In How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Susan Ambrose et al. address the many and complex factors that influence learning environments, including intellectual, social, emotional, and physical (2010).
They offer a few key takeaways for educators:
Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Your classroom community is made up of individuals with diverse identities, backgrounds, and experiences; the act of learning is intertwined with a variety of socioemotional influences.
Classroom climate is determined by both intentional and unintentional actions, and by both explicit and implicit messages. And their impact on students is not always obvious. Seemingly well-meaning or unimportant choices and remarks can have unintended effects on student learning.
The good news: You have more control over the learning environment in your courses than you might guess. If you know how learning environments influence student learning, you can employ a variety of strategies to consciously shape a welcoming and inclusive classroom.
Sense of Belonging in College
In a welcoming and inclusive classroom, students are more likely to feel a sense of belonging. Sense of belonging is a basic human need. That is, everyone needs to belong. In the college context, sense of belonging refers to whether or not students feel respected, accepted, valued, included, cared for, and that they matter—in your classroom, at the university, or in their chosen career path (Strayhorn, 2012).
Although everyone needs to belong, students’ feelings of comfort in your class are largely dependent on their identities and experiences (Strayhorn, 2012; Walton & Cohen, 2007). Being the only student, or one of a few, of a particular identity group can lead students to feel detached, apathetic, or reluctant to participate. They may feel marginalized by the course content or by other students’ comments.
Indeed, research shows that minority students tend to report a lower sense of belonging than their peers (Johnson et al., 2007; Strayhorn, 2008a). Academic performance or preparation can also raise or lower students’ perceived sense of belonging (Hoops, Green, Baker, & Hensley, 2016; Strayhorn, 2008b; Zumbrunn, McKim, Buhs, & Hawley, 2014). Particularly for minority students, academic struggle can be internalized as a sign that they do not belong (Walton & Cohen, 2007).
Research by DeSurra and Church in 1994 provides a spectrum for understanding learning environments that ranges from explicitly marginalizing, where the course climate is openly hostile and cold, to explicitly centralizing, where multiple perspectives are validated and integrated into the course. While this particular research was based on sexual orientation, the earliest research on learning environments—the “chilly climate studies”—focused on gender and had similar findings (Hall, 1982; Hall & Sandler, 1984; and Sandler & Hall, 1986). These early studies demonstrated that marginalization of students does not require an openly hostile environment. Rather, the accumulation of microaggressions alone can adversely impact learning. Later studies showed similar effects based on the race and ethnicity of students (Hurtado et al., 1999; Watson et al., 2002).
Students struggling with sense of belonging are less engaged. They may sit in the back of class, be inattentive during lecture, or avoid participation in discussion or group activities. They may even skip class or show up late more often than others. However, sense of belonging is not static but dynamic, and it can fluctuate with transitions from class to class, year to year, or situation to situation. For example, a student who feels they belong in your course today may suddenly doubt they belong if they score poorly on an exam tomorrow. Therefore, it is important to continually observe students’ behavior and support their belonging throughout the term.
Sense of belonging affects students’ academic engagement and motivation, as well as their emotional wellbeing. The bottom line is this: Students who feel they belong are more likely to succeed.
For more insight into college students’ sense of belonging, watch this engaging TEDx talk by Ohio State professor Dr. Terrell Strayhorn.