I have had the honor and privilege to teach community college students for the past 14 years and have learned so much about their strengths and challenges during this time. Some of their experiences are unique and must be carefully understood while others are common to all individuals transitioning to a new phase in life. In general, this is a student population with amazing resiliency and competing priorities that must be recognized and understood by administration and faculty.
Regarding their unique characteristics, many community college students are older, work full-time, attend school on a part-time basis, have children, and must take care of relatives while pursuing their academic goals. Some come to class with less-than-optimal academic preparedness due to past poor educational performance while some lack the financial resources needed to attend school without sacrificing other aspects of their daily needs. Regarding needs common to all students, they long for a sense of belonging while facing this new academic challenge, require strong adaptive skills to deal with the obstacles that come with attending college, and require clear and attainable resources to guide them through this adaptation process.
A sense of belonging and the feeling that one is not alone when facing a new challenge are imperative to our students’ mental health. Belongingness decreases rates of depression and anxiety, thus contributing to student’s ability to focus on their academics. The experience of connectedness and validation are crucial to their sense of security and serve as great motivators for them to persist despite their challenges. Faculty members are in a perfect position to make their classroom environment a safe and inclusive one through the implementation of specific teaching practices. Below are some examples from my teaching experience that I have found to be helpful and impactful:
- Diversity and inclusion statement: The presence of a diversity and inclusion statement in our learning platforms and/or syllabi can ease the concerns of students who fear they do not belong in the classroom or will not be fully accepted for who they are. Past and current experiences of bullying, discrimination, prejudice, and overall social rejection can greatly impact their feelings of belonging, which will invariably negatively impact their academic experience. Our students cannot fully focus on their learning if they feel their classroom environment is not welcoming and inclusive, and providing them with such a statement from the get-go serves as a strong signal to them that they do belong.
- Use of the Discord social platform: Discord is an online social platform that many of our students are already familiar with through their online gaming activities. The addition of Discord to an in-person and synchronous Zoom class provides students with a space to interact and develop a sense of belongingness and community, in turn increasing their level of involvement within their courses. When I first started using Discord with my psychology club students (I am their club advisor), I saw a tremendous increase in communication among members, sharing of ideas, asking of questions, and overall collaboration among club members.
- Knowing students beyond their grade: Students feel like professors care about their success when they take the time to learn their names. This inarguably can be a time-consuming process, but one that truly makes a difference toward a student’s sense of belonging. I personally take the time during the first couple of weeks to learn my students’ names and pronouns while taking attendance. I consistently read in my course evaluations that students appreciate this effort and feel a sense of community in my classroom as a result. Some professors ask students to place a tent card with their names and pronouns on their desks if memorizing names is not an option. This is a great alternative and will also contribute to a sense of community. Another meaningful way to get to know our students includes developing the practice of asking questions about their weekend, holiday plans, and overall activities outside of school before class starts. While some students prefer not to share, others are eager to talk. Either way, they get the message that you are interested in them beyond their grade in your class.
- Providing feedback that fosters learning: Students need clear, honest, and prompt feedback regarding their work, but it needs to come in a package they can digest and learn from rather than fear and avoid. Feedback needs to be specific rather than general and should include steps students can take toward achieving the assignment’s goal. Whenever possible, start with something positive that encourages the student and validates their effort, followed by details of their mistakes and how to fix them. Community college students are not always equipped with sophisticated coping skills and high levels of self-efficacy, so the quality of the feedback they receive can either be a deterrent toward completion of studies or a motivator to keep going.
There are numerous additional ways to help our students experience our classrooms as inclusive and welcoming learning communities. Regardless of the steps faculty members choose to take in order to increase their students’ feelings of belonging, their efforts will certainly be appreciated by students and translated into higher levels of motivation and more successful academic performances.
Andrea C. Palmisano, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Tidewater Community College and a Virginia Supreme Court certified mediator. As a former child therapist and youth programs director at a non-profit mediation center, she understands the importance of supportive and inclusive environments and brings that knowledge to her college classroom.
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