Fostering student sense of belonging in a large online class (after Lim, Atif, Farmer; 2022)

When we talk about fostering student sense of belonging, it is easiest to think about in-person interactions. However, a lot of our teaching these days is online, and in high-enrolment courses. What can we do then? Two elements are critical: Teacher presence and interactive course design. Lim, Arif and Farmer (2022) present a case study of a learning analytics feedback intervention that I will summarize below.

In a large, interactive online class at an Australian university, a tool was used to create feedback messages at scale, customized depending on triggers in learning analytics data (like scores on tests), and sent out regularly via email. Messages were personal (using the students’ names to address them, using informal, active language like “I have noticed that …”) and both encouraging as well as pointing students to additional resources.

At a mid-semester survey, 71% of the students responded that they perceived the personal feedback as very helpful. In an open response question, for 37% of the students, that was because it helped them understand where they were at at any given points. For 29% it was because it helped them feel connected. At the end of the semester, belonging and feeling that the teacher cared were the strongest mentions. However, students now also mentioned that the feedback wasn’t constructive enough in the sense that it didn’t give them enough suggestions on how to improve their learning.

In this case, the feedback emails were not the only measure to foster student sense of belonging; there were also regular check-in/check-out questions where students and teacher learned more about each other which created a sense of community, and there were frequent online group work sessions. But the feedback emails, based on student reports, contributed to their motivation to stick with the course and to give their best. And if we have learning analytics data available anyway, it seems like a good idea to use it!

Lim, L. A., Atif, A., & Farmer, I. (2022). ‘Made good connections’: Amplifying teacher presence and belonging at scale through learning design and personalised feedback. ASCILITE Publications, (Proceedings of ASCILITE 2022 in Sydney), e22055-e22055.

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