Lehigh classroom

Cultivating Students’ Sense of Belonging

Lehigh hosts a two-day faculty workshop to promote and share best practices for effective teaching and learning among diverse student populations. 

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

With the goal of enhancing the education Lehigh provides by helping faculty and teaching assistants better understand and welcome the diverse populations of students in their classrooms and labs, Lehigh hosted a two-day workshop across disciplines in January that explored the psychology of student success and promoted discussion of teaching, learning and belonging. 

Guest speaker Omid Fotuhi, a former research associate with the Learning Research & Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh and now director of learning innovation at WGU Labs, addressed why “belonging” matters, what “belonging” is, and what strategies can be implemented in classrooms and curricula to foster it among students in diverse populations.

The workshop was part of Lehigh’s efforts to advance its diversity, inclusion and equity goals and to continue to build an inclusive Lehigh community. 

“Participation and engagement in discussions like this, in workshops like this, in conversations like this, is essential to us thinking about how best to thoughtfully engage every member of the community, at all times in our work of living, learning and creating new knowledge together,” said Lehigh President Joseph Helble at the start of the workshop. “...For me, the best sense of our success will be down the road, when every student, every faculty member, every staff member says and knows that they are fully embraced, welcomed, supported and respected for who they are and the perspective they bring in absolutely everything that they do. That matters in the classroom, and that matters outside the classroom.” 

Provost Nathan Urban also addressed the hallmarks of inclusive excellence in teaching. “If we bring a student here to Lehigh, we admit someone here to Lehigh, it is our responsibility to create an environment in which they can be successful,” which includes helping them to achieve their goals, he said. “It is not just our job to set a bar and see who can cross it, but rather it is our job to create an environment in which as many people as possible can succeed in the ways that are most important to them.”

In his presentation, Fotuhi said a person’s core need to belong stems from birth, since newborns’ survival depends on someone taking ownership of them, feeding and caring for them and indicating they belong in the world. That need to belongto know one is valued and accepted unconditionallypersists throughout a person’s lifetime, he said.

“To forego or to overlook the need to belong,” Fotuhi said, “would mean that we're basically overlooking a core foundational need that is the basis for normal functioning.”

The issue is relevant for colleges and universities, as polls indicate that students’ academic and social experiences in college determine the kinds of lives they have post-college. But while there is greater diversity among today’s students, he said, colleges have inherited a pedagogy model that might be outdatedone developed for a more homogenous group of students and transferred from generation to generation.

Fotuhi asked attendees to consider the different circumstances of two studentsone who perhaps woke up for class well-rested, had breakfast, got dressed and drove to campus, and  the other who perhaps had to work until midnight the previous night, had no hot breakfast and traveled for hours by public transit to get to class. Educators might expect those two students to perform the same way, he said, and not recognize the diverse experiences and journeys the students brought to that moment or know how to tailor the experiences to enhance the learning for each of them. 

It is not just our job to set a bar and see who can cross it, but rather it is our job to create an environment in which as many people as possible can succeed in the ways that are most important to them.

Nathan Urban

He said there are three distinct areas and issues of ”belonging”: a lack of desire to belong, the certainty of not belonging, and the state of constantly questioning whether one belongs. Students from diverse backgrounds who question whether they belong at a particular college might ask if they can trust the institution to see their potential in the same light as everybody else’s, as well as trust that they will not be perceived negatively based on stereotypes, he said. If they can trust the institution, Fotuhi said, performance gaps dissipate. If they cannot, it places an undue additional tax on students’ cognitive resources, forcing them, he said, to “navigate this internal narrative, this internal chatter, about the fear of being negatively viewed or being the representation of a particular group that adds that additional burden to the task at hand.”

As an example, he pointed to a scenario in which a student might receive a “D” on a test, which in turn, underscores that student’s feeling of not being smart enough to belong at a particular institution, rather than seeking out resources to improve performance. 

The good news, Fotuhi said, is that in these moments of uncertainty, interventions can provide students with a new lens to better understand ambiguous situations. 

By conveying to the student with a poor grade that challenges and difficulties are a normal part of college, he said, educators have the opportunity to nudge students toward a more adaptive cycle, one in which, instead of disengaging, they make use of tutoring and other resources, and as a result, potentially do better on that next test. That, he said, allows them to believe that “there is a place for meI am like everybody else and I can grow and flourish.”

Additionally, interventions help put a focus on what institutions might unintentionally be conveying to students, he said. What message, for example, might be conveyed if a female student who received some negative feedback in a class now has to walk down a hallway covered with portraits of men as she makes her way to a bathroom that was an afterthought because the institution was initially designed for men? 

“So there's a lot that goes into this, both in terms of the design and the psychological understanding for being able to foster more adaptive narratives, but also the collaboration that goes into making these sustainable and meaningful,” he said. 

He cautioned attendees to avoid a “deficit model” in which an intervention is framed as a way to help “‘people like you,’ because that already puts them in that mindset that maybe the institution sees me differently, and sort of less than.” He also cautioned attendees to not dismiss students’ concerns or tell them to get over something.

Following Fotuhi’s presentation, attendees broke out into small groups to discuss curricular tactics, messaging, campus culture and inclusive practices. Greg Reihman, vice provost for library and technology services, and Henry Odi, deputy vice president for equity and community, served as moderators.

The workshop also included separate panel presentations by students and faculty. Student panelists who shared their perspectives on teaching, learning and belonging included Sareena Karim ’22, bioengineering; Paola Lebron Muniz ’24, global studies & modern languages and literature and international relations; Kevin Brown ’22, electrical engineering; Ugochinyere Nancy Oloyede, Ph.D. student, chemistry; and Juan Valladares, Ph.D student, social psychology.

Faculty also shared teaching techniques that could be implemented in the Spring 2022 semester. Panelists included Germàn Cardenas, assistant professor, counseling psychology, College of Education; Vassie Ware, professor, biological sciences, College of Arts and Sciences; Nicholas Strandwitz, associate professor, materials science & engineering, P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science; and Sabrina Jedlicka, associate professor, materials science & engineering and associate dean, academic affairs,  P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

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