Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Developing a sense of belonging in our classroom, on our campus

This past summer I was lucky enough to be a part of a team from Everett Community College that attended the first annual Teaching and Learning National Institute (TLNI) at Evergreen College in Olympia WA. From the very beginning our team used as a guiding principle three questions that we believe all students ask (regardless of their previous experiences with education) when they walk onto our campuses and into our classrooms for the first time: Can I do this? Is it relevant? And Do I belong here? Several of our plenary sessions at the TLNI actually addressed the importance of developing a sense of belonging, so we knew we were on the right track. Since EvCC is a Guided Pathways college, we are working hard to build persistence and belonging in our students, which we hope will lead to not only success but completion as well. We also believe that as students develop this sense of belonging, they will become more engaged. Belonging and engagement are different; a student can be engaged in a class without really feeling a sense of belonging.

As a group we also read a paper that was published by Don Wood and Gregory Williams from Odessa College in Odessa TX. Odessa College suffered one of the lowest retention/dropout rates in the state. After talking with faculty whose class retention rates were the highest at the college, the researchers noted that there was no consistency across what type of course (STEM vs Humanities, for example, where the STEM classes are perceived as being more difficult and would suggest a lower retention rate) and the type of pedagogy (lecture vs group or team learning, where lecture classes were thought to have a lower retention rate and group learning would suggest more student engagement and therefore a higher retention rate). But they found that there were inconsistencies in their hypotheses. So what was is that certain instructors – those with the highest retention rates – were doing? Don Wood told me it boiled down to four basic (and pretty simple) ideas that he called the 4 Commitments:
  • Interact with students by name from the first class,

  • Closely monitor student behavior and progress and intervene immediately if anything should go amiss,

  • Have one-on-one meetings with each student early in the semester to ensure a connection with the student is established, and

  • Become a “Master of Paradox” meaning develop highly structured courses with clear and understood penalties for missed exams, late assignments, etc., but be flexible with the penalty when appropriate.

When faculty began implementing this in their classes, retention began to improve across all disciplines and all instructors. Not only that, but many of the equity gaps began to disappear. Now Hispanic males began to succeed at the same rate as their white counterparts. We believe that by addressing the three questions above and implementing one or all of the 4 Commitments, we can help build those important relationships with students that are a part of developing a sense of belonging. Your Professional Development person on your campus can help you develop small changes in your classroom that will lead to greater student success and higher retention!

Want to know more about how to improve retention in your classes? Here are some of the references from Wood and Williams’ paper:


Dunwoody, P.T.  and Frank, M.L.  (1995) “Why Students Withdraw from Classes,” Journal of Psychology, 129(5), 553-558.

Harris, D. and Sass, T. (2009) “What makes for a good teacher and who can tell?”  National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER). Working Paper #30. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Tinto, V. (1987) “The Principles of Effective Retention,” Paper presented at the Fall Conference of the Maryland College Personnel Association, Prince George’s Community College, Largo, MD.

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