Building Social Belonging in a Virtual World

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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Whether you find yourself teaching in-person or online this term, the need to promote social belonging remains a high priority.  I say this based on what we know from the extant literature on college student success and retention[1],[2],[3] – that a sense of belonging is associated with improved student well-being, academic engagement, and performance. I also say this based on my own research examining college student adjustment and barriers during COVID-19[4] – that students struggled with social connections and building relationships early on during COVID and continue to struggle.  Moreover, research shows that social belonging is especially important for students from historically underrepresented backgrounds; those who felt more connected to their college reported greater self-worth, social acceptance, scholastic competence, and had fewer depressive symptoms.[5]


But what exactly is social belonging?  A sense of belonging is a subjective perception of inclusion and connectedness to any or all aspects of the learning environment.  This can be a connection to peers, faculty, staff, student organizations, an academic department, or the institution as a whole.  Many students will question their social belonging.  That questioning can be a normal part of the college transition experience as students develop an identity and explore their interests, majors, and careers.  However, it should not be a normal experience for a student to feel unwelcome, unsafe, excluded, or disrespected. As faculty, we can help students build connections within and outside of the classroom. We can also keep an eye out for students who may be struggling with a sense of belonging and intervene.     


Ideas for Promoting Social Belonging


Connect students with resources to meet their basic needs (so they can then fulfil social needs)

  • Post links to Financial Aid, Academic Advising, Counseling Services, Student Health, etc.
  • Provide information about your institution’s COVID policies, testing/reporting protocols, and any emergency aid (e.g., healthcare, housing, food insecurity, transportation)
  • Identify on-campus resources for accessing broadband and digital services
  • Take the “temperature” of your class and help normalize student experiences by using a word cloud generating tool (e.g., Poll Everywhere)
  • Share free online applications that can assist with:
    • Meditation (Headspace, Insight Timer)
    • Slow, controlled breathing (ReachOut Breathe, Serenita)
    • Sleep (iSleep Easy)
    • Mood (Headspace)
    • Happiness (Happify: For Stress & Worry)
    • Relaxation (Pacifica) 
    • Self-care (SuperBetter is a free video-game style app in which users create a secret identity and progress through the game by completing quests that are self-care activities)
    • Managing distressing thoughts and feelings (Woebot is an AI-powered chatbot that guides users through managing distressing thoughts and feelings with principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)
    • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD Coach is for service members who may be experiencing symptoms of PTSD)


Communicate more often and more intentionally

  • Videotape and post brief, weekly pre-class introductions or post-class summaries
  • Reach out to students who don’t typically initiate contact to check-in
  • Find upper class student volunteers to serve as peer mentors to your class
    • My peer mentor meets with a small group of students twice a month via Zoom
  • Create a class Facebook Page to broadcast updates, alerts, and college activities
  • Use Twitter as a class message board to post reminders for assignment due dates or share inspirational quotes and helpful links to practice quizzes or resources
  • Create a YouTube channel for your class and have student students upload a YouTube “short”
  • Give students a virtual TikTok tour of your office
  • Use live and interactive polling tools to engage students (e.g., iClicker, Mentimeter, Kahoot, etc.)


Facilitate student interaction in and out of the classroom

  • Have students create and deliver a 3-Minute elevator pitch
  • Assign weekly online discussion posts (via Canvas or Blackboard)
  • Use Instagram for photo essays and digital storytelling (class-specific Instagram accounts)
  • Create a class blog and assign blog posts as essays
  • Initiate a class specific Pinterest board for students to curate a digital bibliography for research projects, papers, or group assignments
  • Require small groups to use Google Docs to record their discussions and turn in
  • Ask students to create brief TikTok video clips to explain a concept or theory to the rest of the class; post or watch in class and have classmates provide feedback
  • Prepare students for their career by having them register for LinkedIn and build professional networks and connections




  1. Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Harper, S. R., & Quaye, S. J. (2015). Student engagement in higher education: Theoretical perspectives and practical approaches for diverse populations (2nd Ed.). New York: Routledge.
  3. Tinto, V. (1988). Stages of student departure: Reflections on the longitudinal character of student leaving. Journal of Higher Education, 59(4), 438-455. 
  4. Hill, K.C., & Metz, A.J. (in preparation). Academic, relational, and socio-emotional factors of adjustment and barriers faced in first-year college students during COVID-19.
  5. Gummadam, P., Pittman, L. D., & Joffe, M. Ioffe (2016) School Belonging, Ethnic Identity, and Psychological Adjustment Among Ethnic Minority College Students, The Journal of Experimental Education, 84:2, 289-306.