Equity and Inclusion: Relationship

How to Promote Relationship and a Sense of Belongingness for Equity and Inclusion

How to promote relationship and a sense of belonging

The pandemic, in combination with the social unrest that followed police killings of Black men and women like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, has highlighted harmful societal and systemic biases that disproportionately affect some of our students more than others.

In our classrooms and other learning spaces, those systemic biases can manifest in other ways as stereotype threats and imposter phenomena. These experiences, in turn, can leave students feeling that they don’t have a place in our scholarly disciplines because who they are — their social identities and lived experiences — don’t align with the messaging they receive about who a scholar or researcher is and what they look like.

In addition to thinking about our interactions with students regarding design, access, and teaching practices, we should consider how we build relationships with our students and help them see that they belong as scholars within our disciplines.

Why is focusing on building relationships and students’ sense of belonging important? Research shows that students’ sense of belonging—feeling like they can succeed as scholars in our disciplines—is key to their academic success. Relationships are one tool in creating this sense of belonging.


Teaching inclusively in action: social presence

The Community of Inquiry framework (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000) identifies three interdependent elements — social, cognitive, and teaching presence — that create a deep and meaningful learning experience. Of these three elements, social presence is key to creating more inclusive and equitable online learning spaces.

Social presence (Garrison, Cleveland-Innes, and Fung, 2010) is akin to walking into your classroom and seeing students’ faces, where they are sitting, their names if you are using name tents, and how they respond to your delivery of content — whether they are following along and understanding, or not.

Including social presence in your teaching can be as simple as including a slide for a smaller class at the beginning of your online lecture with your and your students’ pictures or asking students to use both audio and video when asking and answering questions during class, or providing audio feedback (Ice, 2007) on student assignments. Promoting social presence can be as straightforward as reinforcing seeing and hearing one another in an online setting, which we take for granted in a face-to-face classroom.

Adding attention to building a student’s sense of belonging can include the following: (a) including the full names of authors in your reading lists, (b) adding photographs of key contributors to highlight the diversity of individuals whose scholarship and research contribute to the discipline, (c) paying attention to classroom climate and student interactions by discussing conversational guidelines or netiquette before putting students into groups, to guide classroom discussion and make sure that it is productive, respectful, and inclusive. As an example:

Carla HunterCarla Desi-Ann Hunter
Associate Professor, Dept. of Psychology
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Hunter, Carla D., Andrew D. Case, and I. Shevon Harvey. "Black college students’ sense of belonging and racial identity." International Journal of Inclusive Education 23, no. 9 (2019): 950-966.

Getting started

Consider instructor-student, student-student, and student-content interactions in your instruction, as relationship exists in all three areas (Anderson, 1998) (Moore, 1989). For each type of interaction, describe how it is currently, and next, consider ways to be more intentional about the relationship in a distance education setting. You can deepen your thinking about the interactions you identified in Design and add additional columns to the table you started in Access to continue your thinking.

Next, consider how students’ sense of belongingness in your discipline can be reinforced through the interactions you have identified. How can you highlight the contributions of diverse individuals in the content you provide? How can you share aspects of your social identities with students, for example, when introducing yourself at the beginning of the semester or highlighting relevant aspects of others’ social identities in the field? How can you structure group work to make it the engaging and enriching learning experience you intend for all students?


  • Hunter, Carla D., Andrew D. Case, and I. Shevon Harvey. "Black college students’ sense of belonging and racial identity." International Journal of Inclusive Education 23, no. 9 (2019): 950-966.
  • Meeuwisse, Marieke, Sabine E. Severiens, and Marise Ph Born. "Learning environment, interaction, sense of belonging and study success in ethnically diverse student groups." Research in Higher Education 51, no. 6 (2010): 528-545.
  • Tuitt, Frank, Chayla Haynes, and Saran Stewart. "Transforming the classroom at traditionally White institutions to make Black lives matter." To Improve the Academy 37, no. 1 (2018): 63-76.
  • Walton, Gregory M., Geoffrey L. Cohen, David Cwir, and Steven J. Spencer. "Mere belonging: The power of social connections." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102, no. 3 (2012): 513.
  • Walton, Gregory M., and Geoffrey L. Cohen. "A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students." Science 331, no. 6023 (2011): 1447-1451.


  • Anderson, Terry, and D. Randy Garrison. "Learning in a networked world: New roles and responsibilities." In Distance Learners in Higher Education: Institutional responses for quality outcomes. Madison, Wi.: Atwood. 1998.
  • Garrison, D. Randy, Terry Anderson, and Walter Archer. "Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education." The Internet and Higher Education 2, no. 2-3 (1999): 87-105.
  • Garrison, D. Randy, Martha Cleveland-Innes, and Tak Shing Fung. "Exploring causal relationships among teaching, cognitive, and social presence: Student perceptions of the community of inquiry framework." The Internet and Higher Education 13, no. 1-2 (2010): 31-36.
  • Ice, Philip, Reagan Curtis, Perry Phillips, and John Wells. "Using asynchronous audio feedback to enhance teaching presence and students' sense of community." Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 11, no. 2 (2007): 3-25.
  • Moore, M. (1989). Three types of interaction. In M. Moore (Ed.), Readings in the principles of distance education. American Association for Distance Education. University Park: Pennsylvania State University.

Keywordsequity, inclusion, relationship, belongingDoc ID103583
OwnerTimmo D.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2020-07-02 16:23:54Updated2024-04-26 12:54:59
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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