the most time in class with us, whether in person or online. As faculty we have a unique role in extending belonging to help students feel they’re cut out for college, lowering barriers such as impostor syndrome and ultimately supporting their learning and equitable success. Here are three practical ways to get started:

First, we can communicate belonging to students explicitly, up front and repeatedly. My co-author Mays Imad includes a statement at the beginning of her syllabus that communicates encouragement and appreciation for each person in the learning community, stating that it will be a great class because of each individual who’s a part of it.

If you choose to add such a statement, students who may doubt their ability to succeed in your class can immediately see that they’re part of the group. You can strengthen this message with periodic, informal video, written or verbal announcements in the classroom. Tell students that it’s common to feel uncertain about whether they belong in this class and that you’re there to support them and help them realise they do have what it takes to succeed in this course and college in general. This message can be especially impactful during the first two weeks of class, before or after the first major exam or assessment and around mid-semester. Weave in this beyond-the-content coaching throughout the semester to help students feel accepted, valued and empowered.

Another way to help students feel they’re part of the group is to prioritise interactions and relationships with you and other students. Feeling connected to others in class, both online and in person, predicts increased motivation and engagement, both of which precede academic achievement. Although you may not have thought about the importance of relationships when planning your college course, the research is clear that relationships are a critical factor for success. This doesn’t mean you have to be every student’s best friend, nor should you compromise appropriate professional and academic boundaries. However, demonstrating openness and approachability to your students through encouraging words, tone of voice, demeanour and other non-verbal cues will help students feel connected to you in ways that foster engaged learning.

And it’s not just about you: facilitate connections and relationships among students to maximise this strategy. Consider semester-long groups in person or in asynchronous online discussion forums. Structure getting-to-know-you activities, whether groups meet all semester long or change week by week. Build these into group tasks and establish the expectation of supporting others in the group (for example, encourage students to check in with their groupmate if they miss class or haven’t yet posted in an online small group discussion – maybe they need class notes or another form of academic or social support). Or help students find study group members, as Lisa Nunn recommends in College Belonging: How First-Year and First-Generation Students Navigate Campus Life. Perhaps set up a Google Sheet where students can find other people to study with based on similar schedules, for example.

Finally, we can extend belonging by normalising academic effort and challenge, another recommendation from Nunn. Instead of saying: “I know you already learned this concept in a previous class…” (which automatically causes doubt and uncertainty in students who may not have previously learned the concept), say: “You may already know this concept, but let’s review it together to make sure we’re all on the same page.”

We may also want to incorporate short phrases such as: “This concept is challenging, but I know you’ll get it with practice,” thereby reinforcing your message that all students belong in your class and are capable of the work required. Such communications help students recognise that expending effort to learn is normal and that doing so does not mean they’re not cut out for college. Rather, it means they’re engaging in productive learning behaviours that promote their success.

Conveying to students that they are a part of your learning community and that you will help them achieve the learning objectives shows your confidence that they have what it takes to succeed. This messaging, as well as structured activities such as purposeful group work or assistance with creating study groups, is likely to result in increased belonging and subsequently increased equity in our classes.

Flower Darby is associate director in the Teaching for Learning Center at the University of Missouri, US. Her recent books include The Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching and Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes.

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