Sense of Belonging in Higher Education: Developing and Measuring a Sense of Belonging Across Student Programs

Sense of Belonging in Higher Education: Developing and Measuring a Sense of Belonging Across Student Programs

Amanda Connelly, Susan Pagano, Bea Rogers, Tracy Mulvaney
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-6684-4803-8.ch004
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This chapter discusses the importance of a ‘sense of belonging' to student success among students participating in three different programs: first-year composition at a private 4-year university, supplemental instruction at a private 4-year university, and non-credit coursework at a community college. These program examples connect the program purpose and operation to a sense of belonging. Suggestions are also included to improve a sense of belonging within the programs. Finally, special factors within each program are addressed through the lens of a sense of belonging.
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Sense of belonging in college “refers to students' perceived social support on campus, a feeling or sensation of connectedness, and the experience of mattering or feeling cared about, accepted, respected, valued by, and important to the campus community or others on campus such as faculty, staff, and peers” (Strayhorn, 2018, p. 4). Strayhorn’s research led him to conclude that sense of belonging, particularly in the form of community, support, membership, and acceptance, was fundamental to numerous aspects of student success including student identity, development, mental health, wellbeing, and academic success (p. 6). Fan et al. (2021) developed the idea that there is a reciprocal relationship between a sense of belonging and student satisfaction. Sense of belonging and student satisfaction are identified as key factors for student retention and success (Buskirk-Cohen & Plants, 2019; Fan et al., 2021).When students are happy with their overall experience, they tend to feel involved and connected, leading to a stronger sense of belonging. Similarly, students who are involved and participating in a welcoming and supportive campus environment tend to be more satisfied. This is also true at the course level.

Wilton et al. (2019) analyzed a course designed to provide supportive interventions such as more in-class active learning, discussion and interaction. This course, which they referred to as the intervention course, showed improved academic performance of students in that class. They used a 12-item survey focused on sense of belonging in three distinct domains: perceived peer support (5 items), perceived faculty support (5 items), and perceived classroom comfort (2 items) which allowed them to determine which domain had the greatest impact. After controlling for demographic differences, they found that the intervention course correlated most strongly to students’ perceptions of faculty support and classroom comfort, which was unexpected, because they had hypothesized that peer support would have correlated most. They recommended that future courses should be designed to use instructional approaches that help build a sense of classroom community.

Sense of belonging is a complex concept, however, and one that can be hard to quantify between students due to its subjective nature, meaning students will have unique reactions in different situations. Strayhorn (2018) described this complexity as “a basic human need that takes on heightened importance in certain social contexts where some individuals are prone to feeling unsupported, unwelcomed, or lonely, or in some social contexts where certain individuals are more likely to feel that way” (p. 5). Recognizing this complexity is important because it creates an awareness of the need to acknowledge the subjectivity: individuals may have different needs and some situations may impact those needs more than others. A need that most students reveal is connectedness to others on campus. Peer interactions, according to Strayhorn (2018) can help increase or decrease the sense of belonging, so much so that “it is critical for college student educators to encourage positive interactions through conditions that really matter in college” (p. 2). All of these factors are discussed throughout this chapter which focuses on how sense of belonging manifests in three student programs in higher education, starting with a first-year composition program at a private 4-year institution.

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