Sense of Belonging

Increasing Sense of Belonging

A recent report from IU, exploring students’ experiences with moving to online teaching during the pandemic, lists four recommendations for faculty who are planning their online courses. Along with judiciously assigning classwork and collaborating with instructors across the institution, two recommendations highlight the importance of community and sense of belonging for students. The report recommends that instructors 1) “create opportunities for student-instructor communication, especially for first- and second-year students”; and 2) “facilitate student success and foster a sense of virtual community through student-to-student communication.” IU students want more opportunities to communicate with their instructors and their peers. They want instructors who foster a sense of community, which becomes even more important in the online learning environment, and the sense of belonging it promotes.

“Sense of belonging” is theorized to reflect students’ integration into the college system. All things considered, the greater a student’s “sense of belonging” to the university, the greater is his or her commitment to that institution (satisfaction with the university) and the more likely it is that he or she will remain in college. (Hoffman et. al., 2002)

Building belonging takes planning and intentionality. Incorporating opportunities for your students to connect, and for them to see themselves in your courses, starts before you begin teaching. As you are planning your upcoming courses, think about how you can foster a sense of belonging for your students throughout your course, in your discipline, and at IU more broadly.

Belonging impacts all aspects of teaching, not just the “in-class” environment. How do these considerations inform your course design, communication, and classroom management? In what follows, we ask some guiding questions to help you begin cultivating space for inclusion and belonging in your courses.

Are students able to see themselves and their communities in your course?

Not all students feel like they fit in a class or a major, perhaps because they get messages that people like themselves don’t succeed in that discipline (i.e. stereotype threat), or perhaps because they lack examples of people like themselves succeeding in the field. Do your students see work by researchers that represent their identities? Do students see how these researchers were able to contribute to the discipline and, by extension, how they, themselves, could perhaps fit into this discipline?

Often, the default entry point for our content and disciplines is a white, Western canon. This can leave students feeling like there is not space for them or their experiences in the academy. We understand instructors can feel trapped in their current syllabus and citations, as they are expected to teach the “big names” and core theories of their disciplines. However, this leaves ample room for expanding the conversation. Ask yourself:

  • Do these “big names” reflect the diversity of our world and of thought? 
  • Where are we being explicit with our students about the limitations of or motivations for teaching particular works? Remind our students that academic knowledge is one form of knowing, but they bring their own knowledge into the classroom, too. 
  • Where do we invite students to share what they know–and more pressingly, how they came to know it?

Do you communicate your commitment to student success?

Do your students see, from the syllabus and your introductions, how they are integrated into the course and how they can succeed in this course? Do you talk to your students about growth mindset so that they see your commitment to their growth and success? 


Do students understand what is expected of them?

Do you communicate your high standards and expectations, along with a clear path to academic success? Do you communicate your belief your students can succeed if they follow your suggested path to success? Are your expectations transparent so that your students know what and how you want them to learn and do in your course? Do you use TiLT (Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education) practices so that your students also understand how best to learn in your class? 


Do you use equitable grading practices?

Does your grading practice give students the flexibility they need in order to succeed in your course? Consider whether late policies are more likely to negatively affect a subset of students, for example, those with slower internet connections or older devices, those who have family and work obligations that place limits on group work that needs to be completed outside of class time. Do you have flexible due dates or allow students to drop their lowest grades for some of your repeating assignments? Consider your grading and other policies to see if they seem to include students and foster their belonging and success, or if they seem like barriers that exclude students.


Do you provide flexibility in your course?

Offering multiple paths to learning outcomes can support students’ sense of belonging by enabling them to find the entry point that meets them where they are. Have you built flexibility into your course so that students have some choice in what and how they are learning? Do youprovide flexibility to ensure your students can master course content in a time frame that is appropriate for your students and your course? Do you offer student choice in the types of assignments that they can complete to demonstrate their understanding?

For instance, is a participation grade only capturing those who speak up in class? If so, who may be left out of the conversation, and how can they be brought in? One example may be offering students space to share their reflections through journals submitted after class or have an open discussion forum on Canvas that also contributes to their participation grade. Another example may be having students brainstorm and write down their thoughts before sharing out to the class; then, collect these written thoughts to capture all students’ engagement with the content.

You can also provide flexibility through the technology tools that you use. For example, allowing students to use Zoom’s chat function to comment, or submit their responses anonymously via the polling tool.


Are you communicating that you care?

IU strives to cultivate a Culture of Care; to be effective, students must also find this care in the classroom. It is critical that we take an approach to student interaction and communication that is rooted in understanding students’ lives go beyond our classroom. For instance, a 2019 survey of U.S. college students by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, found that:

  • 17% of respondents reported being homeless
  • 39% of respondents were food-insecure
  • 46% said they faced some level of housing insecurity.

Students said that their financial aid was not keeping up with living expenses and that their schedules made it difficult to find jobs because employers were hesitant to hire them due to their complicated schedules.

Use your syllabus to connect students to resources they may need when experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, or a health concern. Many instructors now include language to connect students to CAPS, Crimson Cupboard and information on submitting a Care Referral if they are concerned about a fellow student.For additional resources, view the Division of Student Affairs page and the Dean of Students page.


Are you inviting students to communicate with you and their peers?

Do you provide students frequent opportunities to give feedback on the course, including anonymous feedback about suggestions for improvement? Do you ask students to share barriers to their success in your class? Do you discuss their feedback to let them know which suggestions you can and cannot implement, and why or why not?

Do you discuss community norms and how to communicate with one another in your class? Do you provide a variety of ways for students to contribute to discussions to ensure that everyone’s voice is included? Do you discuss what to do when conversations become heated?


Do students know how to connect with you?

Build connections with your students by extending invitations to communicate. One lasting way to help students build connections with instructors is taking the mystery out of office hours. Help students understand when and where they are; be flexible with how students can reach you and join in office hours; and consider incentivizing attendance. But do not underestimate the impact of explaining to students what office hours are, how they can use them, and why they should use them. Revisit this point throughout the semester, and try out ways to boost attendance. This CITL blog post and Quick Guide might give you some more ideas for successful implementation of office hours.

As you develop your class, keeping an eye out for opportunities to connect with your students and for students to connect with one another will not only help your students in your class, but also in their academic career at IU. The resources below will help you further develop inclusive classes in which all of your students can contribute and succeed.


Resources and Further Reading