Academic Belonging

Academic Belonging: Cultivating students’ sense of connection to the discipline and scholarly/professional communities.

This list offers examples of concrete strategies aligned with this general equity-focused teaching principle. If you would like to submit your own example for consideration, please click here.

Communicate high expectations and your belief that all students can succeed; explicitly communicate to students what they need to do to achieve the course learning objectives.
  • Read a blog post from Chronicle of Higher Education, related to the expectations we set for university students.
  • Watch a 3 min. video in which education expert Robert Marzano advises K-12 teachers to mentally review each of their students to see whom they have low versus high expectations for. When he did the exercise himself, Marzano noted his surprise at his own behavior towards students. (From the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development at
  • Create WISE feedback statements: “A Wise Feedback Framing Statement is a brief statement that instructors can include along with comments on key assignments and exams that conveys that the instructor is providing feedback because they have appropriately challenging standards for the course, and believes the student is capable of meeting them. … Wise feedback framing statements have been shown to increase students’ trust that grades are being assigned impartially, and increase academic engagement. Wise feedback has also been shown to reduce academic outcome gaps between students from structurally disadvantaged and structurally advantaged racial groups (Cohen, Steele, and Ross, 1999; Yeager, 2014).”
Embrace an asset-based (anti-deficit) teaching approach. One way to do this is to assess students’ prior knowledge about your topics so you can accurately align instruction with their strengths and needs. To validate the range of backgrounds students bring, communicate to students that their prior knowledge or skills are assets for learning (e.g. learners who are new to material can often pose useful critical questions that help those familiar with the material identify gaps in their understanding or think about the material in new ways).
  • See here for concrete tips on soliciting and engaging student prior knowledge, from Hampshire College Center for Teaching and Learning.
  • See a pdf of a sequence of questions which are adapted from two STEM faculty at U-M that highlight two STEM examples. (Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan)
  • Use a background knowledge probe (see this description) to help students indicate how well they know a particular subject ranging from “I don’t even recognize the content of this question” to “I know this well enough to teach my classmates about it.” (By Molly Baker from Oakland University)
  • Read through a quick case for examples of prior knowledge assessment questions. (Material from Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation)
    • The most reliable way to assess students’ prior knowledge is to assign a task (e.g., quiz, paper) that gauges their relevant background knowledge. These assessments are for diagnostic purposes only, and they should not be graded. They can help you gain an overview of students’ preparedness, identify areas of weakness, and adjust the pace of the course.
    • To create a performance-based prior knowledge assessment, you should begin by identifying the background knowledge and skills that students will need to succeed in your class. Your assessment can include tasks or questions that test students’ capabilities in these areas. (All text is from Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation)
Cultivate growth mindsets: Allow for productive trial and error (e.g. through low-stakes practice quizzes, modeling, or discussion of interestingly productive wrong answers). Emphasize that risk, productive struggle, and failure can be important parts of any learning process and scientific method.
  • Look through a “CV of failures” by Princeton University Assistant Professor Johannes Haushofer, and discuss with students how success is the result of many failed attempts before it.
  • Show your students a 10 min. video of NASA rocket failures, set to “Flight of the Bumblebee”, and discuss how success is the result of many failed attempts before it.
  • Creating a belonging story; it could be particularly impactful if instructors share their own belonging stories, or the belonging stories of past students, in their classes.”
Encourage or require students to visit office hours early in the term, and use that time to learn about their interests and experiences with course material.
Build rapport in your classroom: e.g., encourage students to introduce themselves and use one another’s names, encourage getting to know people in the class as multi-faceted individuals, etc.
  • Concrete tips from UNL (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) for establishing rapport by encouraging camaraderie and using verbal and non-verbal cues.
  • 23 ideas from UNL (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) for how to learn students’ names.
  • An article about why classroom rapport is important, and specific ways to establish it. Fleming, N. (2003). Establishing rapport: Personal interaction and learning, IDEA Paper No. 39. Manhatten, KS: Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development, Kansas State University
Learn and use students’ names and pronouns, and encourage them to learn and use one another’s, accurately pronounced and spelled. Be aware that what students choose to be called may differ from the name that appears on your class roster. Normalize the use of gender neutral terms such as the pronoun “they” or saying “folks” instead of “guys”.
  • Review this list of strategies for using pronouns from U-M’s Spectrum Center and this blog describing ways to create gender-inclusive classrooms.
  • View a list of 8 tips for learning students’ names from the Eberly Center (for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation) at Carnegie Mellon University.
  • Click here to download a name tent template, which can be used for the whole class all semester. Include the name on both sides so the teacher, and classmates, can see. Color coding enables rearrangement and group assignments.
Highlight the diversity of contributors to your discipline (through the authors you assign, the research you highlight, the guest speakers you invite etc.); seek to identify professionals who bring a range of backgrounds, including identities that are different from yours.
  • Consider highlighting a “Scientist of the Week” in your lectures – find scientists from a broad range of identities, backgrounds, and professional roles such as from industry, government, academia, etc. 
  • Refer to experts in the field see this list of black engineers and this list women engineers from U-M’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.
  • View an example, “13 Interesting Facts About Math in Ancient Africa” by Calli Wright, on the MIND research institute’s blog.
  • Review lists of famous scientists and engineers from a range of social identities typically underrepresented in STEM, including a few samples shown here: see here for a list of “Women at NASA”, see here for how stuff’s list of “Famous Black Engineers Throughout History, and see here for‘s list of “Famous Hispanic Scientists.”
  • When inviting outside critics or speakers, seek to identify professionals who bring a range of backgrounds, including identities that are different from yours.
Prepare guest speakers to contribute to the inclusive and equitable classroom environment by making sure they’re aware of accessibility needs, sharing established norms for inclusive discussions, etc.
  • See this example of a guest lecturer’s toolkit that highlights student demographics, course goals, and presentation strategies.
Avoid using generalizations that may exclude students who are already feeling marginalized on campus; these are often communicated through phrases (e.g. “when you go home for Thanksgiving,” “just walk over to my office.”) that make implicit assumptions about students’ physical ability, family structure, social identities, citizenship status, or economic means. If you catch yourself doing this, correct yourself.
  • Asking students where they are going for spring break may be intended to simply build rapport, but such a question can marginalize those who do not have the resources to engage in travel or similar activities. An alternative approach would be to ask students how they are spending their time during spring break.
Carefully choose examples for illustrating course concepts to be meaningful to students with a range of backgrounds, and acknowledge that not all students share the same cultural references. (This would include making clear that you’re citing a movie, comic book, band name, etc. so students can learn more if they’re not familiar with the reference.)
  • Read a research article that gives examples of the kinds of knowledge students may already possess that can be leveraged for greater understanding and feelings of belonging in engineering. (Wilson-Lopez, A., Mejia, J. A., Hasbún, I. M., & Kasun, G. S. (2016). “Latina/o adolescents’ funds of knowledge related to engineering.” Journal of Engineering Education, 105(2), 278-311)
  • Also avoid using any other reference that students may be unfamiliar with, such as sports references (e.g., baseball terms or cricket statistics), exclusively urban or rural references (e.g., a silo as example of a cylinder), and culture-specific references (e.g., plum pudding as a model of an atom).
Create intentional opportunities for students to provide feedback on their experience of the learning environment and share ideas for improving it . This could include short anonymous polls, check-ins at the beginning of a class meeting, or more substantial written feedback opportunities.
  • Note: Only do this example if you intend to read the cards, respond to the feedback, and actually change something about the class.
    • Bring blank notecards to class (enough for one per student).
    • Hand out the cards 5 min. before the end of class.
    • Ask students to anonymously write feedback about what is working for them in the class and what they would suggest to improve class.
    • Collect the cards.
    • Review contents of cards and respond to comment in the next class.