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Students' Sense of Belonging

A page within CATL Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence


Many first-year students find themselves questioning whether they belong in college or at UWL.  UWL's three campus climate surveys (2004, 2008, 2013) indicate that, especially, students of color are more likely than white students seriously to consider leaving UWL.  Our retention rates (in higher education, a "retention rate" typically means the proportion of students in their first year who return for the second year) for several historically underserved groups (e.g., first generation students, students of color) are also lower than for counterpart groups, particularly if they have not declared a major by the end of their first year. Feeling welcome and respected on our campus and in our classes is an important key to student success. 

Instructors can help remove barriers to students' sense of belonging, especially for students who can tell that our campus has few others who identify similarly to themselves.

Summary of Research

Here are some issues of belonging that students from historically underserved groups regularly report (sometimes several times in a single class session):

  • expected to speak for their entire group in a class ("so, Sally: what do African Americans think about this?")
  • getting the message that their unpaid job is to teach every other student in their classes about their group ("Xiong, please explain what a 'refugee' is")
  • seeing no one like themselves in our classes (e.g., one or two students of color in a class of 45)
  • seeing no one like themselves doing important work in our fields (e.g., all the readings we assign were written by white people or men)
  • feeling unwelcome in or excluded from classroom activities (e.g., not chosen for small group projects;  when speaking in class, hearing disruptive sounds made by other students)
  • harassment, including by other students
  • never being called on in class despite repeatedly volunteering to respond to a question
  • not being considered by an instructor or advisor to participate in high-impact practices (e.g., assuming a student could not afford to study abroad; assuming a student would not be interested or capable of undergraduate research)
  • not being able to afford to participate in some components of a course (e.g., assigned to attend an event that costs money';  hidden course costs the instructor did not notice like assuming student access to electronic devices)
  • feeling like an imposter - "Everyone else seems to understand this stuff! Maybe I'm not college material after all!"

Students who are aware that social stereotypes impugn the intelligence of their group (e.g. that women aren't good at math or that African Americans are less intelligent than whites) can find themselves questioning their abilities very quickly, even when they fully believe the evidence that indicates no differences in ability by group. 

Students of color in particular may report having had several years of teachers assuming that they "just aren't good" at some skill or at learning in general, based as much on a stereotype as on a belief that intelligence is fixed. Thus, the instructor's own mindset is just as important for student success as the student's. 

Students of color in particular are also more likely than white students to have experienced several years of teachers, in an effort to be supportive, praising them for work the student knows to be substandard. 


  • Try to suspend your assumptions about what students already know about college, especially in courses that primarily serve first-year students.  Carve out time from class content to help students develop the appropriate learning and study skills for your course.
  • Address the problem of underperformance that can result when a negative stereotype about a group's abilities is active and relevant (stereotype threat).  The interventions that have been shown to work are not as easy to do well as they might seem, so do use the best social science protocols available.  We're happy to help you design an intervention and to evaluate it too.
  • Reduce subtle messages that indicate the active use of negative stereotypes.  These can come from many sources: ourselves (no one is perfect), other students, course materials, community partners.
  • Infuse the content of your course so students see themselves represented. But do try to avoid portraying historically marginalized groups as perpetual victims or perpetual foreigners.
  • Provide students with the resources they need to succeed (e.g., good teaching). See the CATL Teaching Improvement Guide for ideas.
  • Provide students with opportunities to improve their performance (e.g., multiple drafts or similar assignments).
  • Engage students in high-quality "high-impact practices
  • Scaffold study strategies that enhance both student learning and belonging, such as well-designed study groups
  • Help students understand that transitions are challenging, and that learning should require hard work. Focus on normalizing the idea that students who struggle belong in college, and that the struggles experienced normally get better.
  • Consider sharing your own educational journey, especially if you yourself ever struggled or felt you did not belong. That can help students recognize that they are not alone and that having to struggle and work hard in order to learn something complex and new is a normal and expected college experience that most students find their way through -- as did you.
  • Understand which societal biases you might unconsciously harbor.  Discuss with colleagues how those assumptions might affect your interactions with students from particular groups. 
  • Consciously endeavor to monitor your own patterns that might reflect biases during your interactions with students.  
  • Work to avoid tokenizing any student.  Students sometimes do volunteer to speak about their own experiences, but work to avoid asking any student to do so, especially if you are asking for the benefit of a majority "audience."
  • Rather than assuming a student's identity, allow students to state their own key identities (gender, race, sexual orientation, disability status) on their own
  • Consider participating in campus ally programs that identify supportive instructors and staff.   


Hurtado, S, et al. (1999). Enacting diverse learning environments: improving the climate for racial/ethnic diversity in higher education. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, Vol. 26, No. 8.

Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., Hessert, W. T., Williams, M. E., & Cohen, G. L. (2013, August 12). Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust: Wise Interventions to Provide Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.


Hoskins, D. (2017).  Develop your inclusive mindset: Students' sense of belonging.  In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from