Course Content and Curriculum: Encouraging Belonging

Fostering a sense of belonging in the classroom (whether online or in person) begins with the syllabus and the behaviors of the instructor in the first course meetings. The continued welcoming behaviors by the educator, such as the provision of open and safe classroom spaces, the opportunities for student voices to be heard, and the promotion and exploration of community support programs can each serve to uncover and highlight the hidden curriculum that may not be apparent to students, assisting them in building an awareness of the unspoken rules and mores present in higher education.1 Fostering a sense of belonging in the classroom expands beyond what occurs during first-day (and first-week) encounters.

The details of the actual curriculum, that is, the content instructors choose to share as well as the mode of its delivery, matters significantly when it comes to creating a sense of student belonging. All disciplines have required content and curriculum that must be provided in a course. There are student learning outcomes, objectives, standards, assessments, etc. which must be accomplished, however, instructors have latitude when it comes to how to meet those expectations. There are ways to both teach the content and encourage the learner and how an instructor taught the course will likely be remembered just as much as what was taught.

Incorporating Belonging through Content and Topics

One important mode of fostering student belonging is for instructors to cultivate reading lists of primary and secondary sources that move beyond a hegemonic and/or singular point of view. As instructors prepare materials and reading lists for courses, they can select academic texts written by authors from often marginalized communities or texts that highlight a point of view that is not part of the mainstream discourse.

A history professor, for example, may be assigned to teach an Introduction to World History course which includes a student learning outcome stating: “evaluate historical and contemporary perspectives about the world.” A key component of addressing this objective would be the effective reading and interpretation of primary and secondary sources. Many first-year students may not have the experience of critically analyzing can comparing sources so this can be an opportunity to build skills and lead to the critical analysis of texts.

The instructor has the option to determine what sources and topics to include in the curriculum to help learners meet the outcome noted above. Which aspects of history will the instructor choose to highlight? From what vantage point will the narrative be told?  What perspectives have been erased or how can those perspectives connect to the students in the course? These types of questions can help shape a more inclusive curriculum which in turn leads to a sense of student belonging.

Our experiences as diverse demographic groups have differed over time and students should be able to see themselves in at least some of the materials chosen for a course. In the example of the history course noted above, the instructor could consider using the Lavender Scare2 and Stonewall3 or the development of ADA and IDEA4 in addition to the “usual” materials when teaching the Red Scare or a unit regarding American Civil Rights.

Moving across the disciplines, consider a professor of biology teaching a Human Anatomy course with a student learning objective to describe the anatomy and general function of all the components of the lymphatic, endocrine, respiratory, digestive, and urogenital systems of the body. The complex endocrine system, which controls the hormones in our bodies, regulates a number of vital organ systems. This would, of course, include sexual development and function and reproduction.

When providing topical examples, anatomical diagrams, and case studies the professor may want to move beyond simply including information that works in terms of binary definitions and that is only limited to Is it only assigned female at birth (AFAB) or assigned male at birth (AMAB). Gender-affirming care is an essential component of an endocrinologist’s practice and thus should be an essential component of a human anatomy curriculum.6

Utilizing correct terminology, such as AFAB, AMAB, trans, binary, gender dysphoria, and other terms is also key to making students feel welcome. Avoiding out-of-date and disproven terms, such as “gender identity disorder7 is equally important to helping students feel that they belong.

Reflection questions:

One of the most important things that instructors can do in regard to honing their pedagogical practice is to reflect: on teaching, behavior, interactions, student achievement, and content. As instructors reflect on a course each week, month, term, or year, here are some questions they can ask about their content and curriculum in terms of belonging:

  • Have I chosen sources, including textbooks, accessible videos, case studies, and other resources that represent diverse individuals?
  • Have I chosen images that represent non-white, non-cis, disabled, and neurodivergent8 persons?
  • When I give anecdotes or examples in class, are they only from my own demographic whether that pertains to race, sexuality, gender, socio-economic status, or ability?
  • Are my materials accessible to all learners?
  • Do assignments or assessments offer different modes for students to demonstrate their learning? Am I offering differentiated instruction?
  • Do my class and assignments show understanding of and respect for different family situations such as multi-generational households and caregiver status?


  1. Alsubaie, M. A. (2015). Hidden Curriculum as One of Current Issue of Curriculum. Journal of Education and Practice, 6(33), 125–128.
  2. Haynes, S. (2020, December 22). The Anti-Gay “Lavender Scare” Is Rarely Taught in Schools. Time.
  3. Collins, C. (2019). Teaching Stonewall. Learning for Justice, 62.
  4. About IDEA. (n.d.). Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Retrieved October 5, 2023, from
  5. Principles of Transgender Health Care. (2023, September 21).
  6. Hembree, W. C., Cohen-Kettenis, P. T., Gooren, L., Hannema, S. E., Meyer, W. J., Murad, M. H., Rosenthal, S. M., Safer, J. D., Tangpricha, V., & T’Sjoen, G. G. (2017). Endocrine Treatment of Gender-Dysphoric/Gender-Incongruent Persons: An Endocrine Society* Clinical Practice Guideline. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 102(11), 3869–3903.
  7. Transgender Health. (2020, December 16).
  8. Guest Pryal, K. R. (2023, July 3). Neurodivergent Students Need Flexibility, Not Our Frustration. The Chronicle of Higher Education.