Creating a Sense of Student Belonging: A Quick-Start Guide

Part of creating a sense of student belonging is recognizing that all of us come from different backgrounds, filled with cultural mores, commonalities, expectations, and more. Instructors can establish norms for classroom behavior while honoring the individuality of each participant and their backgrounds. Listed below are some quick-start steps to set the stage for a successful semester that fosters a sense of student belonging in the classroom as well as in the greater University community.

1. Start with the Syllabus

Effective design in the syllabus is beneficial to all student learners, particularly to those who may be neuro-diverse. The order and organization of the syllabus should be user-friendly, aesthetically pleasing, and lead to student understanding. Key components of the course should appear early in the document (ACUE, n.d.-a) The document should not include language that would impede a growth mindset or a student’s willingness to actively participate. See the following resource for more detailed descriptions of creating a syllabus that underscores belonging:

2. Structure Your Course on Blackboard to Create a Sense of Belonging

Blackboard course design rivals the syllabus for first impressions. It is a common myth that our students inherently understand technology or, more specifically, know how to use a learning management system (LMS) like Blackboard. With the varied backgrounds and identity groups of our students (including adult returning learners), we cannot make any assumptions about how well students understand how to use Blackboard. To effectively utilize the LMS to foster student belonging, instructors should:

a. Open their courses ASAP and begin by posting their syllabus and a short welcome announcement. Students should feel welcomed and have a basic idea of what to expect when the first day of classes arrives.

b. Have a clear, organized structure throughout the semester. This helps all learners know what to expect and what is expected of them. Students will learn to mirror those exemplary organizational skills and practices.

c. Review and follow these guidelines: Guidelines for Universal Accessibility – Detroit Mercy CETL and Guidelines for Organizing Your Course Site – Detroit Mercy CETL to maintain structure and accessibility.

3. Underscore Belonging from the Very First Day

Whether a course is meeting in person or online, faculty can use the first class meeting(s) to model the behaviors outlined above. Instructors can start by introducing themselves and sharing their challenges as lifelong learners, stating their personal pronouns, recalling their college experiences, and explaining their family situations (caring for children, and elders, balancing work/life, etc.). Instructors should be warm, welcoming, and compassionate. If educators show their humanity students may be more willing to show theirs (Sturtevant, 2014).

Icebreakers can be painful for the socially anxious, so instructors can modify them by creating small groups or instead, providing an informal personal survey asking questions such as the following:

  • How comfortable are you with computer learning?
  • What is your experience with X subject?
  • What do you feel are your strengths as a student?
  • Which areas do YOU feel are your weakest *right now*?
  • What are your goals for this school year?
  • What are your goals for this class?
  • What are you most concerned about in this class or school in general?
  • Are there triggering topics I should know about? Answer this only if you’re comfortable.
  • Is there anything else you want me (the instructor) to know?

Such practices help students to feel safe and seen, which in turn can lead to meaningful in-class engagement.

4. Allow for Student Voice by Creating Learner-Centered Activities and Engagement

As instructors plan learning activities throughout the semester, they can regularly incorporate opportunities for students to contribute and share. These can be formal or informal activities such as brainstorming, answering questions, leading presentations, etc. Scholarship and research regarding teaching and retention suggest that lectures should only comprise one aspect of the classroom experience; research suggests students retain more knowledge after engaging in learner-led activities (Blandin & Lietaer, 2012). Shorter lectures (sometimes referred to as micro-lectures) can provide content and information to help students prepare for learner-centered activities in the classroom (ACUE, n.d.-b)

There is also value in informal discussion and conversations such as those times in class when students can just talk to each other (and their instructors!) about their lives, showing students know they are truly seen as people with lives of their own (Sturtevant, et al., 2018; Boonk, et al., 2018).

5. Provide Resources

Be sure to highlight University resources and support services (such as the Writing Center, Student Success Center, etc.) in class, modeling how to make appointments and connect with staff members. Invite staff from various offices as guest speakers to your courses to discuss their roles. As the semester progresses, take time to regularly remind students of resources and how they can utilize them as needed.

6. Reflect

The core of any teaching practice is reflection. Instructors can provide numerous check-in points for students throughout the semester to gauge their feelings of belongingness. Activities may include informal polls and surveys as well as written reflections such as journal entries or personal response essays. Professors, in turn, may reflect on their practices with colleagues in their department, or through discussion and review with the CETL.

Examples of Using Inclusive to Promote Belonging

  • Use “they/them/their” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun. For example: “Each student should bring their textbook to class.” 
  • Avoid using “he/she”, “him/her”, or “(s)he” which still reinforces the binary gender in documents and general communications.
  • Use gender-neutral terms like “person”, “individual”, “humans”, “people”, “staff”, and “faculty.” Avoid “men” or “mankind.”
  • For specific roles, use inclusive alternatives like “chairperson” instead of “chairman”, and “flight attendant” instead of “stewardess”.
  • Be conscious of any gender assumptions or stereotypes. For example, avoid statements like “Each boy should help the girl next to him.”
  • Capitalize racial, ethnic, and cultural groups like “Black”, “Latinx”, “Asian”, and “Indigenous”.
  • Use specific cultural identities like Chinese or Navajo instead of broad terms like Asian or Native American when possible. 
  • Avoid making overgeneralizations about any racial or ethnic group.
  • Be aware of cultural differences and avoid making assumptions about a student’s background or beliefs.
  • Incorporate diverse voices and perspectives in your curriculum materials by using diverse examples and case studies to represent a range of cultural perspectives. 
Disability Awareness:
  • Emphasize the person first, use “person with a disability” rather than “disabled person.”
  • Avoid ableist language like “confined to a wheelchair” or “suffers from.” Use neutral terms like “uses a wheelchair” or “has [disability name].”
  • Don’t refer to people by disability. Say “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled.”
  • Accommodate students with disabilities and offer accessibility resources.
  • Highlight information to request accommodations for students with disabilities.
  • Ensure that your course materials are accessible to students with disabilities, including digital documents and online resources.
Age Neutrality:
  • Avoid making assumptions about students’ ages.
  • Use language that does not exclude or stereotype different age groups.
Avoid Stereotypes:
  • Refrain from using stereotypes or biased language based on race, ethnicity, religion, or other factors.
  • Encourage open dialogue about diversity and inclusion to promote and create a safe space for all viewpoints.


ACUE (n.d.-a) Organize Your Course. Retrieved September 19, 2023, from

ACUE (n.d.-b) Record Effective Microlectures. Retrieved September 19, 2023, from

Blandin, B., & Lietaer, B. (2012). Mutual learning: A systemic increase in learning efficiency to prepare for the challenges of the twenty-first century. AI & SOCIETY, 28.

Boonk, L., Gijselaers, H. J. M., Ritzen, H., & Brand-Gruwel, S. (2018). A Review of the Relationship Between Parental Involvement Indicators and Academic Achievement. Educational Research Review, 24, 10–30.

Sturtevant, J. A. (2014). You’ve Gotta Connect: Building Relationships that Lead to Engaged Students, Productive Classrooms, and Higher Achievement. World Book, Inc. Fay, J., & Funk, D. (2000). Teaching with Love & Logic: Taking Control of the Classroom (Nachdr.). Love and Logic Press.

Sturtevant; Fay & Funk; Boonk, L., Gijselaers, H. J. M., Ritzen, H., & Brand-Gruwel, S. (2018). A Review of the Relationship Between Parental Involvement Indicators and Academic Achievement. Educational Research Review, 24, 10–30.