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Fostering a Sense of Belonging in Our Students

By Annette Finley-Croswhite

Recently, the Center for Faculty Development hosted a workshop entitled Building Community & Relationships in the Classroom. During that workshop we discussed the connection between "sense of belonging" and student academic success. Rosenberg & McCullough, 1981 (as cited in Weiss, 2021), associate "belonging" with "mattering." Human beings need to feel connected to those around them - they need to "matter." The academic communities within any institution of higher learning, classroom communities, specific learning communities, departmental clubs and environments, to name but a few, are all important in helping students achieve that sense of belonging and experience positive learning encounters.

Scholars have explored sense of belonging in the academic setting. "Belonging" is especially crucial for first-generation and/or underrepresented minority college and university students who may not feel immediately comfortable in the academic setting or even know how and when to speak to faculty members. I once had a first-generation university student tell me that she had no idea it was possible to speak to me during office hours. "I didn't know how that was done," she said. It makes sense that when students feel they belong and have a voice that matters, they will do better cognitively in our courses. The inverse is true as well. If they don't feel they belong, their work performance can suffer. Furthermore, the impact of COVID-19 has only exacerbated students' issues with sense of belonging, especially for those facing economic hardships as a result of the pandemic.

The literature on sense of belonging is quite significant, and the workshop we held addressed various ways of creating community in the classroom. For example, it's important for instructors to consider their curriculum and whether it is inclusive or not. Are examples being used in class to counter stereotypes? Recently I attended a pedagogical conference. A presenter was trying to show a research trajectory assessment scheme, and Sigmund Freud and his work (and cigar) were used as a hypothetical example to explain the scheme. I thought the use of Freud quite odd given that the audience was 90 percent female. The same sense of uneasiness occurs with our students when the examples we use in lecture and other course materials are limited in terms of gender and background and reinforce stereotypes.

What intrigues me most in grappling with scholarly insight on "belonging" has to do with discussion of our offices, departmental hallways and the ecosystems of university workplaces. When students walk down our hallways, what do they see? Are the pictures and posters displayed inclusive of multiple genders and underrepresented minorities? As I pondered the question and walked the hallways of several departments here at ODU, I could identify the need for improvement.

The same could be said for faculty offices. Obviously, our offices reflect who we are as individuals; they mirror our personalities. But might they be off-putting to students who don't look like us? The question becomes: Do the symbols and pictures we choose to display create a sense of belonging for the entire Monarch community? This question is worthy of reflection.


References:

Dos Santos, L.M. (2020). How does COVID-19 pandemic influence the sense of belonging and decision-making process of nursing students: The study of nursing students' experiences. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17 (5), 5603. http://mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/15/5603.

Rosenberg, M., & McCullough, B.C. (1981). Mattering: Inferred significance and mental health among adolescents. Research in Community & Mental Health, 2, 163-182.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2019). College students' sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Weiss, Sabine. (2021). Fostering sense of belonging at universities. European Journal of Education. 56, no. 1: 93-97.

Zumbrunn, S., McKim, C., Buhs, E., & Hawley, L. (2014). Support, belonging, motivation, and engagement in the college classroom: a mixed method study. Instructional Science, 42(5), 661-684. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11251-014-9310-0.

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