Updated: Jun 22, 2021
By Suzanne Weston
When information, facts, and fiction bombard us during times of uncertainty, it is important to create a culture of connection and a sense of belonging. Institutions of higher learning are positioned to create connections as they have for many years, even if now only virtually. And yet, due to COVID-19, many students, adult learners, and faculty are feeling disconnected by not being physically together.
The changes in 2020, with social distancing shutdowns, may be our wake-up call to reexamine the role of higher education and its effectiveness to engage and connect the minds of all learners. One thing is certain, to create a sense of belonging and connect people more deeply, educators must work hard to eliminate bias – their own unconscious bias and that of their students and colleagues alike. This can only happen by creating a setting where each learner feels their contributions and perspectives are equally valued and respected. And by customizing education to fit each learner’s needs and style of knowledge acquisition.
To do this, there are two guiding principles: create a culture of mutual respect (where differences are welcome) and customize learning (to fit each student’s preferred style).
What’s the climate of your classroom? Faculty members set the tone through their interactions with students, whether virtually or in-person. Here are 6 tips to create a sense of belonging in higher education:
Understand your own unconscious bias (we all have it) then keep it in check.
Establish ground rules. Be clear about what is required, what will be measured and graded. Set the standards for respectful interactions, avoid negativity and marginalization. Encourage students to be supportive of one another; they each bring something unique and valuable to the table.
Be mindful of the circumstances that your students are facing and avoid making them feel embarrassed. Offer them a safe place to share fears and issues. Create a judgment-free zone, where students can share freely and where the group supports one another.
Connect with your students. Use ice-breakers to provide personalization and sharing. It transforms them from names and faces into individuals. Lead by example, let your students learn a little about your past.
Encourage collaboration and exploration. Create diverse learning groups to discuss and explore concepts together. Provide hands-on activities that challenge them to go beyond the written material. Discuss the value of different perspectives.
Identify how each student likes to learn and accommodate their preferences. Your job as the instructor is removing any barriers to allow each student to succeed.
In a world filled with uncertainty, providing safety and security should become our priority. The academic community needs to be flexible and equipped to adapt. If we can build a sense of connection and belonging in our classrooms and on our campuses, there’s no reason why we can’t create the same thing virtually.
Educators are positioned to shape our future leaders who can dream and create a brighter tomorrow. It begins by creating belonging.
Sue Weston has been writing for CIO magazine for the past 3 years about gender equity. She is an industrial engineer with a passion for creating inclusion, and a desire to create a better future. After 20 years in financial services she set out to change the world, as a parter in IW Consulting Group she creates business inclusion, as a researcher she finds new approaches to create engagement, and as a writer she creates a vision, redefining what is possible.