How to foster belonging to advance equitable learning| THE Campus Learn, Share, Connect

How does it feel to be 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 answers are invariably positive: affirmative, affirmative, supportive. In a word: good.

Then I ask the flip side. How is it when it’s not you? If you not feel part of the group? The answers aptly show why the psychologist Abraham Maslow argued in this way The need to belong is fundamental to the human experience. Faculty members tell me they feel left out, ashamed, and humiliated. it feels bad if you are not part of the group.

This thought exercise illustrates the importance of belonging to college students. Decades of research shows, that when students feel they belong in a college or university, when they feel that this is their place and we are their people, academic perseverance and achievement improve greatly. We can meaningfully promote equitable learning outcomes by helping students feel a part of our classrooms, particularly in minority and other underrepresented groups of students.

Recognizing the impact that affiliation has on student retention and success, Colleges and universities invest in efforts to help students feel welcome and included. But there’s a lot more we can do in our classes, my co-authors and I argue The Norton Guide to Fair Education. While college-wide efforts are helpful, students spend most of their time in class with us, whether in person or online. As a faculty, we have a unique role in expanding affiliation to make students feel they are college-ready by breaking down barriers such as: Imposter Syndrome and ultimately support their learning and just success. Here are three handy ways to get started:

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First, we can communicate student affiliation explicitly, in advance, and repeatedly. My co-author Mays Imad includes a statement at the beginning of their syllabus expressing encouragement and appreciation for each person in the learning community and stating that it will be a great class because of each individual who participates.

If you choose to include such a statement, students who may have doubts about their success in your class can immediately recognize that they are part of the group. You can reinforce this message through regular, informal video, written, or oral announcements in the classroom. Tell students that it’s common to feel unsure if they belong in this class and that you are there to support them and help them realize they have what it takes to be in this one to be successful in the course and in college in general. This message can be especially powerful during the first two weeks of class, before or after the first major test or assessment, and around mid-semester. Incorporate this beyond-substantive coaching throughout the semester to help students feel accepted, valued, and empowered.

Another way to make students feel like part of the group is to prioritize interactions and relationships with you and other students. Feeling connected to others in the classroom, both online and in person, predicts increased motivation and engagement, both of which precede academic achievement. While you may not have thought about the importance of relationships when planning your college studies, the research is clear Relationships are a key success factor. That doesn’t mean you have to be every student’s best friend, nor should you compromise appropriate professional and academic boundaries. However, if you show your students openness and approachability through encouraging words, tone of voice, behavior, and other non-verbal cues, students will feel connected to you in a way that fosters engaged learning.

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And it’s not just about you: enable connections and relationships between students to maximize this strategy. Consider semester-long groups in person or in asynchronous online discussion forums. Structure get-to-know activities, whether the groups meet throughout the semester or rotate on a weekly basis. Build these into group assignments and set an expectation to support others in the group (for example, encourage students to check in with their groupmates if they miss class or have not yet posted in an online small group discussion – maybe do they need class notes or some other form of academic or social support). Or help students find study group members, as Lisa Nunn recommends in College Affiliation: How freshmen and first-generation students navigate campus life. For example, set up a Google spreadsheet where students can find other people to study with on similar schedules.

Finally, we can expand affiliation by normalizing academic endeavors and challenges, another recommendation from Nunn. Instead of saying, “I know you learned this concept in a previous class…” (which automatically creates doubt and uncertainty in students who may not have learned the concept), say, “You may be familiar with this concept already, but let’s reiterate it together to make sure we’re all on the same page.”

We can also include short phrases like, “This concept is challenging, but I know you will master it with practice” to reinforce your message that all students belong in your class and are capable of the work required afford to. Such communications help students see that making an effort in their studies is normal and does not mean they are not suitable for college. Rather, it means that they engage in productive learning behaviors that foster their success.

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Communicating to students that they are part of your learning community and that you will help them achieve learning goals shows your confidence that they have what it takes to succeed. These messages, along with structured activities such as purposeful group work or support in forming study groups, are likely to lead to greater belonging and therefore more equal opportunities in our classes.

Flower Darby is Associate Director of the Teaching for Learning Center at the University of Missouri, USA. Her recent books include The Norton Guide to Fair Education And Small online lessons: apply learning science in online lessons.

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