Using High Expectations to Boost Students’ Sense of Belonging
Research shows that when students—particularly those from traditionally marginalized groups—feel like they belong in the classroom, they engage more deeply in the learning process.
Chris Hulleman, director of the University of Virginia’s Motivate Lab, defines sense of belonging as “the belief that one is academically and socially connected, supported, and respected.” This belief is one of three learning mindsets—along with growth mindset and a sense of purpose and relevance—that help us understand the deeper structure of motivation. A sense of belonging helps shape students’ beliefs about themselves, their potential, and the learning context, and is likely to be especially beneficial for students from traditionally marginalized groups. By deliberately addressing belonging in our classes, we can help build deeper engagement, deeper learning, more fairness, and a more positive whole child school experience.
Picture each of your students. As they enter school, either in person or online, do they feel safe and valued, and that their unique story matters in school? Do they feel they can bring their full self to each class? Do they feel known? Do they feel like they belong in this space?
In class, how do you speak to them? Are there any biases present in your words or actions? Do you give all students the benefit of an equally long wait time when you ask questions? Is your classroom instruction engaging, accessible, and relevant? An ongoing commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work will help you build the foundations of belonging for every student.
But DEI work alone is not enough. Let’s go back to your students. Are your lessons designed in alignment with what we know from cognitive science about how the human brain learns? What does the practice work you assign look like? What study strategies do you teach students to use? How is metacognition built? Does the feedback you give students help or hurt? What does homework look like?
Classic research on belonging suggests that telling students you have high expectations of them and that you believe in their potential to meet those expectations has a positive impact. How do you follow through on that? How can you design learning experiences that help students meet those high expectations? Some strategies based on the science of learning can help.
Deliberately teach students how to read in your subject, and how to take good notes from readings, videos, and direct instruction. Handwritten notes are better than typed for most students. You can promote students’ dual coding of information by adding simple images and diagrams to your video or in-person instruction. Give concrete examples of abstract concepts, and include models, analogies, and stories.
Teaching in multiple modalities is very effective, though it’s important to avoid thinking in terms of learning styles. Students are not visual or auditory learners, for example—they all benefit from having multiple paths to access information.
Promoting Effective Study Strategies
Rereading and highlighting are poor but common strategies, so teach students more effective and efficient study strategies. These will feel worse for students because they’re harder, so they can be hard to put into practice, but teachers can deliberately teach and incentivize them.
- Self-elaboration: Have students explain the material to a clueless person, even if that clueless person is themselves. They can make short videos or audio recordings in which they try to explain what they’re trying to learn. These needn’t be shared, so the stakes are low.
- Build connections: Have students connect each idea they’re trying to learn to another idea or a real-world example. When they’re using flash cards, they can take a moment when they flip one over to make a connection to something else, or another card in the deck, and write this connection on the card.
- Retrieval practice: Teach students to try to get information out of their brain even when doing so is hard. For example, have them begin a study session by taking a piece of paper and writing out what they know; then they can work to check what they wrote and fill in the gaps. Create frequent low- or no-stakes retrieval practice opportunities for your students to help them study.
- Spaced practice: Teach students to study for 20 minutes at a time over three days instead studying in a one-hour block. Spaced practice, by allowing a bit of forgetting in between sessions, creates stronger long-term memory. But getting rusty feels bad to students, so explain why you want them to do this.
Students struggle to plan spaced and retrieval practice on their own, so build some into your class time and some into homework. This type of homework tends to be more impactful than more open-ended assignments.
In addition to explicitly teaching the strategies above, teach students how to take upcoming assessments—don’t assume they already know how to do this. Provide deliberate instruction and scaffolds at the start of the year, and peel these away over time as students get more proficient—you can reteach these concepts as needed.
To foster a sense of belonging when you’re giving feedback, deliberately work to set a positive emotional climate at all times—otherwise your feedback, however helpful it could be, will have little or no impact on students.
Give small amounts of highly targeted feedback rather than trying to fix every problem at once. Each student should get just as much feedback as they can cope with at once, and you should attempt to make sure students understand the feedback and know what to do next when they get it. It can be helpful to give students 10 or 15 minutes of class time to act on feedback when they receive it.
Design assignments so that students receive feedback and have a chance to act on it before they receive a final grade. Do not give grades and feedback at the same time, and work to ensure that students know the goal of feedback is to improve the student, not the piece of work.
Teaching students how effective studying works helps build metacognition, so try to talk explicitly and often about the strategies above. In addition, you can set up short activities to help students activate their prior knowledge and connect new topics to what they already know and can do.
Use language that links students’ successes to the strategies they used, and frame their times of challenge as a need to find a better strategy—and help them do so. Being able to use the right strategy at the right time is vital to their learning.
The strategies here should help students improve their learning outcomes not simply because they’re effective ways to work but because they will help students feel that they belong and can succeed in a classroom where the expectations are high.