Foster Belonging

What does it mean to belong in a classroom, in a discipline, in a university?

If this seems like a silly question, likely that’s because you’ve always felt comfortable in a college environment. When you belong somewhere you don’t notice that you belong: you simply exist with little anxiety or self-consciousness and are not plagued by doubts as to whether the University is a place you could succeed, or where you should want to succeed.

However, many students who come to Montclair do not feel like they belong. In the Fall 2021 “Educate Your Educators” survey, only 28% of responding undergraduates reported that they agreed or strongly agreed that “most students feel a sense of belonging” at Montclair, down from 41% in 2019. More recently, the University’s Noel Levitz survey from Spring 2022 showed improvement: 37% of undergraduates report that they agreed or strongly agreed that “most students feel a sense of belonging.”

When students have a strong sense of belonging they are more successful:

  • Students who feel connected and respected, and who have a sense of belonging are more motivated, more engaged, more persistent and achieve higher academic success (Nat’l Academies of SEM, 2017).
  • Sense of belonging is a key predictor of college students’ persistence and well-being (Gopalan & Brady, 2020; Walton & Cohen 2007; 2011, Yeager et al 2016; Walton et al 2023).
  • Sense of belonging predicts satisfaction with college (Thomas and Galambos 2004)
  • Students’ sense of belonging can be improved through pedagogical and curricular practices (Cohen & Viola 2022; Murphy et al 2020)
  • Students who have a sense of belonging persist at greater rates (Gopalan & Brady, 2020; Hausmann et al, 2007; NASEM, 2017; Yeager et al 2016; Walter et al 2023).
  • Having a sense of belonging is a predictor of motivation, engagement, and achievement (Zumbrunn et al., 2014).
  • Students who have a sense of belonging have established “supportive peer relationships” and believe that “faculty are compassionate” and that students are “more than just another face in the crowd (Hoffman et al., 2003).

Bake Belonging Into Your Course Design

  • Use the Montclair Syllabus which prompts instructors to welcome students, provides extensive resources, and renames office hours, “student hours,” to make it clear that students are welcome, among other features.
  • Build a first day of class plan that emphasizes connection, builds confidence, and leaves students believing that you are an invested, motivated, and caring instructor.
  • Develop systems for learning names; insist on learning them [name tags].
  • Ensure course materials are accessible, drawing on universal design for learning principles.
  • Create assignments that invite students to share, showcase, and draw upon their personal/familial or cultural experiences.
  • Use a warm, encouraging tone in syllabus and other documents
  • Use student surveys to seek students’ views on how class is going or to invite them to tell you about who they are beyond “student in the class”
  • Have an inclusive curriculum – Integrate diverse perspectives and materials that reflect people from different demographics and histories.
  • Connect course curricula to real-world content that is relatable to a diverse student body

Support Belonging through Your Daily Practice

  • Learn and use your students’ names; recognize them as individuals and not bodies in seats.
    • Make it easy: Use a name tent
    • Read this study that suggests how powerful being known by name is for students.
  • Identify the students you know the least well and seek out a way to engage them individually, such as asking simple questions, or offering compliments on their ideas or comments.
  • Develop an inclusive pedagogical practice that enables all students to feel known, seen, and valued.
  • Mitigate stereotype threat and imposter syndrome. Brown University offers the following strategies for mitigating stereotype threat in the classroom:
    • Examine how you give feedback to students: To mitigate stereotype threat, critical feedback on assignments should emphasize:
      1. reflection of a teacher’s high standards
      2. students’ potential to reach them and
      3. substantive feedback to improve. For example, a framing comment like the following can be adapted: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” (Steele, 2011; Yaeger et al., 2014).
    • Frame the purpose of assessments effectively: Emphasize that tests and assignments are a diagnostic of students’ current skill levels, which can be improved with practice, instead of a measure of permanent ability (Aronson, 2002).
    • Use reflective writing to normalize struggles.
    • Recognize the diversity of contributors to/members of the field.
    • Move course assessments away from timed, high-stakes tests. Courses with design- or writing-based assignments, as well as low-stakes quizzes, tend to have more equitable outcomes.
  • Mitigate microaggressions.
  • Be aware of and mitigate implicit bias.
  • Make space for students’ voices and experiences.
  • Encourage a growth mindset and the value of effort over innate intelligence.
  • Address controversial topics — It’s not impossible to have fruitful and educational valuable conversations about topics that matter personally, socially, politically, and otherwise.

Plan an Intervention to Foster Belonging

Socially disadvantaged students who experience a “belonging intervention” are more engaged in university activities, develop more friendships, have higher GPAs, and are more likely to have a mentor (Brady 2020, Walton et al 2007 & 2011, Yeager et al 2016).

The Idea: Recognize doubts about belonging, and cast belonging challenges as temporary & mutable

The Intervention: Students read and reflect on diverse older students’ stories of experiencing challenges to belonging in college and how their experiences improved over time. (Brady et al 2020, Walton & Cohen 2011, Yeager et al 2016).

Solicit or find authentic student voices who can speak from their experiences of first encountering non-belonging and then persisting and being helped to finding belonging and from that, a sense of belonging. 

  1. Solicit: Write to former students who you witnessed not just succeeding, but first struggling. Invite them to help you. If your students are interested in helping, ask them to record or write their short vignette. You might share these slides to help them understand your project.
  2. Find: Try We Belong in College
  3. Assign the project to students. See Andrew Roland’s assignment, UNM.
  4. Write your own: Create a Belonging Story.

Next, ask students to read / view the student perspectives and follow the viewing with a writing activity, with short written essays (two paragraphs) such as:

  1. Why do you think it is common for students to feel unsure about their belonging when they first come to college?  Considering your own experiences with transitions – to high school, to college, to a new community – to compose your response.
  2. Most college students become comfortable in their chosen major, college, and university over time. Again, based on your experience, how do college students become comfortable? How do college students develop that sense of belonging?
  • Read more about OFE’s take on Belonging by viewing the slides of our Belonging Intervention workshop, January 2023.

Updated 06.10.24

Avoiding Bias in Letters of Recommendation

Part of cultivating scholars is encouraging and supporting students through letters of recommendation. Much research has shown that letters of recommendation exhibit bias, however unintentionally. Here are some tips to help you avoid common pitfalls of unconscious bias.

  • Stick to professional matters: leave out personal, private information about the student.
  • Be specific. Rather than labeling them “successful” or “accomplished” in a broad, generic way, provide concrete examples.
  • Don’t call attention to the subject’s gender or, race, or ethnicity.
  • Don’t raise doubt through negative phrases (“Although” or hedges (“appears,” “seems”).
  • Don’t damn with faint praise.
  • Don’t be too brief: shorter letters suggest lesser degree of assurance in subject’s abilities.

If you feel uncomfortable writing the letter, it is better to say no to the request than to write a tepid letter of recommendation.

When writing letters of recommendation, consider some of the strategies proposed by Rebecca E. Burnett, Rebekah Fitzsimmons, Courtney A. Hoffman and Patricia R. Taylor (2022, June). They argue for a collaborative approach in which applicants request letters, writers collect information and then draft the letter; writer and applicant then collaborate and review the letter. This collaborative process can help mitigate bias.

Resources and References


Hoffman, M., et al. (2002). “Investigating “Sense of Belonging” in First-Year College Students.” Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice 4(3): 227-256.

Bias in Recommendations

Avoiding gender bias in reference writing, University of Arizona, Commission on the Status of Women

Avoiding racial bias in letter of reference writing, Montana State University

Gender Bias Calculator: Letters of Recommendation, collection by Lehigh University

Examples of Bias in Letters to Watch Out For, Rochester Institute of Technology

For more information or help, please email the Office for Faculty Excellence or make an appointment with a consultant.

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