Fostering a Sense of Belonging Through Course Design

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We know from our own experience, and from mountains of research (see Iowa State’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching to get a sense of what’s out there), that students need to feel like they belong in our classrooms if they are going to succeed.

We foster this sense of belonging in everything we do: from the way we greet students on their first day in class to the way say goodbye on their final day.  For me, though, course design is the first area of focus that comes to mind when I think about how to ensure students feel they are an integral part of the class. We can help our students feel at home even before they arrive in our classrooms by carefully planning the fifteen weeks we will share with them so that our time spent together is equitable, clear, relevant, and reflective.

The Course Design Equity and Inclusion Rubric available at Stanford’s Teaching Commons offers a helpful way to evaluate one’s own course content. The rubric features categories such as “Personal Connections and Relevance,” “Transparency of Content,” “Diversity of Perspectives” and “Diversity of Media” that will remind instructors—especially those of us who have been around a while—to take a fresh look at not only what material we are assigning but how we expect students to respond to it.

The pandemic has reminded us how reliant we have become on technology to enable learning, but also how tentative our connections to that technology sometimes are. It’s vital, therefore, that while we take advantage of the learning resources that are at hand, we make no easy assumptions about students’ access to or competence in the technosphere. As Clint Smith points out in his 2019 Atlantic article “Elite Colleges Constantly Tell Low-Income Students That They Do Not Belong,” it is wrong to treat all students “as homogeneous…, as if they all navigate these schools in the same way.”

Naturally, our course homepage and syllabus should be easy to read and easy to navigate. We not only model clear writing for our students in these documents, but we also ensure that our expectations and theirs are in concert. And it is here that we demonstrate—by assigning diverse authors and content-creators in varied genres—that we honor a range of ways of expressing ideas and opinions.

Of course, students cannot succeed unless their basic needs are met. Even the most dedicated student will necessarily prioritize shelter and food over a problem-solution essay. Our awareness of our campus’s full resources, and our ability to guide students directly to the resources they need, is a clear sign that we believe all students belong in our classes.

Instructors in every discipline take for granted the importance of their own field of study, but those of us in English probably feel that the importance of our subject is self-evident. It’s obvious to us that success in college will depend, to a large extent, on one’s ability to communicate clearly and persuasively.

However, our discipline’s relevance may not be immediately apparent to a student planning to study Chemistry or Computer Science, and we need early and often to connect the value of effective written and spoken communication to success across the curriculum. In a study of college students from nonmajor sections of biology, psychology, and English, researchers found that students feel an increased sense of belonging to the course in which they are enrolled when they perceive that “academic tasks are interesting, important, and useful” (Freeman et al 205).

Finally, we must plan time throughout the semester for students’ self-reflection. In my experience, these meta-conversations about college that students may initially feel are off-topic, may wind up being as important as any discussion of course content.

Maithreyi Gopalan and Shannon Brady recommend creating an environment “that helps students feel connected to each other, to faculty and staff, and to the institution.” Among their suggestions for fostering this sense of belonging is foregrounding the idea that “certain kinds of challenges in the transition to college…are common, shared by many students from diverse backgrounds, and likely to abate over time. Such thoughtful outreach seems to be especially powerful for Black, Latinx, Native, and first-generation students.”

Granted, Day One of any class is a crucial one, but “Day Zero”—the planning that takes place before the course even starts—is just as important.