Top 5 Ways SI Leaders (And You!) Can Help Students Develop a Sense of Belonging

by Chris Gasser, Carl Conner, Quinton Williams, and Ellie Macgregor

After engaging with selections from Dr. Terrell Strayhorn’s book, College Students’ Sense of Belonging: a Key to Educational Success for All Students, the Supplemental Instruction (SI) team established belonging, or “a sense [that]… generally refers to a feeling of connectedness, that one is important or matters to others,” as a program value.  Since then, we have worked hard to cultivate a strong sense of belonging in our collaborative group study tables. Every term, students voluntarily complete an end of term survey, and one question specifically asks about the actions that led to a student’s sense of belonging in SI. Using the term surveys from Fall 2020 and Fall 2021, SI team members Quinton and Ellie read through 698 student responses and identified the top three things that led to students’ sense of belonging in SI. Here’s what SI has found to be effective:

  • The SI Leader knew my name (55.4%): Perhaps unsurprisingly, students feel valued when we know who they are. Ever since the first version of this question, SI has rejected the phrase “I’m not a names person.” The data are clear. Working to know the names of students is the single most profound thing we can do to help students feel they belong. (It’s also the easiest!)
  • The SI leader created a welcoming environment (43.1%): While it may not sound like much, students cited actions like being welcoming when they first arrive, being regularly greeted with warmth, and being friendly as the actions in this category.
  • Group Collaboration (21.9%): Responses in this category showed that students felt like they belonged when other students in the group were friendly towards them. Students also appreciated working in teams and collaborating with each other to complete activities.
  • Questions were encouraged (21.6%): In a close fourth place, the ability to ask and answer questions helped students develop their sense of belonging. In many of these answers, students specifically mention the importance of feeling safe to share ideas, ask question “without feeling stupid,” and not being “demean[ed] [for] wrong answers.”
  • Expressing Appreciation (10%): Finally, students felt a sense of belonging when they felt appreciated, praised for their effort, encouraged to try, or given the chance to share their feelings around the course or a topic.

Though we initially we were in search of the “secret ingredient” for facilitating belonging, we found that basic human kindness expressed amply and consistently is what students seem to be looking for.

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