Essie Childers is a professor of Student Success at Blinn College in Bryan, Texas
These are exciting times in higher education as our classrooms become more diverse and the shift to online learning increases. According to Ilker Koksal at Forbes, “The pandemic has forced schools, universities, and companies to remote working, and this booms the usage of online learning. Even before the pandemic, Research and Markets forecasts the online education market as $350 Billion by 2025, so the numbers might be updated after analyzing the growth impacts of COVID-19 on the online learning market.” Faculty are faced with an ongoing pandemic coupled with the challenge of creating a sense of belonging to support students on their academic journey. Fostering a sense of belonging in the class—whether online or face-to-face—begins before the first day. The strategies discussed in this blog will help you create a positive learning environment and build trust with your students.
1. Email Students
Communication is one of the most critical elements in online spaces. Before class begins, send a welcome email that expresses your excitement about the course and share your inclusion statement. An example of an inclusion statement would be, “Our classroom environment should be mutually respectful and inclusive of all students. The classroom should be an environment with no discrimination, where everyone is comfortable and at liberty to contribute to and benefit from the entire learning experience. Suggestions to improve class interactions or any concerns should be brought to my attention.” From the very beginning, the instructor sets the tone of the classroom where respect is paramount regardless of one’s race, gender, or cultural background.
2. Build Student Belonging by Being Present
Post short video clips sharing an overview of the week. You may want to introduce yourself with a story to show your human side. For example, I shared how frustrating it is to have your computer crash while working on an important document in one of my videos. Or I may talk about my weekend activities. These are attention-grabbers to encourage your audience to keep listening. In an asynchronous setting, students will appreciate the opportunity to see and hear your voice. What about written communication? Weekly announcements and emails help students feel your presence, and they will respond by engaging more with the course. Furthermore, when students are working in Zoom breakout rooms, pop in to see if they have questions. Your presence will boost their confidence and motivation.
3. Create Meaningful Discussion Posts
Students can be very lonely in an online class unless they form connections by getting to know one another. “A view from my window” is a good discussion post to create a learning community. In this post, students create and narrate a five-slide PowerPoint in which they share three things that are important to them. I require voice and audio. On the last slide, students share one of their favorite quotes.
James Lang suggests “dog feeding” your assignment. Dog feeding your assignment means to do the assignment yourself and post the example. By completing the assignment yourself, you can make sure your directions are clear. When I do this, I share pictures of my family, my teaching, and the Young Ladies Foundation that I founded and manage in my PowerPoint. After posting their PowerPoints ask students to view and reply to two of their classmates’ posts. This was a fantastic assignment because students were so proud of the pictures they posted and were authentic and honest in discussing their slides. By replying to their peers, students learn to see and appreciate the cultural diversity represented in the class.
An example of a weekly discussion topic.
4. Develop College Success Groups
Creating an online community can help students feel an instant belonging to a group. Every semester, I start the College Success Group as their learning community at the beginning of the second week. In a learning community, students can collaborate on assignments and boost their grades. In addition, students see the value in another student’s viewpoint, which leads to an open mindset. Research also shows that when students make that connection, they feel a sense of belonging and relationships, have greater self-esteem, and experience a higher degree of self-efficacy. One of my College Success Groups enjoyed their working relationship during class so much, they decided to continue meeting the following semester.
5. Leverage Show Me How Videos
Do you remember receiving an assignment with clear directions but wanted to know you were on the right track? Written instructions are OK but think about your visual learners. Accommodating a student’s multiple intelligences can help them feel a sense of belonging and encourage them to complete the assignment. Our classrooms are diverse, with students from many nationalities, different learning styles and varying levels of confidence. As you may know, some students are too reticent to ask or email questions. It is easy for them to submit substandard work or blow off the assignment. When faculty post short videos of what they are expecting, students can begin the lesson with a high confidence level. Taking time to create Show Me How Videos can benefit the teacher as well. The teacher will have fewer emails to answer, and students will hopefully have fewer errors on the submitted assignment.
As instructors, we have a golden opportunity to facilitate thinking, promote open mindsets, and prepare students to function in a global society. You create a safe learning environment where students of different backgrounds can come together for a common purpose—a desire to have a successful learning experience. As stated by Bojan Krkic, “It is important to find a place where you feel trust, you feel belonging and stability.” Your online classroom or face-to-face class can be that place.
Interested in learning more about building a sense of belonging in your class? Explore our Empowered Educator event: DEI&B in the Classroom: Higher Ed Faculty Training.