Do I belong at this school? How students respond to this question is closely linked to whether they succeed and thrive.

According to our research, students who feel a strong sense of belonging are more engaged and more likely to join school organizations, take on research opportunities, and make connections with peers, faculty, and staff. Not only that, students who feel like they belong in school earn higher grades and opt into and succeed in more difficult courses.

When students don’t feel like they belong, the opposite is true, and they can become disengaged and disconnected. Feeling a sense of belonging in school is especially important for students from marginalized and stigmatized groups, such as Black, Latino, Native, first-generation, and financially stressed students. Because of the long history of exclusion and discriminatory treatment that their groups and families have experienced in the American education system, students from disadvantaged backgrounds have reasons to question whether instructors and peers value, respect, and welcome them.

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Belonging can be even harder to foster during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the need for social distancing and remote learning. Indeed, it takes more focused intention and new strategies to support students’ sense of belonging given these pandemic challenges. So how can instructors, administrators, and staff cultivate a sense of belonging and connection when so many are teaching online and stretched thin by the pandemic? 

Our latest project, called the Student Experience Project, has been helping instructors, administrators, and staff understand the importance of students’ feelings of belonging in class—and how to cultivate them, despite social distance. This past fall, over 100 faculty across six U.S. universities experimented with some of the most impactful, research-based teaching practices that help students feel a sense of belonging in class.

Some instructors were teaching online and others in person—yet all found ways to enact these practices that were authentic to their teaching style and classes. We measured students’ psychological experiences in class at various points throughout the term to see whether instructors’ practices made a difference, and our results revealed that students’ sense of belonging in class increased. Another one of our studies suggests that for marginalized students in particular, attending to students’ sense of belonging in school can help them fit in socially and academically and avoid dropping out. 

How can teachers and instructors use this knowledge as they plan for the new term? Here are four research-based practices that you can use (and share) to cultivate a strong sense of belonging in your classes in 2021. 

1. Normalize challenges to belonging and provide strategies to overcome them

When you explicitly acknowledge the challenges and struggles that can interfere with your students’ sense of belonging and normalize their worries and experiences, students feel supported and are more likely to stay engaged and feel that they belong in class.

In the Student Experience Project’s focus groups, marginalized students described the stress and isolation of feeling like they did not belong in certain courses. But they also reported how much it meant to them when instructors showed that they cared about their students and built in opportunities for connection.

At the beginning of the term, you can acknowledge to your students that this academic year has been a challenge for everyone—including for you—and that you understand the greater work and home responsibilities students may be juggling as they continue their studies. You can also note that you know that social distancing has made it more difficult to connect with and get to know each other.

However, you can assure students that you value connection and belonging—and that you know it is important for their success; therefore, you have built in ways throughout the term to help them build those connections, both with each other and with you. This might include group work (online or socially distanced in-person), drop-in or office hours, and supports that are available outside the course.

It’s particularly helpful to share times when you questioned your own belonging—whether it was something that happened during the pandemic, or something from the more distant past, perhaps when you were a student yourself. Learning that successful adults, such as their instructors, have also questioned their sense of belonging is reassuring to students and helps them see that people succeed despite such challenges.

Normalizing these experiences and sharing some strategies that you have found useful for overcoming these challenges shore up students’ sense of belonging. Give students time at the beginning of the term to identify their challenges to belonging and to brainstorm and share with each other the strategies they’ve used to address those challenges.

2. Make a plan to check in with students

Even during normal circumstances, simple check-in messages from their instructors communicate care and connection and mean a lot to students. This could be an email early on in the term asking students how they are feeling about the course and reiterating resources like office hours that are available to them, or using online polling sites during class to invite students to respond anonymously and then discuss what they show. In this time of greater uncertainty and challenge, these check-in messages are even more important because they make students feel seen and valued despite being socially distanced.

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Throughout the term, you can plan for and schedule simple messages that check in with students, remind them that you care for their well-being and that you are there to support their learning and development, and encourage them to talk with you if they need support navigating challenges that are interfering with their learning. 

Even if students do not respond directly to instructors’ check-in messages, the vast majority interpret these messages as supportive (and may even share that with you later).

One instructor in the Student Experience Project posted an announcement inviting students to email her. She provided some starter questions: How was the term going? What shows were they watching? What activities were keeping them busy outside of class? Approximately 25% of students actually sent emails, and she responded to each one with brief encouragement. But just knowing they were invited to send emails appeared to benefit students—students specifically mentioned it in course evaluations at the end of the term and felt it made an impact.

3. Make a plan to give wise feedback when returning each assessment

Many students begin to question their belonging in class (and in school) when they receive critical feedback on tests or assignments. In remote learning, students may not have ever met you in person and, therefore, they might not fully trust your feedback or interpret it in the most constructive light. So it’s especially important to make sure your feedback doesn’t undermine their sense of belonging and self-efficacy. 

How can you do that, while still giving actionable, critical feedback? Research shows that when instructors explicitly communicate to students that they are giving critical feedback because (a) they have high standards and (b) they believe that students can meet those standards, it helps students understand the reason for the feedback and reassures them that their instructor believes in their abilities to rise to the occasion.

If you want to shore up students’ sense of belonging, make a plan for how you will deliver wise feedback when you return the first big assessment of the term. And then consider how you will continue to do so throughout the term so that all students continue to feel that you are invested in their learning and that you believe in their ability to be successful.

For example, instructors in the Student Experience Project have implemented exam wrappers, wherein they provide wise feedback to students after the first big test or graded project and have students complete a reflection activity about how that assessment went and what they can improve for the next one. Before the next assessment, instructors remind students of their reflections, and some instructors even share themes that emerge across different reflections to highlight common points of difficulty and strategies students can use to improve.

4. Shout out your favorite mistake

When students feel uncertain about whether they belong in school and vulnerable to critical feedback, they are loath to make mistakes that might further undermine their belonging in the eyes of their instructors or their peers. To instructors, this can feel like students are disengaged and unwilling to take intellectual risks.

However, instructors know that making mistakes is key to students’ growth and development. Making mistakes is how we grow. How can you create a culture that celebrates (rather than shames) mistakes?

My favorite mistake is a practice whereby you regularly review and publicly celebrate a mistake (or mistakes) from tests or assessments that are your “favorites” because they reveal something about students’ development or thought processes, or because they are a common mistake that students can correct and learn from. During class, when instructors celebrate mistakes as opportunities to learn (rather than things to be avoided), students take more risks in the classroom.

In some of the classes that have made “favorite mistakes” a regular practice, we have seen students compete and get excited about being featured in “favorite mistakes” because the instructor has made mistake-making fun and rewarding. In these classrooms, mistake-making is welcomed and it shores up students’ sense of belonging rather than undermining it.

In our experience, and from hearing from instructors who tried these strategies during the pandemic term of fall 2020, this approach not only improves the student experience and contributes to more equitable academic outcomes, but is also rewarding for instructors. Instructors told us they felt more connected to their students, found meaning in their contributions toward equity, and had more fun than they anticipated with pandemic teaching because they used their creativity. As such, fostering belonging in the classroom is a “win” for everyone—especially during a pandemic.

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