College student populations are increasingly diverse. (1) While questions of inclusivity are not new to American higher education, (2) the demographic shifts in contemporary college-going populations, coupled with political uncertainty and volatility across the US, draw renewed attention to this issue. Students of color made up 29.6 percent of the undergraduate student population in the US in 1996, increasing to 45.2 percent in 2016. (3) While rationales for inclusivity often center around economic and demographic arguments, (4) this paper argues that inclusivity is a necessary companion to a sense of belonging as a means to augment students' academic success.
In addition to feeling included, students' sense of belonging matters. (5) The desire for belongingness has been well documented within the student achievement literature and emerging adolescence literature in general. (6) The importance of belonging spans racial and ethnic lines and its significance can be magnified for students of color. (7) Regardless of the students' background, when students are asked what makes them feel included--and that they belong--in the classroom, the factors they describe are overwhelmingly within a professor's control. Student interviews, written correspondence with faculty, and course evaluations all support the notion that professors can create and maintain inclusive classrooms.
According to Saunders and Kardia, inclusive classrooms are:
Classrooms in which instructors and students work together to create and sustain an environment in which everyone feels safe, supported, and encouraged to express her or his views and concerns. In these classrooms, the content is explicitly viewed from the multiple perspectives and varied experiences of a range of groups. Content is presented in a manner that reduces all students' experiences of marginalization and, wherever possible, helps students understand that individuals' experiences, values, and perspectives influence how they construct knowledge in any field or discipline. (8) Students who perceive their campus climate as inclusive and nondiscriminatory show greater willingness to accept intellectual challenges. (9) Inclusive college experiences better prepare students for the workplace and increases the value of their degrees. (10) Inclusive classrooms are places in which academic excellence is valued and promoted across all students and so instructors in these classrooms use a variety of teaching methods to facilitate the academic achievement of all students. (11)
Osei-Kofi, Richards, and Smith posit the process of creating an inclusive classroom has three salient components: the self, pedagogy, and curriculum. (12) Throughout the literature, there is much discussion of what faculty members can do to create inclusive classrooms. Osei-Kofi, Richards, and Smith, for example, suggest faculty "must continually critique and interrogate [themselves], [their] scholarship, [their] pedagogy, and [their] curricula" in order to engage in the work of creating inclusive classrooms. (13) Given the findings of study, this emphasis on faculty action seems well placed.
Feeling included is only one piece of the puzzle. Inclusive classrooms are most influential when individual students also feel they belong in the space. According to Strayhorn, sense of belonging is whether or not students feel respected, valued, accepted, cared for, included, and that they matter, in the classroom, at college, or in their chosen career path. (14) Students' sense of belonging has implications for both academic outcomes and general well-being. (15) Sense of belonging is related to college students' cognition, affect, and behaviors. (16)
In non-academic domains, feelings of belonging are a protective factor against conduct problems, (17) depression, (18) and suicidal ideation. (19) Feelings of belonging also increased cross-cultural interaction for international and domestic students. (20) According to Osterman, students who experience a sense of belonging in educational environments are more motivated, more engaged in school and classroom activities, and more dedicated to school. (21) In academic domains, studies report positive associations between sense of belonging and academic achievement and academic help-seeking behaviors. (22) Perceived belonging also impacts student persistence in college. (23)
Although it is important for everyone to feel a sense of belonging, college students experience belonging differently based on their identities and experiences. (24) Furthermore, connecting back to the importance of inclusivity, research has shown that minority students tend to report lower sense of belonging than their peers. (25) Across demographic groups, students who feel they belong in the college classroom are more likely to be successful there and in the future. The connection between inclusiveness at the classroom level and belonging at the individual level are co-prerequisites for maximized academic success among today's diverse college student population.
This qualitative study took place at a highly selective, private research university in the American South. Research participants were traditional-aged undergraduate students in good academic standing. One item in the standard student course evaluation tool at this...