Foster a Sense of Belonging

Foster a Sense of Belonging

Students’ connection with each other and their instructors is critical for student success. In the following sections, you will read about a sense of belonging and how to foster it in your classroom.

What is a sense of belonging?

A definition from Carol Goodenow (1993) and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017):

A sense of belonging is defined as being accepted, valued, included, and encouraged by others (teachers and peers) in the academic classroom and of feeling oneself to be an important part of the life and activity of the class. Students’ sense of belonging has been identified as a potential lever to promote success, engagement, and well-being in college.

Sense of belonging is related to college students’ cognition, affect, and behaviors (Hurtado & Carter, 1997). In other words, students can think, feel, and act as they belong. For example, a student who thinks (cognition) and feels (affect) that they belong in class is more likely to show up to class (behavior) than a student who does not think and feel that they belong. Sense of belonging is a basic human need and motivation. That is, everyone needs to belong.

Finally, educators should be aware that students’ sense of belonging is dynamic. Sense of belonging can fluctuate during transitions from class to class, year to year, and situation to situation. For example, a student who feels a sense of belonging in your class may not feel a sense of belonging in another course taken during the same semester.  Instructors play a valuable role in supporting students’ journeys through their courses, majors, and at Iowa State University.

A sense of belonging reflects the feeling that one fits in, belongs to, or is a member of the academic community in question. Viewing oneself as being accepted within a discipline rather than on its fringes is a sense of belonging. It validates one’s personal belief that your presence and contributions within the academic community demonstrate your value as an accepted member (Trujillo & Tanne, 2014).

Although everyone shares the need to belong, college students' perceptions of belonging can differ based on their identities and experiences and academic performance or preparation (Strayhorn, 2019; Walton & Cohen, 2007; Zumbrunn, McKim, Buhs, & Hawley, 2014). Students are less likely to be engaged in learning environments in which they feel they do not belong (Hurtado & Carter, 1997; Strayhorn, 2019). Also, research has shown that minoritized students tend to report a lower sense of belonging than their peers (Johnson et al., 2007; Strayhorn, 2008a). 

Academic performance or preparation can also raise or lower students' perceived sense of belonging (Hoops, Green, Baker, & Hensley, 2016; Strayhorn, 2008b; Zumbrunn, McKim, Buhs, & Hawley, 2014). However, when students learn that it is normal to experience academic struggle and that such struggle does not demonstrate their lack of belonging, they have improved their educational outcomes compared with students who do not receive such messages (Walton & Cohen, 2007; Vaccaro et al., 2015).

How to foster a sense of belonging

Evidence and research suggest that there are many teaching practices and strategies to foster a sense of belonging; download the Reflect on Your Sense of Belonging Practices (PDF). However, at its heart, there are three key guiding principles that must occur for a student to create a sense of academic belonging. These principles can be fostered at the adviser-student, classroom, program, department, and college level. They include: interpersonal relationships, discipline identity, and mindset.

Within an academic environment, interpersonal relationships occur with peers, faculty, advisors, and staff members within a program and department. The frequency of interactions and the intensity of these relationships matter (Weidman, 1989). Having interpersonal relationships means that a student feels socially connected to those in their major. How do we form positive connections for students and provide structures that encourage healthy interpersonal relationships among one another?

In contrast to connections developed through interpersonal relationships, discipline identity is defined as one’s connection to their field, meaning a close connection to a person’s sense of self (e.g., “I am a mathematician; biologist; journalist, etc.”) (Carlone & Johnson, 2007; Espinosa, 2011). Therefore, belonging based on a positive discipline identity describes how a student’s major serves as an integral part of their life and who they are. How are students in your major encouraged to build a discipline-specific identity?

Can all students through hard work learn your discipline? Believing that the nature of intelligence as a fixed trait can undermine achievement in the face of difficulty. Consider, for instance, the statement, “I’m not a math person.” In contrast, students who hold the mindset that ability is a malleable quality (growth mindset) are less focused on proving their abilities and more focused on learning (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007). They seek challenges that can result in better learning and they remain highly strategic and effective in the face of setbacks, even showing enhanced motivation and performance (Mangels et al., 2006; Grant & Dweck, 2003). How do we encourage a growth mindset in our evaluation and assessment practices?

Environments that support interpersonal relationships, discipline identity, and growth mindset create opportunities for more people to be valued members of our academic communities. 

  • Goodenow, C. (1993). Classroom belonging among early adolescent students: Relationships to motivation and achievement. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 13(1), 21-43,
  • Hausmann, L. R. M., Schofield, J. W., & Woods, R. L. (2007). Sense of belonging as a predictor of intentions to persist among African American and White first-year college students. Research in Higher Education, 48, 803-839-Emilee
  • Hurtado, S., & Carter, D. F. (1997). Effects of college transition and perceptions of the campus racial climate on Latino college students’ sense of belonging. Sociology of Education, 70(4), 324-345.
  • Hoops, L. D., Green, M., Baker, A., & Hensley, L. C. (2016, February). Success in terms of belonging: An exploration of college student success stories. Paper presented at The Ohio State University Hayes Research Forum, Columbus, OH.
  • Johnson, D. R., Soldner, M., Leonard, J. B., Alvarez, P., Inkelas, K. K., Rowan-Kenyon, H. T., & Longerbeam, S. D. (2007). Examining sense of belonging among first-year undergraduates from different racial/ethnic groups. Journal of College Student Development, 48(5), 525-542.
  • National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Supporting students’ college success: The role of assessment of intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies. National Academies Press.
  • Strayhorn, T. L. (2008a). Fittin’ in: Do diverse interactions affect sense of belonging for black men at predominately white institutions? NASPA Journal, 45(4), 501-527.
  • Strayhorn, T. L. (2008b). Sentido de pertencia: A hierarchical analysis predicting sense of belonging among Latino college students. Journal of Hispanic Education, 7(4), 301-320.
  • Strayhorn, T. L. (2019). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. New York: Routledge.
  • Trujillo, G. & Tanne, K. D. (2014). Considering the role of affect in learning: Monitoring students’ self-efficacy, sense of belonging, and science identity. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 13, 6-15.
  • Vaccaro, A., Daly-Cano, M., & Newman, B.M. (2015). A sense of belonging among college students with disabilities: An emergent theoretical model. Journal of College Student Development, 56(7), 670-686. doi:10.1353/csd.2015.0072
  • Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 82-96.
  • Zumbrunn, S., McKim, C., Buhs, E., & Hawley, L. R. (2014). Support, belonging, motivation, and engagement in the college classroom: A mixed-method study. Instructional Science, 42, 661-684.
  • Weidman, J.C. (1989).Undergraduate Socialization: Approach.” In John C. Smart (Ed.), Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, V,. New York: Agathon Press.

Creative Commons

What is Sense of Belonging? section, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University, is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. This work, Workshop for Our Students: Creating a Sense of Belonging, is a derivative of the Sense of Belonging in the College Classroom developed by The Ohio State University’s University Center for the Advancement of Teaching (retrieved on May 27, 2021) from and Fostering Belonging How Belonging Affects Learning developed by Northeastern University’s Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research (retrieved on May 27, 2021) from