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Creating a Sense of Belonging for Students

Yesterday in my ENG 99 class, students at two tables were swapping Snapchat names so they could start Snapchatting each other. Another table saw them, and said, laughingly, “You guys are just doing that now? Our table did that the first week!” It was completely heartwarming. My students are friends–inside of class for sure, but as the semester goes on they are becoming friends outside of class as well.

These friendships are a sign that these students are developing a sense of belonging. They feel that they have a place they fit in, a squad they can hang out with in and out of class. Research shows that their connection to their classmates, their class, and NMC is an important factor in keeping them engaged in college and on track to persist and complete. A recent article from Inside Higher Education explains that for “persistence to completion” to occur, “students have to come to see themselves as a member of a community of other students, faculty, and staff who value their membership–that they matter and belong… The result is often expressed as a commitment that serves to bind the individual to the group or community even when challenges arise” (Tinto). When students feel like they belong, they want to keep going. They hang in there even when the going gets tough. The research shows this is especially important for at-risk students:  “Developing a ‘sense of belonging’ is critical to the success of college students, particularly for the retention of students who are considered to be at risk of non-completion” (O’Keefe 607).

So what does that mean for faculty and staff? It means we can directly affect student success by focusing on this non-cognitive factor. Research shows that there only has to be one person who reaches out and creates a sense of belonging to have a positive effect on a student. Students at an informal focus group told me recently that what makes them feel connected is teachers who know their names, who make an effort to connect with them, who share details of their own lives and experiences. They appreciate, too, an opportunity to get to know their classmates. They told me they liked it when teachers used icebreakers to get students talking and engaged at the beginning of the semester. The also liked being put in groups but hate (at least early in the semester) having to choose their own groups; it’s “awkward,” they say.

Will creating a greater sense of belonging help my students succeed? National research says it will. My own experience says it will, too. My students help each other during class or when someone misses a class. They have also gotten together to help each other outside of class–on English but also, this semester, math and accounting. The more they feel they have a place here and friends who care about them, the more likely they are to stick it out–and that is exactly what we all want.

O’Keefe, Patrick. “A Sense of Belonging: Improving Student Retention.” College Student Journal. 47.4 (2013): 605-613. Web. 4 Oct. 2016.

Tinto, Vincent. “From Retention to Persistence.” Inside Higher Education. 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 4 Oct. 2016.

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