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Faculty Influence on Student Sense of Belonging

Mon Sep 20, 2021 at 07:30 AM

Tips through OU Scholarship. This teaching tip highlights OU staff scholarship related to teaching and learning. If you are an OU faculty, staff, or student who would like to share practical application of their teaching and learning research, please share your teaching tip. Learn more about Scholarly Teaching Opportunities at OU.

When we reflect on our undergraduate days, we don’t think of the President or the Provost. Instead, we think fondly of the friends we made and the faculty who influenced our paths. Those are the experiences that stick with us because those are the people who helped us develop a sense of value and belonging. That sense of belonging and engagement help increase student satisfaction and their intent to persist in college (Astin, 1993; Li, 2010; Tinto, 1993). The ways in which students interact with faculty have an impact on whether students feel engaged or develop a sense of belonging in college. Transfer students in particular are more likely to develop a sense of belonging or identify engagement through classroom or faculty interactions than first time in any college (FTIAC) students (D’Amico et al., 2014; Lester et al., 2013). 

My 2019-2020 mixed-methods study with transfer students confirmed the importance of faculty engagement on student success. My findings concluded that students who had a positive, professional experience with encouraging and compassionate faculty reported a greater sense of being valued and a greater sense of pride with the institution. Through this study, three themes regarding faculty interactions and professionalism emerged: 

  1. Students appreciated the opportunity to share theories, ideas and concerns in the classroom. 
  2. Students viewed an academic syllabus as a reflection of the faculty’s commitment to professionalism and student success. 
  3. Students who were encouraged to engage in research, either through classroom assignments or by supporting faculty research, expressed pride in their institution, and reported a greater level of engagement.

Syllabus Communication

Students want faculty to approach each course with professionalism and passion. The students see the syllabus as the first visible indication of what faculty think of the subject they are teaching. When faculty do not present an up-to-date syllabus with specific and relevant information, students see it as a lack of professional interest. Students believe the syllabus should be a road map to the course, and when information is incorrect it can lead them in an undesired direction. 

Sense of belonging literature argues that relationships must be mutually beneficial. If students do not feel that faculty are putting their all into a course, they are less likely to take the course seriously themselves. This in turn leads to a lack of pride or positive affiliation with an institution. A syllabus might seem insignificant to the knowledge welded in the classroom, but to the students it is a window to the commitment and professionalism of the professor. Please take time to be as clear and concise as possible when developing a syllabus.

Validation in Class Discussion

During the study, students were asked if they felt valued at the institution. The students responded that they feel most valued when they are heard in the classroom. 

“I would definitely say that is true. The classes I take are mostly discussion based and the professors make it known that your opinion is valid and it’s yours but you just have to be respectful to everyone else.” 

When students feel free to engage in class discussions, it makes them feel like they are contributing to their own education and encourages a sense of belonging.

Authentic Research Opportunities

In addition to feeling empowered through classroom discussion, students who worked with faculty on a research project expressed a sense of being valued by the institution. The students who confirmed that they worked with faculty on some level of research identified their experiences as exclusively positive. One student discussed how their interaction with faculty research influenced the direction they took in their academic career: 

“He was actually one of the first professors I had coming to this institution. And he actually was the one who influenced me to change my major because, I don’t know, the way he taught and what he taught, I guess. I really enjoyed his class. So, but I was a junior at the time and then last year I was a senior. He asked me to work with him on the research project that he is doing.”  

In addition, faculty who encourage students to pursue their own research interests can make a significant impact on how students view themselves. The student below worked with classmates to develop a research topic and then entered it into a contest to attend conference and present their research: 

“Yes, it started off as a project for class or an assignment for class but then she gave us the opportunity to revamp it and make it eligible for a conference. So, we worked on it. We made some alterations and she worked on it with us and gave us that opportunity and we decided to take it. That’s the only reason why. I don’t think that we would have gotten an opportunity like that. The conference got canceled but we won best paper in our division.” 

Having faculty and students engaged in learning together or applying their education in meaningful ways has a significant impact on student success. It is imperative to higher education that faculty identify ways that all students can engage in topics of interest and develop self-esteem and pride through application of their learning.

The impact of transfer student academic progression and retention is tied directly to the relationship they have with faculty, which is significant given the transfer student experience has only recently been given consideration by university administrators. Their ability to engage with faculty and peers inside the classroom is essential to their sense of belonging, which leads to their progression and ultimately their academic success. So, I encourage you to take the time to engage the students in your classroom through your syllabus, through class discussion, and through research or academic projects to give students a sense of value and ownership in their education


Astin, A. W.  (1993). What matters in college? Four critical years revisited.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. 

D’Amico, M. M., Dika, S. L., Elling, T. W., Algozzine, B., & Ginn, D. J. (2014). Early integration and other outcomes for community college transfer students.Research in Higher Education, 55(4), 370-399. 

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 High Education 48: 803.

Li, D. (2010). They need help: Transfer students from four-year to four-year institutions.The Review of Higher Education, 33(2), 207-238. 

Tinto, V.  (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.).  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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About the Author

April Thomas-Powell, PhD. is  Interim-Director of Advising at School of Nursing at OU. She is interested in student retention, particularly interested in transfer student retention through sense of belonging, academic success and student services. April also collects cats and mountain bikes when she can get away from the office.

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