Relationships and Academic Belonging

Chemistry 110. First day of classes.

Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communication

Humans have a fundamental need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). If students do not have a sense of belonging in the classroom, learning can be challenging (Hurtado et al., 2007). Fostering relationships with your students and creating opportunities for students to connect with one another is often an essential precondition for learning to occur.

Establishing relationships with students

  • Articulate a communication plan. Tell students how to contact you, what you would like to be called (professor, Dr., first name, etc.), and when they can expect a response. Let them know how you will communicate important course information (email, announcements, etc.) Use regular Canvas announcements to remind students about key deadlines and to recap important points from class.
  • Chat with students before class. Greet and have a brief conversation with a few students before class to help students feel engaged and develop a sense of belonging (Cook et al., 2012). Be sure to chat with different students each day so that you are having conversations with as many students as possible over time. Putting up a question of the day can also give you something to chat about with students and help them make the transition to class time.
  • Get to know your students with a student survey. Have students complete a brief survey either in-class or in Canvas at the beginning of the semester. The survey could include background information about the student, such as how to pronounce their name, their pronouns, or their interests outside of school, as well as more course specific information, such as any concerns they have about the course, what they are most excited about learning in the course, and anything it would be helpful to know about them as learners. You can edit this example survey to fit your course.

Supporting students

  • Check in with students about their well-being. Students are whole people, whose lives outside of the classroom can impact their learning. Checking in with students about how they are doing demonstrates your concern about them as human beings and allows you to connect students who are struggling with relevant resources or provide additional help in the course. For example, you could have students complete a short which are you today activity at the beginning of each class. You show a slide with a variety of humorous pictures and ask students to indicate which best represents them right now. It gets students engaged, provides a light start to the class, and gives you information about the well-being of your students.
  • Intervene early. Use the Message Students Who feature in Canvas to contact students as soon as they start missing assignments or missing class. You can also use this form to contact the Academic Navigator team, who will follow up with the student and offer additional resources. When the student gets back on track, be sure to also send a message noting the improvement and encouraging them to keep working hard.
  • Connect students with well-being resources. Provide links to campus resources and refer students to the 'Wellbeing' button in Canvas. Remind students of those resources throughout the semester, particularly at key moments like when they’re preparing for an exam or project. Consider sharing your personal stories of overcoming challenges and frame getting help as a sign of motivation rather than weakness.

Fostering academic belonging

  • Use student names. Learn students' names if possible and use them when referring to students. Using name tags can help you and the other students learn names. Having students create audio or video introductions that include the correct pronunciation of their name or having them phonetically spell their name can help you learn the correct pronunciation. Tell students they can correct you during or outside of class if you ever mispronounce their name. Be sure to ask all students to share correct pronunciation rather than singling out specific students.
  • Give your own pronouns and offer students the option to share theirs. Give your pronouns when you introduce yourself and give students the option of sharing their pronouns if they are comfortable, either as part of an introduction in class or as part of a survey. Add your pronouns in Firefly so they show up in Canvas and encourage students to add theirs in MyRed. Do not require that students give their pronouns because some students may not feel comfortable sharing their gender identity with the class or may be questioning their gender identity.
  • Provide accommodations. Tell students how to contact the SSD office and provide all necessary accommodations for physical and mental health needs. Never ask if students ‘really’ need accommodations.  When making accommodations, consider altering your future course design to incorporate the change for all students.
  • Build community in the classroom. Get students talking to each other in structured activities to help increase feelings of inclusion (Hogan & Sathy, 2022). There are a variety of different Community building activities you can use. Encourage participation from everyone in class by putting students in small groups and giving each student a role to play. For example, assign each student in the group with one of four roles: facilitator, arbitrator, note-taker, or devil's advocate. Use polling to allow everyone in class to be engaged.
  • Use images, examples, and role models that represent a wide variety of different groups. Allow all students to see people like themselves represented in the images, examples, and people discussed in the course. Avoid using images or examples that require knowledge of American culture because not all your students will understand the image or example.
  • Remind students they can succeed. Some marginalized students have received personal or cultural messages that they cannot be academically successful (Steele, 1997). Reminding students that they can be successful can help all students, but particularly those from marginalized groups (Cohen et al., 1999).
  • Have clear guidelines for expected behavior in discussions and in class. Having clear guidelines can help students know what is expected of them and feel safe in the classroom environment (Hogan & Sathy, 2022). This resource discusses strategies for developing class guidelines. Avoid asking individuals to speak on behalf of their entire group. Respond to microaggressions (for example, racially insensitive language or using incorrect names/pronouns) immediately if possible. Otherwise, address them at the beginning of the following class period.


Baumeister, R., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.

Cohen, G. L., Steele, C. M., & Ross, L. D. (1999). The mentor’s dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(10), 1302-1318.

Cook. C. R., Fiat, A., Larson, M., Daikos, C., Slemrod, T., Holland, E. A., Thayer, A. J., Renshaw, T. (2012). Positive greetings at the door: Evaluation of a low-cost, high-yield proactive classroom management strategy. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 20(3), 149-159.

Hogan, K. A., & Sathy, V. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom. West Virginia University Press.

Hurtado, S., Han, J. C., Sáenz, V. B., Espinosa, L. L., Cabrera, N. L., & Cerna, O. S. (2007). Predicting transition and adjustment to college: Biomedical and behavioral science aspirants’ and minority students’ first year of college. Research in Higher Education, 48, 841-887.

Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52(6), 613-629.

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