Cultivating a Sense of Belonging and Building Rapport

Sense of Belonging

A sense of belonging in educational environments is defined as “students’ sense of being accepted, valued, included, and encouraged by others (teacher and peers) in the academic classroom setting and of feeling oneself to be an important part of the life and activity of the class. More than simple perceived liking or warmth, it also involves support and respect for personal autonomy and for the student as an individual” (Goodenow, 1993, p.25). Iowa State Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

Students’ sense of belonging has been found to be related to positive outcomes such as engagement, persistence, well-being, feelings of self-worth and social acceptance, motivation, and academic success. It has also been found to buffer anxiety and depression. However, sense of belonging is not fixed; it changes as circumstances, conditions, and contexts change (Strayhorn, 2019). Additionally, belonging is especially crucial for first-generation and underrepresented students who may not feel comfortable in the academic setting and have been found to report a lower sense of belonging than their peers. There is evidence, for example, thatperception of a hostile racial climate has negative effects on students’ sense of belonging. Conversely, positive interactions and relationships with peers, staff, and faculty have been linked to a greater sense of belonging for these students (Johnson, 2022).

Related Factors

Students may feel that they do not belong for a variety of reasons, including doubts about their abilities, unfamiliarity with the expectations and norms of higher education, and being a visible minority in the setting. Much of the research on sense of belonging has examined its relation to systemic factors such as campus climate and institutional policies. There is also evidence, however, that course instructors can influence students’ sense of belonging.

Many of the recommendations for increasing students’ sense of belonging are similar to those for inclusive teaching. These strategies are based, in part, on the belief that students’ sense of belonging is related to two underlying factors: having a fixed mindset about intellectual ability and feeling uncertain about their fit in higher academic settings.

Instructional strategies meant to mitigate students’ fixed mindset about their intellectual ability, in which intelligence is seen as unchangeable, aim to cultivate a growth mindset that allows students to see poor performance as a temporary setback that can be remedied. To achieve this goal, instructors are advised to do the following:

  • Communicate high expectation and the belief that all students can succeed
  • Provide clear and specific information/instructions on what it takes to be successful in the course and how students can achieve that success
  • Allow for productive trial and error (e.g., through low-stakes practice quizzes, drafting opportunities, modeling correct responses, or discussing interestingly wrong answers)
  • Specify course policies on what happens if students are absent, turn in work late, leave class early, etc.
  • Emphasize that risk, struggle, and failure can be important parts of any learning process
  • Give constructive feedback that doesn’t undermine students’ motivation and confidence
  • Reach out to students who appear to be struggling
  • Normalize challenges and provide strategies to overcome them by explicitly acknowledging student worries and struggles
  • Emphasize the idea that intellectual abilities can evolve and grow over time
  • Give specific examples of “favorite mistakes” that frame mistakes as opportunities to learn (rather than something to be avoided)

It has been suggested that it is possible to mitigate students’ belonging uncertainty and help them to feel more comfortable in this setting by developing connections to the instructor and other students as well as by reducing feelings of marginalization. To this end, instructors have been advised to do the following:

  • Build connections to the instructor
    • Prepare an introductory message that tells students about the instructor as well as the course and welcomes students
    • Learn and use students’ names and pronouns regularly
    • Create opportunities for students to provide feedback on the course and share ideas for improving it (e.g., short anonymous polls, check-ins at the beginning of a class meeting, or opportunities for written feedback)
    • Check in with students regularly, asking them how things are going more generally
    • Communicate concern for students’ well-being and provide information on campus resources if needed
    • Encourage or require students to visit student (office) hours early in the term and use that time to ask about their interests and experiences with the course
    • Make sure office hours are convenient for students by (1) making some Zoom-based, (2) setting some immediately before or after class time, and (3) taking into account students’ time zones
    • During the course, share aspects of your interests and background in ways that are comfortable and professionally appropriate (e.g., information about personal interests, your enthusiasm for your discipline, or your own experiences as a student
    • Recognize and thank students for contributions to class
    • Reward student comments and questions with verbal praise
  • Build connections to peers
    • Create peer learning opportunities by incorporating activities that allow students to interact and learn together (e.g., small group discussions, collaborative projects, and active learning exercises)
    • Use icebreakers to build rapport
    • Provide peer mentoring opportunities that allow students to learn from each other
    • Develop guidelines and community agreements about interactions during class
    • Encourage Informal interactions outside of class (e.g., study and review groups)
    • Encourage students to share with their classmates their experiences and the tips/strategies that are working for them
  • Mitigate feelings of marginalization
    • Highlight the diversity of contributors to your discipline (e.g., through the authors assigned, the material included, and the guests invited)
    • Avoid generalizations that may exclude students who are already experiencing marginalization at the university (e.g., phrases that make implicit assumptions about students’ physical ability, family structure, social identities, citizenship status, or economic means)
    • When possible, assign student groups or provide criteria for student-formed groups/teams that help reflect diversity and avoid isolating students from underrepresented identities
    • Model inclusive behavior (e.g., gender inclusive teaching, facilitating difficult dialogues, and confronting microaggressions)


Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching
Foster a Sense of Belonging

Ohio State University Teaching & Learning Resource Center
Shaping A Positive Learning Environment

University College London Teaching & Learning
Creating a Sense of Belonging for Your Students

Penn State Social Science Research Institute
College Students’ Sense of Belonging Related to Mental Health During Pandemic

University of Edinburgh Sense of Belonging Task Group
Fostering a Sense of Belonging at Our University

The University of Queensland Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation
Creating a Sense of Belonging in Your Courses

Old Dominion University Center for Faculty Development
Fostering a Sense of Belonging in Our Students

National Survey of Student Engagement
Building a Sense of Community for All

Greater Good Science Center Magazine
How to Help Students Feel a Sense of Belonging During the Pandemic

Inside Higher Education
Cultivating a Sense of Belonging for Graduate Students

Chronicle of Higher Education
How to Cultivate Students’ Sense of Belonging

Northeastern University Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research
Fostering Belonging



Goodenow, C. (1993). Classroom belonging among early adolescent students: Relationships to motivation and achievement. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 13(1), 21-43,

Johnson, R. M. (2022). A socio-ecological perspective on sense of belonging among racially/ethnically minoritized college students: Implications for equity-minded practice and policy. New Directions for Higher Education,

Strayhorn, T. L. (2019). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. New York: Routledge.

Additional Resources

Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching
Reflect on Your Sense of Belonging Practices

California State University/Chico Student Research

Ohio University Division of Diversity and Inclusion
Fostering a Sense of Belonging and Community

Inside Higher Education
Helping Faculty Help First-Gen Students


Building Rapport

According to Smith, rapport has been defined in the dictionary as “an especially harmonious or sympathetic connection.” Texas Tech University Teaching Resources

In the teaching context, this means that the instructor has built bonds of trust and good will with students through demonstrating authenticity and respect. Building rapport is one of the ways instructors develop a sense of belonging in their students. It is developed incrementally, through small actions, over time through demonstrating authenticity and respect. There is ample evidence for the importance of positive relationships in teaching and learning. These connections are necessary for students to engage fully in class and be receptive to what is being taught. Thus, “Rapport does not result in learning, but it certainly helps to create conditions conducive to learning…” Faculty Focus

Specifically, if students feel a rapport with the teacher, outcomes improve, including increased:

  • Enjoyment of the teacher and subject matter
  • Motivation to come to class
  • Motivation to pay attention in class
  • Comfort (e.g., answering more freely and with a greater degree of frankness)
  • Perception of quality of the program
  • Satisfaction with the course
  • Communication and better understanding between teachers and students
  • Higher order learning

This emphasis on relationships and caring in teaching has limits, however. It does not mean that instructors should not set appropriate boundaries or that the primary goal of teaching is to entertain. Additionally, rapport is not a substitute for effective teaching techniques such as organization, clear communication, and timely feedback. The optimal student/teacher relationship is characterized by structure, control, flexibility, and humanity – not inappropriate friendship.

Building rapport has several aspects, some of which overlap with the behaviors involved in encouraging a sense of belonging: Clemson University Office of Teaching and Innovation

  1. Building student engagement
    1. Interacting more and lecturing less — emphasize active learning
    2. Encouraging student participation by asking short questions and encouraging elaboration with open-ended prompts
    3. Creating a process the gives all students opportunities to ask questions
    4. Recognizing and thanking students for contributions to class
    5. Rewarding student comments and questions
  2. Presenting self as available and approachable and as a resource for students
    1. Arriving to class early, staying late, and chatting with students
    2. Moving around during class
    3. Posting and keeping convenient office hours
    4. Using e-mail or texts to communicate with students
  3. Holding students accountable
    1. Having clear and consistent expectations
    2. Explaining course policies and the reasons behind them
  4. Being fair in assessments and daily treatment
    1. Applying policies uniformly
    2. Explaining course learning outcomes and how they will be assessed
    3. Personalizing feedback
    4. Demonstrating consistency between what is said and what is done
  5. Interacting in professional ways
    1. Being present and engaged
    2. Being enthusiastic about teaching and passionate about subject matter and field
    3. Establishing on the first day that the class is important
  6. Showing empathy and caring and building connections
    1. Calling students by their name and using appropriate pronouns
    2. Learning something about students’ interests, hobbies, and aspirations
    3. Acknowledging that students have complex and demanding lives
    4. Speaking respectfully to students
    5. Creating and using personally relevant class examples
    6. Smiling often and making jokes occasionally
    7. Being humble and, when appropriate, self-deprecating
    8. Making eye contact with each student
    9. Asking for and using feedback


Building (and Maintaining) Rapport in the Classroom
Texas Tech University

Social Psychology Network
Creating Rapport in the Classroom

University of Pittsburgh Center for Teaching and Learning
Building Rapport with Your Students

Faculty Focus
Building Rapport: Moving Beyond Teacher Characteristics to Actions that Promote Learning

Colorado State University Institute for Learning and Teaching
Instructor-Student Rapport

Colorado State University Institute for Learning and Teaching
Classroom Climate and Rapport Builders

Clemson University Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation
Rapport in College Teaching

University of Nebraska Office of Graduate Studies
Learning Students’ Names

Faculty Focus
The Importance of Learning Students’ Names