January 29, 2021

Hello CNS Instructors,

I am happy to have made it through the second week of classes.  As I mentioned last week, I was a bit stressed about getting back on the large enrollment content course teaching horse after my sabbatical.  I opted to go back to face-to-face (hybrid) teaching this week.  While nervous, I am glad I did.  Really felt good to get into the classroom with my students, even if I did the same activity four days in a row.

For this week’s teaching tip, I share a Greater Good Magazine article by three leaders in the Student Experience Project, Mary C. Murphy, Kathryn Boucher and Christine Logel. Their article focuses on the importance of students’ feeling of belonging in the classroom and how to foster it.  When students believe the belong in college, they are more engaged and likely to take advantage of learning resources and research opportunities.  These students enroll in more rigorous majors and coursework and are more successful (higher grades and graduation rates).  A sense of belonging particularly impacts students in marginalized groups, counteracting stereotype threat and imposter syndrome.  The COVID-19 pandemic makes fostering this sense of belonging particularly challenging.

The Student Experience Project conducted a research project involving >100 faculty at six universities including CSU employing evidence-based best practices for encouraging student feelings of belonging in their courses.  Their findings indicated that student belonging increased, particularly among students in marginalized groups.  For details see the original article.

From this research, four best practices emerged:

1. Normalize challenges to belonging and provide strategies to overcome them

When you explicitly acknowledge the challenges and struggles that can interfere with your students’ sense of belonging and normalize their worries and experiences, students feel supported and are more likely to stay engaged and feel that they belong in course and in college.

2. Make a plan to check in with students

Even during normal circumstances, simple check-in messages from their instructors communicate care and connection and mean a lot to students. This could be an email early on in the term asking students how they are feeling about the course and reiterating resources like office hours that are available to them or using online polling sites during class to invite students to respond anonymously and then discuss what they show. In this time of greater uncertainty and challenge, these check-in messages are even more important because they make students feel seen and valued despite being socially distanced.

3. Make a plan to give wise feedback when returning each assessment

Many students begin to question their belonging in class (and in college) when they receive critical feedback on tests or assignments. In remote learning, students may not have ever met you in person and, therefore, they might not fully trust your feedback or interpret it in the most constructive light. So, it’s especially important to make sure your feedback doesn’t undermine their sense of belonging and self-efficacy. Research shows that when instructors explicitly communicate to students that they are giving critical feedback because (a) they have high standards and (b) they believe that students can meet those standards, it helps students understand the reason for the feedback and reassures them that their instructor believes in their abilities to rise to the occasion.

4. Shout out your favorite mistake

When students feel uncertain about whether they belong in college and vulnerable to critical feedback, they are loath to make mistakes that might further undermine their belonging in the eyes of their instructors or their peers. To instructors, this can feel like students are disengaged and unwilling to take intellectual risks. My favorite mistake is a practice whereby you regularly review and publicly celebrate a mistake (or mistakes) from tests or assessments that are your “favorites” because they reveal something about students’ development or thought processes, or because they are a common mistake that students can correct and learn from.

I also want to let you know, Joseph Brown, TILT Academic Integrity Program Director, built a Canvas module to help our faculty prevent and manage Chegg and other “homework helper” sites’ impact on their courses. He has asked MTI Coordinators to share this Canvas module with instructors in the CNS. Here is the self-enrollment link.

In this module you will find guides and videos featuring:

1.   Information that will help you prepare your courses to prevent cheating via third-party homework helper sites (aka Chegg).

2.   Information that will help you easily manage incidents when they do occur.

Joseph is very excited that this module will provide the opportunity to grow the resources as we learn more. As more information, resources, and guides are made available, he will let us know.

Thank you all for keeping teaching.  This community of instructors helps give me a feeling of belonging as a university instructor.

Cheers, Paul

Paul Laybourn (he/him/his)
Professor, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Director, W2R S-STEM Program
Director, NoCo B2B Program
Director, REU Site in Molecular Biosciences