Teaching Hub

Student Belonging in the Classroom (a workshop update)

A quilted sign saying "you belong here."
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

by Nathan Loewen

Since fall 2022, Lisa Dorr and I have hosted lunch-time faculty discussions focused on the topic of promoting “student belonging.” What’s that? I admit the term itself is vague. What might “student belonging” mean in useful practical or analytic terms? I think the category points to something that is indeed vague at the University of Alabama (not to mention on other college campuses). Our discussions are about whether and how students in our classrooms come to self-identify as “students” or “scholars” who feel like they belong in a community of inquiry.

In 2023 the University of Alabama had 38,320 students participating in 200+ programs on a campus whose map includes 297 buildings. It’s a big place. It’s easy to get lost.

UA is where it is said “legends are made.” Sports are a big thing on campus. But the marketing of and crowd participation in sports is more about “fitting in” than “belonging,” as Brene Brown remarks. The former can obstruct the latter. Fitting in involves losing oneself within an identity. Nobody misses people who simply fit in. Belonging involves something more. Someone who belongs feels as though their presence would be missed.

Whether students think they “belong” on campus has an impact on their academic performances. The Chronicle of Higher education featured a piece on “the Social Classroom” in November 2023. A professor is quoted in that piece to say, ““If all of these students feel like an isolated individual in the classroom, they’re not going to learn as effectively as if they come and feel part of a learning community.” A 2022 article at Inside Higher Ed makes the same claim. Furthermore, Gopalan and Brady’s 2020 article  notes that, “students who feel they belong seek out and use campus resources to a greater extent, furthering their success.” Gopalan’s MIT talk summarizes what may be learned about student success from literature on belonging. Student belonging, however vague the term may be, seems to matter.

Other recent literature related to the topic finds, “the claim that students are disengaged is not new” (Kinzie, 2023). And there are several factors that impinge on the potential for students to actively engage themselves in learning at College. Perhaps most importantly, as Arum and Roksa‘s Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses (2011) argues, the potential for students to be students often does not fit in with other campus emphases on socialization and sports. Add to that the fact that up to 74% of college students have part-time jobs, and there’s not much cognitive or emotional room for pursuing academics beyond simply jumping through hoops. Furthermore, Hu and Kuh (2002) identified institutional characteristics that may be associated with disengagement. Combined, these kinds of factors make it tempting for students to only “fit in” to academia, rather than “belonging.”

It’s not only students who might feel like only fitting in. Some educators may be familiar with the “disengagement compact” articulated by George Kuh et al. in 1991. The disengagement compact is a tacit bargain where faculty ask little of students while providing entertaining teaching and reasonable grades, and in exchange, students ask little of their instructors while providing compliant behavior and favorable course evaluations.

The above encapsulates the challenges we discussed with faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences. We decided that something more needs to be done than produce general admonitions and aspirations. We recognized that the above articulate a host of structural factors that simply cannot be wished away with the wave of a teacher’s hands. Nevertheless, there are concrete strategies that any teacher might consider as options to adopt and adapt to their specific teaching environments and contexts. To that end, our workshops were guided by four questions:

  • What were our “belonging” moments versus those of our students?
  • How might academic belonging affect student achievement?
  • What obstacles to belonging may students face?
  • How might we contribution to students’ senses of belonging?

In response to these questions, we started documenting the expertise of faculty on campus. You can read about it here. (campus authentication required) If you’re an employee at UA, you can add to it, too! We also talked about how to best adopt and adapt those strategies to our courses. We thought it would be useful to create a document for organizing strategies. Since campus member authentication is required to see these documents, I will post the organizing list below. What I hope you see is that the group conceived of student belonging strategies to not simply begin on the first day of class and end on the day of the final exam. To be intentional rather than gimmicky, student belonging strategies need to be planned out across the following times of the course:

  • Before the semester
  • First two weeks of class 
  • After add/drop
  • Mid-term
  • Last three weeks of class 
  • “Dead week” 
  • Finals week
  • Final grades posted
  • Post-semester/next semester

Integrating this into course design and course planning will not only increase the likelihood that students think they belong in a course. There’s a strong possibility that these considerations will improve the intellectual quality and academic rigor of the course as a whole. I am very glad to be proven wrong with evidence to the contrary! If our discussions are on the right track, however, these considerations might make a difference in the lives of our students.

And the, perhaps, we faculty may think we belong, too!