Building Belonging

Building Belonging

Here you will find concrete easy-to-apply strategies to support diversity, equity and inclusion in the classroom. Featured in our Center for Teaching and Learning newsletter, these tips are tailored to help you seamlessly integrate inclusive practices into your teaching. 

Fostering Growth and Development 

Cultivate a growth mindset. As the semester begins, emphasize that challenges are opportunities for growth, and that effort and perseverance are key to success. You can do this in a variety of ways.  

  • In your welcome video or email, articulate the belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work, and share a personal overcoming story or inspiring quotes. 

  • When introducing yourself and the course, emphasize that mistakes are learning steps; underline that the class values curiosity, questions, and feedback. 

  • Finally, encourage students to view struggles as learning opportunities through "mistake reflections" -- reflections on study habits via exam wrappers, or revisions based on constructive feedback highlighting potential -- in discussions or assignments. 

Teach students about expanding their comfort zones for learning. Encountering new experiences, perspectives, and ideas can lead to emotional and/or cognitive dissonance. This may cause students to feel confused, anxious, defensive, angry, or simply uncomfortable and exhibit resistance. Help your students understand these reactions as a part of their learning and growth, for example, by introducing them to the model of expanding comfort zones. Margaret Wheatley’s brief essay Willing to Be Disturbed can be a good starting point to discuss with students how they can keep an open mind despite feeling discomfort. The College Transition Collaborative provides great resources for Ensuring Classroom Identity Safety and Addressing an Identity Threatening Incident.  

Making Course Materials and Support Accessible and Useful

Students appreciate online course materials. Posting course materials online supports student learning and fosters belonging. By providing pre-posted presentation slides or "skeleton" lecture notes, instructors can help students focus on active listening during class, rather than frantically trying to keep up with note-taking. Recordings of class sessions, either through Echo or Zoom, provide a valuable resource for students to review content at their own pace and clarify unfamiliar terms or concepts, which can prevent them from falling behind. This reduces stress and anxiety, supports executive functions, and benefits all students including those with learning differences or English as an additional language. By making course materials easily accessible, instructors show commitment to equitable learning opportunities for all students. 

You’re more than your office. Use office hours as a way to connect with your students. Students sometimes don’t know why they should go to office hours or what office hours really are for. Help them by reframing office hours in student-friendly language, such as “Meet-With-Me" or “Chat-with-Prof” hours. Offer a purpose for office hours – Welcome Sessions, Project Help, Chat about Careers, What’s next in your major. Promote office hours as times you can meet with individuals or small groups. And yes, offer office hours both in person and by Zoom. 

Cultivating an Inclusive Classroom Community

Using students’ names matters. Create a VoiceThread assignment on your Moodle/Blackboard site, asking students to introduce themselves with their preferred first name, last name, chosen pronouns (optional), and one thing they’d like to share with you and their classmates. Model this by posting your own 30-second video. Check SPIRE for preferred names and pronouns and review the Stonewall Center’s resources for students and faculty on the use of pronouns. On the first day of class, ask students to create name tents that they will use throughout the semester.

Deepen students’ sense of belonging. Regularly take the pulse of your classroom climate through brief check-ins, such as asking students to express how they are doing with emojis or hand gestures. Incorporate icebreaker activities that relate to course content and facilitate student interaction throughout the semester. Foster student involvement in knowledge creation: Have students individually respond to prompts, questions, or problems, either in class or as homework. Pair students to share and discuss their responses, then encourage volunteers to present their partner's insights to the entire class. See Wisdom of Another activity. 

Students feel a sense of belonging when their contributions matter. As the semester draws to a close, encourage communal reflection, appreciation, and gratitude through a variety of activities.

  • Consider setting up Appreciation Stations in designated areas within the classroom or on online forums, where students can post notes of gratitude for their peers' contributions.

  • For large classes, use online polling tools to create word clouds or virtual whiteboards for collective capturing of students' key takeaways. Create a choice board with multimodal options for students to reflect on their learning.

  • Organize the class into smaller reflection circles to facilitate more intimate discussions about learning experiences, appreciation, and gratitude.

  • For smaller classes, consider implementing silent shared writing activities, such as "chalk talks" on the board or index card chain notes. 

Weave peer support throughout the course. Consider pairing students with diverse backgrounds and strengths for peer mentoring or study groups. After lecture segments, let students compare notes and share key takeaways to confirm understanding. Encourage collaborative problem-solving by having students to do practice problems and create sample exam questions in small groups. Incorporate in-class small group exam review sessions and consider implementing two-stage exams, which start individually and then transition to group settings, to reduce test anxiety. To enhance analytical thinking have students work in Analytic Teams. Use online note catchers for collaborative note-taking. Assign highly structured group assignments, such as a Jigsaw Activity where students 'teach' their peers. Finally, remind students of on-campus peer-to-peer tutoring opportunities to support their academic success. 

Fostering an Inclusive Feedback Culture

Value student input for collective growth. Utilize technology like Zoom polls, Google surveys, word clouds, and iClicker quizzes for real-time, anonymous insights. Complement these with low-tech methods like anonymous feedback boxes, Exit Tickets, or Minute Papers. Share summarized feedback with the class, reinforcing that many concerns are shared, and thus, we're all in this learning journey together.  Periodically revisit classroom norms and the syllabus, inviting student reflection on what's effective and what needs adjustment. Consider surveying your students mid-semester about what has been helping them learn in your course, and what could be improved. These diverse feedback channels not only improve the course but also affirm the value of each student's perspective, enhancing inclusion and belonging.  

Promoting Wellbeing and Providing Personalized Support

Mid semester is a good time to boost students' wellbeing. Offer feedback and suggestions for improvement after quizzes, exams, longer writing assignments, or projects, either in-class or in the form of targeted group emails. Encourage students to come meet with you. Now is a good time to show students you value their well-being. Post a link to UMass wellbeing resources on your Moodle/Blackboard page or in an encouraging class email. If you are concerned about an individual student who is struggling, review the resources and referral request available through the Dean of Students Office

Motivate students to cross the finish line. Boost student persistence by offering personalized support and reinforcing students’ community connection. Watch for struggling students and have one-on-one talks to develop plans to complete assignments. Encourage students to access essential campus resources providing academic help or counseling. Share the UMass Student Success webpage Tips for Overcoming Test Anxiety to help alleviate stress and motivate students for a successful semester end. Offer opportunities for in-class collaborative learning experiences that will support end-semester course work and exam preparation and organize ways for students to coordinate out-of-class study groups.