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  • Writer's pictureHeather Saigo

Creating a Sense of Belonging in Online Classrooms

Creating a sense of belonging in online classrooms is key to fostering an engaging and supportive learning environment. Many factors help establish a sense of belonging, including student-student relationships and student-teacher relationships. One strategy I use is connecting individually with each student during the first week of class.

Cultivate Belonging in Person and Online

This practice is adapted from an in-person tradition of collecting notecards from students during the first class meeting. For on-campus courses, I like to pass out notecards to students and have them provide their names, pronouns, academic majors, year in school, and contact information. I also ask students to tell me about their favorite school experience and why it was so memorable. And finally, I ask an intentionally vague question: "What do you do?" This leaves room for them to talk about work, hobbies, or anything else they care to share.

After collecting their cards, I take time during the first week to read and and record notes about each student. I put the information into a spreadsheet so I can refer to it later. The process of reading and typing the students' information helps me remember names, and it improves my understanding of how I might approach teaching for the term. While I am working through the notecards, I also send a personalized welcome email to each student, thanking them for sharing some information with me, and perhaps pointing out some common interests. The primary goal of this email is to welcome each student and open a line of communication.

image of a whiteboard that says "welcome each student personally. Let them know you appreciate their participation."

For online courses, the notecard exercise can be adapted into an "Introduce Yourself" discussion board prompt. Once students have had a chance to share some information about themselves, the instructor can follow up with a personalized email.

How This Supports a Sense of Belonging

Here's why this approach is so impactful:

  1. Personalized Welcome: Reaching out individually makes students feel valued and recognized from the very start. A personalized welcome helps break the ice and sets a positive tone for the course.

  2. Building Trust: Early one-on-one communication establishes trust and rapport between instructors and students. This foundation encourages open dialogue and makes students feel comfortable seeking help when needed.

  3. Understanding Needs: These initial interactions provide an opportunity to understand each student's unique background, learning preferences, and any concerns they might have. Tailoring your approach based on this information can significantly enhance their learning experience.

  4. Creating a Welcoming Environment: Personal connections create a more welcoming and inclusive atmosphere. When students feel connected to their instructor, they're more likely to engage actively and participate in class discussions.

  5. Opening Lines of Communication: By reaching out early, you open lines of communication that make it easier for students to approach you with questions or issues later on. This proactive approach can prevent small problems from escalating and helps students stay on track.

Taking the time to connect individually with students may require some extra effort, but the benefits are well worth it. A welcoming environment where students feel a sense of belonging can lead to higher engagement, improved performance, and less attrition.

For additional information on this topic, take a look at this paper:

Peacock, S., & Cowan, J. (2019). Promoting a sense of belonging in online learning communities of inquiry. Online Learning; Vol 23, No 2.

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