Sense of Belonging
Strategies to facilitate inclusive communication and student connection.
Whether teaching online or in person, we can draw on principles of inclusive teaching to help students feel a sense of belonging, feel welcome, and support their learning. We must first be aware of the varied and intersectional identities students bring to the course environment and work to actively invite their experiences and insights into the course. While a good deal of course climate has to do with the way we set up the course, instructors and students share the responsibility of co-creating the conditions that lead to learning.
As the instructor, you are in a position of power to model and facilitate inclusive practices. There are many strategies for modeling and facilitating inclusive communication and student connection, but they don’t all need to be added at once; incorporating a few into your course each semester will improve students’ learning experience over time. Do not underestimate the power of small gestures—students often report that minor steps taken by an instructor have a big impact in helping them feel welcome in the class and in the discipline.
In addition to building rapport between yourself and your students, it is important to guide students’ interactions with each other to ensure that they uphold the same principles of inclusivity. To create an inclusive course climate, we can also build opportunities for students to provide feedback on the climate. Do they feel comfortable participating? Do they have any concerns about the course climate? What makes the climate feel inclusive or disinclusive for them? Gathering responses to these questions through both informal and formal anonymous processes will provide you with a sense of how the course climate is perceived by individual students and can help highlight any potential challenges they might be facing.
Reading: Discussing Race, Racism, and Other Difficult Topics with Students: Use the strategies in this resource as you prepare to facilitate difficult conversations about race and racism and other types of discrimination, such as gender bias, ableism, and religious or anti-LGBT persecution.
Practical strategies to be more equitable and inclusive
Courtney Plotts, a researcher and educator who specializes in supporting culturally diverse students in online classes, argues that online classes function in very transactional and Eurocentric ways. Students who do best in online courses, she says, are self-directed learners, and have been shaped by cultures that value individual well-being, or both.
Plotts asks important questions:
- What about students from cultures that value community over individual success?
- What about students who, for a variety of good reasons, don’t possess a strong self-identity?
- Or, who feels uncertain or worried about asking the instructor for help?
This is a complicated and sensitive subject. Yet there are simple, practical things you can do to be more equitable and inclusive in your online teaching. Here are a few suggestions:
The use of students’ correct pronouns validates student identities and supports well-being. It is a form of microaggression to misgender someone, so it is crucial that instructors are intentional in asking students their pronouns, using correct pronouns, and requiring all students in the course to do the same. It is the student’s decision to share pronouns and students should never feel pressured to do so. Additionally, the UW–Madison Gender and Sexuality Campus Center offers a fact sheet that is helpful for creating inclusive spaces for transgender and gender non-conforming students through the use of inclusive language that is modeled through one’s teaching practices.
Gender Diversity and Pronouns Pronouns Matter (UW Gender and Sexuality Campus Center). One small way we can be more inclusive is by using language conscientiously, including pronouns. This page is a starting place for emerging practices around pronouns, digging deeper with more resources, and how pronouns show up in the Canvas learning system.
Video: Why Pronouns Matter for Trans People (https://youtu.be/N_yBGQqg7kM
- Both you and your students can add pronouns to your Canvas profile
- NameCoach is a technology-enhanced learning tool integrated into Canvas that allows students and instructors to share and store the proper pronunciation of their name. By enabling instructors to easily and more accurately learn student name pronunciations, NameCoach can help instructors build better rapport in the classroom, bolstering students’ sense of belonging. Using NameCoach in the Classroom
Make your syllabus inclusive
Video Best Practice (3:12 minutes): How to design your syllabus with an inclusive mindset?
Caption: Dr. Kelly Hogan and Viji Sathy, authors of “Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom” (2022), share why it is important to design your syllabus with an inclusive mindset.
- Use an inclusive lens when asked to alter your policies: “Would I be willing to offer this accommodation to another student who asks?”
- Rather than relying on individual students to ask for accommodations, consider ways to provide these to all. One example is the idea of “oops tokens” which allow students to miss an assignment or turn it in late without having to disclose the reason.
Reference: Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom.
Make Your Syllabus More Inclusive (L&S Instructional Design Collaborative): Provides strategies to include an inclusive syllabus to include supportive language, policies, and resources that help to ensure all students are supported in their learning.
Help students reflect on social identities
Just as it is important for you to reflect on your social identities, when appropriate, you can also help your students share their social identities and build community and inclusion. This can be especially helpful when students will be working in groups.
The following are activities from the Inclusive Teaching website from the Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan.
- Mapping Social Identity Timeline activity: Asks students to create a visual map of their socialization in some aspect of identity (such as race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) through the course of their life.
- Social Identity Wheel: Encourages students to identify social identities and reflect on the ways they become visible or more keenly felt at different times, and how those identities impact the ways others perceive or treat them.
- Personal Identity Wheel: Students reflect on how they identify outside of social identifiers. It is best used as an icebreaker activity or in conjunction with the Social Identity Wheel in order to encourage students to reflect on the relationships and dissonances between their personal and social identities.
- Spectrum Activity: Provides questions for discussion or reflective writing that prompt students to critically consider their identities and the relationship between identity and context. These questions can be used in conjunction with the Social Identity Wheel and Personal Identity Wheel to prompt students in a discussion or reflective writing exercise about identity.
While these activities are worthwhile, ensure you have enough time to implement them successfully and also consider how students can be supported to share personal information in a safe environment.
Use icebreakers and reflection activities
Following are strategies to help foster belonging in your course:
Tips and Strategies
- Instructor to Student: Fostering a Sense of Belonging: Focuses on how to take deliberate steps at the beginning of and during the term to ensure that all students feel welcomed and valued as part of the learning community.
- Student to Student: Foster a Sense of Belonging: Provides strategies to foster belonging early, regularly ask for feedback, incorporate collaborative activities, and incorporate students’ experiences and identities.
- Lead an exercise asking students to help set classroom values. Create a Padlet (an online visual Post-it board with limitless uses in teaching), and ask students to post words and images that represent what’s important to them in a classroom. Students might come up with things like respecting all perspectives, creating and maintaining a safe space for all, engaging in civil discourse, using person-centered language, etc. Revisit these co-constructed values throughout the term, asking how well the class is doing in upholding them. You can try an anonymous survey or poll, a classwide discussion, or both.
- Gauge how students feel about your online course. A quick activity is to ask: “Which picture best describes how you’re feeling?” You can again use Padlet or Google Slides (examples you can use in Zoom using the stamp tool) to help you gauge how students of different backgrounds feel about your course. Provide a variety of images and ask students to record themselves talking about which one best represents how they feel, whether about online learning, the semester, the subject matter, or about anything else you want to know about. Be aware, Plotts says, that students from some cultural backgrounds or introverted students may hesitate to ask an instructor for assistance. In online teaching, you can use announcements, short recorded videos, and email messages to encourage students to contact you, even if it’s outside their comfort zone. Use a warm and encouraging tone. Respond quickly to their emails and questions. All of that will encourage students to take you up on your offer.
Reference: Darby, F. (July 23, 2020). 6 Quick Ways to Be More Inclusive in a Virtual Classroom. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www-chronicle-com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/article/6-quick-ways-to-be-more-inclusive-in-a-virtual-classroom
We may not get it right every time, but by setting carefully considered ground rules for our students and consistently checking in with our students, we encourage a culture of a more open, inclusive, and dynamic learning environment. We should therefore work with our students to proactively set and maintain an inclusive course climate. And with all the issues facing society, empathy is needed on the part of both students and instructors.
Be patient with yourself as you try new approaches. Try one or two new approaches in the upcoming semester. Add another in the next semester. This will help you and your students succeed.