Dr. Terrell Strayhorn is a Professor of Education and Psychology at Virginia Union University (VUU), where he also serves as Director of the Center for the Study of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Author of 12 books and over 200 peer-reviewed journal articles and academic publications, Strayhorn is one of the nation’s most prolific scholars and leading voices on racial equity, human thriving, and a sense of belonging in education and work settings. He is President and CEO of Do Good Work Consulting Group, a Member of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools Research Advisory Committee, and a Diversity Scholar-in-Residence at Harrisburg Area Community College. He serves as Specialty Chief Editor (Higher Education) of Frontiers in Education Journal and on several non-profit boards, including Minds Beyond Measure, MCT Educational Foundation, and Rainbow Labs.
Feeling like you belong is crucial to student success. It affects how students feel about going to class, how well they perform on assignments, and their overall health and well-being. Consequently, one of the most significant things we can do as education leaders is take strategic steps to build campus conditions that engender students’ sense of belonging. We do that by formulating student-centered, equity-minded policies that smooth transfer between schools, “ban the box” in selective admissions, and establish pre-college, and summer bridge programs as credit-bearing on-ramps that ease adjustment from K-12 to higher education, to name a few.
Fostering a sense of belonging in classrooms and laboratories is also vital—a key to educational success, as I’ve said elsewhere. In this blog, we will explore strategies that can be used to help students change how they think, feel, and behave about learning, peers, instructors, and tasks – all of which contribute to a sense of belonging. This article is informed by insights from my recent keynote address at the 2023 distinguished Joe Doctor Colloquium, sponsored by the City University of New York (CUNY).
Sense of Belonging Matters
Any search of this term yields dozens of definitions. Generally, a sense of belonging is a social psychological concept referring to the extent to which individuals feel valued, accepted, and included in a particular group or environment. In education, a sense of belonging refers to the cognitive, physical, and emotional connection that students feel toward their school, peers, and staff, which powerfully influences their academic performance, self-efficacy, and overall well-being as illustrated in Figure 1. Students who feel a strong sense of belonging are more likely to go to class, engaged in projects and service activities, participate in extracurricular activities, and build strong, positive learning partnerships that boost persistence. Conversely, students who lack a sense of belonging may feel isolated, invisible, and disconnected, and, thus, battle anxiety, depression, and other issues that inhibit their academic success.
A long line of research in education shows that fostering a sense of belonging can have significant positive effects on students’ success and well-being. For example, one randomized controlled trial found that providing support and resources (e.g., meeting with faculty) to first-generation college students helped to boost belonging and improve retention rates. In a back-of-napkin analysis conducted for my colloquium keynote, I found that students with a strong sense of belonging earned higher grades than their peers who lacked a sense of belonging, using a nationally representative sample. Figure 2 presents a visual summary of the results.
Fostering Belonging in Classrooms & Beyond
The evidence is clear—there’s a great deal we can do to foster students’ sense of belonging in classrooms and beyond. First, let’s consider the role of faculty instructors. Instructors, whether full-time, part-time, contract, or contingent, set the tone for the classroom, and their behaviors can greatly impact students’ sense of belonging. Simple gestures such as learning students’ names, making time for students to share their experiences and opinions, purposefully incorporating diverse perspectives and worldviews in the curriculum, and regularly checking in on students can make an enormous difference. These behaviors convey to students that they are valued, seen, and heard. These student-centered pedagogical practices also level the “playing field” affirming students as capable, producers (not just consumers) of knowledge, and bona fide members of the academic community.
Research supports other ideas. For example, instructors can create a sense of belonging by facilitating collaborative learning experiences, where students cooperate or work together—even if fueled by friendly competitions—to solve problems, build race cars, or produce stage plays, to name a few. Providing opportunities for students to work together, share ideas, and learn from each other makes them feel part of a supportive and inclusive community, whether attending in-person, on-campus, or online.
Apart from instructors, peers contribute greatly to how students feel about their sense of belonging in the classroom. Thus, it is important to create a culture of respect and inclusivity in the classroom, where students feel safe to express themselves, secure in their identities, and respected for their unique ideas. Peers can contribute to this by learning and using one another’s pronouns, joining clubs and study groups, while also avoiding discriminatory behaviors such as cliques, class-based social hierarchies, and identity-based microaggressions. Microaggressions are defined as everyday verbal, behavioral, and environmental insults or daily offenses, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate derogatory, hostile, hurtful, and negative attitudes toward others, typically minoritized groups. Building mutually rewarding, trusting relationships with peers goes a long way in making new friends, enjoying community, and boosting belonging.
Another strategy for building conditions that nurture a sense of belonging is to create a culture of accomplishment by celebrating student successes. Instructors can provide students with specific growth-minded feedback on assignments and encourage them to share their completed assignments or lessons learned with the class. Beyond grades, instructors might help students (re)frame feedback as a reward, improvement as a cause for celebration, and ultimate success as the result of incremental progress. Academic deans, principals, and another campus- or district leaders can take this to scale by establishing student awards that not only celebrate the “high flyers” (see Figure 2) but also reward those who hit certain benchmarks, improve over time, or regain academic standing after warning, to name a few. By recognizing individual students’ accomplishments, we affirm the value of their contribution and create a positive learning environment. By celebrating varying levels of achievement and academic progress, we send a very humanizing message that it’s OK to not be OK and that perfection is not required to be part of our community.
Facilitating students’ sense of belonging in classrooms can have a profound impact on student’s academic success and overall well-being. Creating an inclusive and supportive environment can help students to feel valued, accepted, and connected with their faculty, peers, and themselves. By implementing evidence-based strategies such as collaborative learning arrangements, peer mentoring programs, faculty office hours, inclusive curricula, and culturally-responsive pedagogies, educators can promote students’ sense of belonging in K-12 and college classrooms. When we prioritize the physical, emotional, and psychological needs of our students, we set them up for success in education and beyond.