How to Promote Relationship and a Sense of Belongingness for Equity and Inclusion
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 among 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 in terms of design, access, and teaching practices, we should consider how we build relationships with our students and help them see that they, too, belong as scholars within our disciplines.
Why is a focus on building relationships and students’ sense of belongingness so important? Research shows that students’ sense of belongingness — that they feel like they can succeed as scholars in our disciplines — is key to their academic success. Relationship is one tool in creating this sense of belongingness.
The Community of Inquiry framework (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000) identifies three interdependent elements — social, cognitive, and teaching presence — that are part of creating 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 the seeing and hearing one another in an online setting that we take for granted in a face-to-face classroom.
Adding attention to building a student’s sense of belongingness 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 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.
Begin by thinking about 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 even 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 own social identities with students, for example, when you introduce yourself at the beginning of the semester or highlight 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?