Sitting on the ferry back to Sweden, I listened to one of my favorite podcasts, “tea for teaching“. The episode was on the role of faculty engagement, specifically showing students that the professor cares, and how three emails can already make a difference!
I read the book “Relationship-rich education. How human connections drive success in college” by Felten & Lambert (2020) almost a year ago and found it super inspiring, but also very hard to summarize. You should check it out yourself, of course, but here are my key take-aways.
This is mostly a “note to self”: Found a really interesting article on “how syllabi can serve as communication tools for creating inclusive classrooms” by Gun et al. (2021). A review of 60ish biology syllabi as well as the literature of what should be included, and pointers on which group of students especially benefits from the information and why, as well as examples. This is great to help students build “cultural capital” and level the playing field! And strong motivation to pay more attention to syllabi as actual communication tools and how they — as oftentimes first point of contact between instructor and students — can shape the classroom climate.
They even provide a template syllabus here: https://zenodo.org/record/4317968#.Y8EIaC8w0f8
Highly recommended reading!
Gin, L. E., Scott, R. A., Pfeiffer, L. D., Zheng, Y., Cooper, K. M., & Brownell, S. E. (2021). It’s in the syllabus… or is it? How biology syllabi can serve as communication tools for creating inclusive classrooms at a large-enrollment research institution. Advances in Physiology Education.
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.
We recently ran a round-table discussion on “How to teach students who are not “mini-me”s (and don’t want to be)” at the Lund University Teaching and Learning conference last year, and now I am trying to write a conference paper on what we discussed there. So naturally, I am starting out by re-reading the literature suggestions we gave, as well as some other interesting articles.
After all the thinking about belonging I’ve done recently, I came across the article by Janke et al. (2017) today that measures “social identification with academia” as Venn-diagram with varying degrees of overlap of the circles for “self” and “academics”, which I thought was neat. The reason I found the article was because I was looking for the connection between generation in college and test anxiety, which they investigate. The idea is that for continuing-generation students, i.e. students who have at least one parent who has gone to university, it is much easier to identify with academia and to take failure as something normal that they can overcome, and not as a sign of failure and not belonging. They find that this acts as a buffer for negative experiences, so continuing-generation students can feel more satisfied and less test-anxious in the face of failure (both of which likely makes it easier to succeed again). The academic disadvantage that first-generation students have is therefore not just about not knowing the hidden curriculum and untold rules (as well as typically growing up with less resources (I once read that the number of books in the household a child grows up in is a good predictor for their academic career — how horrible is that?)), but also about their social identity that doesn’t help them feel like belong but that makes belonging depend on how well they do and therefore adds a lot of stress.
I don’t know if there are easy interventions to fix this issue, but it’s at least important to be aware that academic privilege of continuing-generation students is even larger than previously assumed, and to keep this in mind going forward.
Janke S, Rudert SC, Marksteiner T and Dickhäuser O (2017) Knowing One’s Place: Parental Educational Background Influences Social Identification with Academia, Test Anxiety, and Satisfaction with Studying at University. Front. Psychol. 8:1326. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01326
As we are continuing working on our “sense of belonging” project at UiB (read more about my thoughts on students’ sense of belonging and what we can do about it here; and the general idea behind this project is to first get a baseline of student experiences, and then figure out how to make all students feel welcome and that they are in the right place), I’ve started reading up on “mattering”. Belonging makes the assumption that students want to belong in the first place, and that’s not necessarily the case. Mattering, on the other hand, is only about how students perceive others’ reactions to themselves.
In response to my blog post about belonging, I was made aware of the current issue of the Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice (JUTLP) on “Pedagogies of belonging in an anxious world“. So now I am determined to actually read that whole issue! My short summaries of the first 7 articles below.
Last week, Sarah Hammarlund (of “Context Matters: How an Ecological-Belonging Intervention Can Reduce Inequities in STEM” by Hammarlund et al., 2022) gave a presentation here at LTH as part of a visit funded by iEarth* that led to a lot of good discussions amongst our colleagues about what we can do to increase students’ sense of belonging, and to the question “what can we, as teachers, do, to help students feel that they belong?”.
Below, I’m throwing together some ideas on the matter, from all kinds of different sources.
The first lecture I attended as a student wasn’t actually a regular lecture, even though I did not know that at the time. It was an intervention.
Together with about a hundred or so new students, I sat nervously in a lecture theatre in the physics department. I had enrolled in physical oceanography, which was taught together with meteorology, geophysics and physics for the first two years. I didn’t know anyone. Since my dad worked at the same university, I was pretty familiar with how universities work in general (which later turned out to be a huuuge advantage). And I wasn’t nervous about starting university itself, that was just something one did after school. But I was nervous about physics. I had stopped taking physics classes in highschool as soon as that was possible, and I had only taken the minimum required maths (both probably more to do with the teachers than the subjects themselves, but it’s sometimes hard to distinuish). But now, in order to become an oceanographer, I knew I would have to study physics together with people who wanted to become physicists, and who had a much better starting position than I had. Oh well.
The lecture started out with the professor arriving late, and then without any contextualising or welcoming us, or acknowledging that this was our first day at university, just starting going through content that — for all I understood — could have been chinese. He was just standing with the back towards us, scribbling on a blackboard so fast that it was impossible to take notes, mumbling something, and I did not have the faintest clue what was going on. I don’t know for how long it went on, but it felt like forever, and in any case it was long enough for me to feel like I had absolutely no chance to ever succeed there. Then, the professor started making weird and sexist remarks, and I started tuning out. This was not how I was going to spend the next couple of years. Then, at some point, a student asked a question and was rudely dismissed. But then another student spoke up, and another. And at some point — surprise! — we were told that this had not been a real lecture, that the professor was just an older student pranking us, and that also the students speaking up were older students playing a role, and that the whole purpose was to show us that we would have to learn to speak up when things didn’t go the way they were supposed to.
Why am I thinking about this now? In one of the recent iEarth teaching conversations, HC talked about something he had heard about how it was really helping students learn if they were given a really hard exercise right in the beginning. In that case, there wouldn’t be any “smart students” standing out and the not-as-smart students wouldn’t feel dumb, because everybody was equally lost (and the teacher would then help them through it to build confidence and grit and it would be all good, so it’s not the exact same story). But hearing about this triggered that memory of my first ever physics lecture, and I can feel the pit in my stomach now, 20 years later, thinking back to the feeling of definitely not belonging there, in that lecture theatre, in that department. Even though I had not thought about it in at least a decade, I don’t think it’s something I have ever fully gotten over, because even though this was meant as an intervention and the scenario was supposed to be much worse than anything we could ever possibly experience for real, there were many situations later on during my studies that were reminiscent of that experience. Only then, they were not pranks, and there was nobody there to resolve the situation for us, and clearly we hadn’t learned our lesson yet to resolve them ourselves. But each of those new situations seemed to confirm to me that at that very first day, I had been warned, and had ignored it, but that now was the time when I was going to be found out as not belonging. And this personal anecdote makes me feel really reluctant to start out a class with any kind of “intervention”.
P.S.: Looking back, what made me persist throughout all the physics and maths was a) that I REALLY wanted to become an oceanographer, so I just had to do what I had to do (and it turned out to be not as bad as I initially thought), and b) that there were two technicians, Rüdi and Manni, who always ran the experiments for the physics professors. They would be in the lecture theatre before the lectures started, setting up the experiments, and then clearing up after. And they were super friendly and approachable, and me and my friend and this one other guy started hanging out with them, asking them lots of questions, and learning more from them than from all the physics professors combined (or at least that was the case for me). And it’s for the first time today that I am putting together how important Rüdi und Manni were for me to feel like I did belong after all, maybe not to the people who wanted to be theoretical physicists like my friend, and for whom the mathematical derivations were enough (or made that much more sense that they didn’t feel the need for anything else, who knows?); but to a group of people who not only understood the phenomena, but in addition could show that they really existed in real life, could run demonstrations that the professors — despite all their theories — never dared touch. I had found my community, and even though it’s been 20 years and we’ve lost touch, maybe all my #KitchenOceanography goes back to those early experiences with Rüdi and Manni being the teachers the official teachers never were. Thank you! <3