#WhatWorks for Creating Student Belonging and Success in College Classrooms: Insights from Research and Practice
November 17–18, 2017
New Orleans, Louisiana
[Transcript edited for brevity and clarity.]
TERRELL STRAYHORN: Today, I’d like to share with you some thoughts that I have developed over the past few years about student success and sense of belonging, for our good work with students.
When I first got started in higher education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), as an Assistant Professor, I met faculty who would say: “I’ve been here [at UTK] for twenty years,” or “twenty-five years,” or “thirty years.” And I remember thinking to myself, why in the world would anybody do something so long? I mean, these people are smart, they can get other jobs [laughing]. At the time, I thought after you start a new faculty career, you write some important publications and books, you answer some really important questions, you help a lot of students, but then you get to stop at some point and rest on your laurels. People would then celebrate what you used to do back in the day, your research—they’d talk about it as if it were current [laughing].
But actually, what’s happened for me ten years in as a professor is that I continue to have some of the most profound epiphanies because of my research, because of my students, because of good folks like you, because of conferences and gatherings like this, which leave me with more questions than answers. That send me back to my research to look at it in new and different ways, with new perspectives and thoughts like: “How in the world did I think that was the answer?”
So these epiphanies inspire me to keep going. Here at the twelve-year mark, I feel like there are some things I get, some things I understand from my research—and that’s the research that I’m going to share with you today. Insights from my research born not just from statistics and analysis, but grounded in the lived experiences of the students it is designed to benefit.
I’m going to talk to you from that vantage point today.
By a show of hands, how many of you got into this work because of the students, because you wanted to help students? [Audience raises hands.] Good, I’m in the right place at the right time.
We all get into it for the students. That’s what we have to remember on those days when the meetings are dry and boring, when our supervisors test the limits of our nerves. Those days are when we need to turn inward—the same thing we ask our students to do. Turn inward to unlock that tiny bit of motivation that’s always left: you never really got into it for the money, you never really got into it for the strategic planning, you got into it for the students.
I hope by the end of this day, by the end of this talk, you can see the connections between the meetings and the strategic plans and what we do in the classroom and student success.
So we get into it for the students. But if you ask students why they are in college, all across the country they will say, “I got into it to get a job.” This is not a vocational orientation to higher education; this is the reality. But most of us who are academics or faculty in higher education will get around the proverbial table and start talking about how “We’ve got to make sure we’re educating active participants in democracy.” You know, I think that’s really important—and we also have to make sure we are preparing global citizens—but those are our outcomes. That’s our kind of language. High school students don’t jump out of bed on a Saturday morning and say, “Oh my gosh! Mom, Dad, I gotta go to college! I gotta be a global citizen!” Students aren’t at a party, shaking and dancing, pop-locking and twerking, saying, “You know what, I really gotta pick up my ability to participate in democracy. Or, forget partying—I need to be global citizen!” What they do do, however, while standing in line for groceries, driving for Uber, playing on the football field, or meeting in the classroom, is reflect on where they are and where they’re going, saying: “You know what? I want more money. I gotta pay my bills. I gotta help my family. I gotta help my people. I gotta get those shoes. I need a job.” And before you know it, they consider coming to our institutions—whether it’s two-year, four-year, primarily white, historically black, a tribal college or Hispanic serving, highly selective or not selective at all—they begin to see our institutions as gateways to that job that they want.
But, if we’re not careful, higher education will miss this trend and many of our institutions will become irrelevant. And this will drive our institutions to closure, especially those of us who are dependent upon enrollment. We’ve seen this in the country already. For those of us from institutions that are big enough that we don’t really depend on enrollment like that, it will likely still cause us to be far more creative about what we do. You’ll see the rise of entrepreneurial institutions that do more than just educate: institutions that will become factories that produce patents and products while they educate students.
Why? For survival. Because here’s what we know about students and jobs today: We have 40 million Americans right now working at jobs that did not exist four years ago. 40 million—that’s a large number of Americans working in those jobs. How many of you have taken Uber or Lyft anywhere in the world? Did you know that four years ago we could not have done that? Now Uber and Lyft are in 70 countries. In just four years. In fact, four years ago, if you had come to me and said the word “uber,” it would’ve meant something completely different. Not the ridesharing app, but the extreme of something, as in “I’m uber excited!” If you came to me and said, “Hey, I gotta go take a Lyft,” I also would not imagine a ridesharing app. In Europe, at least, it would have meant an elevator. So not only does technology change the market and change the workforce, it changes language, meaning-making and the essence of our work in education.
Students today will graduate from wonderful universities like Dillard, wonderful universities like all those represented in this room, and they will go on to assume positions or jobs that didn’t exist when they were studying with us. Many students graduating today will go on to become senior blog writers, making more than $60,000 dollars a year. How many of you in here, teachers or students, write blogs? Some students will move on from our institutions to start in leadership positions. One leadership position that has recently popped up in increasing numbers—mostly in healthcare and industry, not so much in higher education yet—is the Chief Listening Officer. The Chief Listening Officer adds to the traditional hierarchy of institutions. There has always been a Chief Executive Officer. In higher education, it’s the Chief Academic Officer. Those on the cutting edge of inclusion efforts have a Chief Diversity Officer. Day-to-day management is often the work of the Chief Operating Officer, while technology is left to the Chief Information Officer. And now we have a newcomer to the game: Chief Listening Officer. And the job of the Chief Listening Officer is to do what? To listen!
Who here has a major at their institution offered in listening? Who has a minor in listening? Who has a course called the Art of Listening? It’s important to note that so few colleges and universities offer courses or degrees in this area. If you visit monster.com and look up Chief Listening Officer, the number one qualification for Chief Listening Officer is demonstrated evidence that the individual knows how to listen actively and reserve judgment. Where do students pick up that skill? Not in most college classrooms, which are organized like mine. Lots of faculty like myself teach using dialogue and debate. I’m always asking students, “What do you think? Hey, do you agree with that? Do you disagree with that? Do you like the reading? Not like the reading?” I mean, you’ve got to make a decision if you’re in a classroom with me [laughing]. There’s simply no time for reflection, hesitation, or contemplation when that’s the style. But now I’m more conscious to use methods that help my students listen actively.
The folks in this room are in the position to make really important kinds of decisions, decisions about how we can embed certain skills into a single course or across our curriculum. Our students need the skills that will ultimately get them the job they want. If you ask an employer, “Hey, look, I work in higher education: what do you want from us?” employers say—in Money and Forbes and all of these other magazines—that there are specific skills that recent college graduates must possess for these emerging new jobs and that’s what employers want from higher education.
These new careers, and the skills they require, don’t map onto a single major, they don’t map onto a single minor, and they are not all “techie” or scientific. They are actually those general skills that all of us know make an educated person. Employers say that if you want a job at Yahoo or Amazon, Fisk or Dillard, if you want a job at Uber or Starbucks or wherever, here are the kinds of skills that you need to have in place. First of all, they are looking for graduates who can communicate effectively. So I urge my faculty colleagues to stay on top of students’ writing, stay on top of their speaking. I was just at a campus last week and stressed to students the importance of literacy and the power of words. Without words and communication skills, one becomes frustrated and it is out of frustration that people act reactively. Some conflicts can be resolved easily if people just have the language to articulate how they feel.
There is a story in Money magazine about college grads recently hired into businesses and the frustration that hiring professionals and supervisors have with these newcomers’ readiness to identify problems but lack of ideas about how to solve them. Recently hired college grads can point out everything that is wrong with their new job: My office is not right, why are we still using paper, this takes forever, we should be using technology, I should be paid more—all of these complaints, but not a single strategy or idea about how they might be self-efficacious in solving these problems.
When I read this story I thought: we are all complicit in this. And by “we” I mean faculty, among others. You know why? Students graduate from our institutions with strong skills in identifying problems because that’s what we taught them. That’s all that most of us ask them to do in the classroom: Tell me what is wrong. Do you agree or disagree with the writer? What part of the story or the text do you have a problem with? How does the film trouble you? We need to help students to move beyond such questions and consider solutions in their responses: What strategy would you adopt to fix the problem you’ve identified? If you could sit down with the author of the book or article and talk to them, what would you say that might strengthen the piece or develop areas that stood out for you? What would that conversation look like? What would be your recommendations?
I was in New Jersey at a campus speaking about student success. That evening I went to dinner, where I happened to sit beside a professor of theatre and film. He was a white gentleman who said to me, “You know, Dr. Strayhorn, after hearing your talk, I just realized something. I am teaching a seminar called Women in Film. I have taught this class for many years, but this year all the students happen to be women of color. What I’ve been realizing today is that there isn’t a single film on the syllabus that has a woman of color as the lead actress.” Tears started flowing from his eyes while he was telling me this. He confessed, “I don’t know where to look—I mean, there’s got to be a film out there with a woman of color as the lead actress right?”
I appreciated his honesty and assured him that there are such films indeed. Many of us—despite being physicists, mathematicians, and historians; archaeologists, anthropologists, and social workers—we may not know where to find the text written by the Native American scholar in our field, and we don’t always bring it into the syllabus or the curriculum. So I said to him, “Yeah, there are films and here are a couple that I can tell you. But you know what you can also do? I was profoundly moved by your story: why don’t you tell your students this and let them help you co-create the class?” Before you know it, he goes back to his class and tells them the story and he becomes my pen pal in email.
Turns out, the class had been waiting to see if he was going to point this out. They had gone through the syllabus and were like, Really? We are not going to watch a single film with a woman of color as lead? With all of us here every day in class, we’re just going to ignore that glaring omission? Not. As it turns out, they had been dying to offer support.
These opportunities for students to be co-creators of their educational experience with us are not just transformative for the curriculum, but are transformative for the students and us. Students who want to get jobs need to acquire these kinds of skills, to learn how to make decisions, and to see connections between what they are learning in the classroom and what happens in the boardroom, in the marketplace, in the workforce, and in society. The applicability of what we teach to what they are going to face in the real world is really, really important.
Finally, employers want students to be good storytellers, and one story that all students should master is their own. I think we need campus environments in which students become proud to tell their own story.
I was at an elite college in the northeast once, giving a talk about belonging. After my keynote, there was a panel of students scheduled to share their thoughts about belonging on campus. One woman was crying and I thought it was because my keynote was just that touching [laughing]. But actually she wasn’t crying because of that. She was crying because my message about belonging connected with her in a way that she could no longer live a lie that she had told. The panel started with her saying to the group, “Before we begin the panel, I have to admit to you all that . . . you don’t know who I am.” Lots of people in the room were looking like, No, we do, we know you, we’ve seen you or been in class with you.
But she went on, “No, no, no, no. On that day the professor went around the room and had every student introduce themselves . . . before I could even think what to say people started going around the room. They would say, Hi, my name is Sarah, and blah blah blah I’m here at [elite college] and my mom graduated from here, or, Hi, my name is Mike and I’m from such-and-such part of the country and my dad graduated from [this elite college].” And before she knew it there was a swarm of people whose parents all traced their academic origins back to the elite college where I spoke, or some other really prestigious institution.
She continued: “So I thought to myself, Oh my gosh—my parents didn’t go to school. What should I say? Will they judge me for this? And before I knew it, it was my turn and I just said, ‘Hi, my name is [blank] and my parents went to [this elite college] too.’
“The truth of the matter is my parents did not go to this college. In fact, my mom didn’t finish high school at all, but she’s a great woman and can outcook all of your moms. She’s an amazing cook. And my dad did not go to college here either. He owns a corner store in our neighborhood and he sends me money all the time to try to help me pay my bills. Most of you guys don’t get to know me outside of the classroom because I work. I don’t work on campus, I work off campus, because I have to pay my way through this school out of my own hardworking pockets. That’s my real story. And I’m not going to be ashamed of my story anymore.”
How can we build campus environments where all students find the strength not just to be honest about themselves, but to be proud of their story? Proud of where they come from, and the hills and mountains they’ve overcome to get to our campus. How many of you here are first generation college students in your family? When we talk about first generation students, we don’t spend enough time talking about how they help inspire and encourage the generations around them. We have to make sure that we are transforming campuses and systems so that these students who are now the first in their families to go to college won’t be the last.
What we know about student success relies a good deal on the traditional student retention model. According to this dominant model, dropping out of college is a function of many factors: students’ academic history, their academic preparation for college, their social class, their race, their identity, to name a few. Once they get into college, if they are going to stay, they have to be engaged with peers and engaged with faculty because those experiences influence their commitment to their degree and institution. Commitment is that psychological attachment that drives behavior. It’s because I am committed to this degree that I study. It’s my commitment to this institution and to this degree that compels me to go to class, arrive on time, and remain focused on the course content. It is out of that commitment that students make the decision of whether to stay or to drop out.
This model has served us well for decades. It has generated thousands of dissertations, theses, and studies, but, interestingly enough, after twelve years of my own writing, after writing studies on student retention, after using this model in my own dissertation, I have to tell you that I’ve learned that students simply don’t live in boxes like this. This model is old, not only because it was published in the 70s and revised in the 90s, but because it does not reflect the complexity of students’ experiences today.
Just yesterday, I was speaking to students at a college in California, in an auditorium like this one, and in the back of the room there was coffee and watermelon and strawberries, and before I got up to the stage to speak we were all back there having a good time eating. Now all of a sudden, I’m in front of the auditorium and giving them a lecture. My question for them was, “Is what’s happening right now academic, or is it social?” A student who’s well beyond their years raises their hand and says, “It’s both.” I said, “No, no, no—It can’t be, it’s got to be one or the other [laughing], because that’s what our academic models say.”
But that student, of course, was right. Learning is everywhere. It’s social, it’s academic, it’s psychological, it’s emotional. Students live very complicated lives (and so do we, as educators). Traditional models of this kind assume false dichotomies and barriers between different kinds of experiences that don’t serve us well in our work with students. The reason why I think they are problematic is not just because they don’t adequately capture the complexity of students’ experiences, but also because when we deliberate based on imprecise models, we end up with imprecise decisions. And imprecise decisions lead us to recommend imprecise practices, and imprecise policies, and imprecise programs. We use this information to provide instruction or support to all students in the college classroom and of course they don’t work for all of our students.
“Paradigm shift”—that’s a term that used to give me hives when I heard it in my doctoral program [laughing]. How many of you here have heard a person use the term paradigm shift? Now I know you all use it the right way, but how many of you have ever heard someone pontificate about a “paradigm shift” and then offer something that is real basic, something that is not shifting anything at all? That’s what frustrated me about the term and its use in my doctoral program. People would say, “I think we need a paradigm shift! I think we really need to ask students what they think!” That’s not a paradigm shift. That’s just appropriate.
I was part of a discussion at my former institution about asking students their preferred names and preferred pronouns and someone said, “I think that this is a major paradigm shift.” Again, it’s not a paradigm shift: it is appropriate. Why in the world would you walk into a room and call somebody a name that they don’t want to be called? It’s happened to me. Has it happened to you? I’ve walked into a room full of people I thought knew my name and someone walked in and said, “Hey, Juan.” And I’m thinking, “Juan? Who’s Juan? Do I even look like a Juan?” You can lose yourself for a few minutes while you are trying to reconcile the cognitive dissonance that was created when someone called you by the wrong name. We will come back to this topic: all the time that is lost when students experience some of our practices in higher education that do nothing but signal that they don’t matter. We don’t know who they are. And we might not even care. But back to paradigm shifts.
So, the paradigm shift that I’m arguing for here is one that’s pretty significant. I was at a campus in Michigan, walking to a coffee shop, when I passed by one of the campus parking garages. I noticed that there were about 20 parking spaces that said “Reserved.” Have you ever seen these? Parking spaces that say “reserved” on campuses? I have, but I’ve never seen that many in a single lot! So I’m walking down along all 20 spaces and some intuition tells me: “Pay attention to the parking spaces.” So I do.
One spot is for the president—that’s appropriate. One’s for the provost—that’s appropriate. The first lady even has a parking space, the president’s wife. Soon I realize all of the parking spaces are for the president, provost, first lady, deans, all dedicated faculty and staff. I get back to my room with my coffee, preparing my thoughts about my talk, and I look at the information that the campus had sent to me. The very first paragraph of their brochure read: “You must know that [name of school] is a student-centered campus. Students come first on our campus. Everything we do is about students.” And I look at the paper, and I think back to the parking lot with a provocative idea: “Wait a minute. Everything on campus is centered on your students except for parking apparently. Why shouldn’t a student-centered campus have student-centered parking?”
I’m not saying all twenty spaces, but if you have twenty, you can take one or two and give them to a student leader. What this would signal is: Hey, what you do as a student leader is important to our educational mission. Just as we have meetings where we need reserved spaces so we can park and get there on time, so do you, too.
Can there be a lottery for this—a lottery for a semester-long reserved parking space, just for students? I have planted this seed enough now in various lectures. I hope I start seeing these on college campuses.
Here’s another idea here. On a student-centered campus, who provides input into what students learn? If you look at most curriculum committees, they include faculty, deans, and associate deans—as long as you have taught or have been taught, you can normally be on these committees. But, interestingly enough, some campuses have student reps on the board of visitors or on the board of trustees, but we don’t have student reps on the curriculum committee. We could. This would be very student-centered.
Now this idea will face resistance. Why? Because one thing many of us believe, consciously or subconsciously, is that students shouldn’t have that kind of input. Students don’t know what they need to know. Therefore it should be our decision. But I’m going to argue for a paradigm shift here: a new approach to our work that shifts from a focus on students’ weaknesses, liabilities, and lack of certain skills to their strengths and assets.
We focus a lot on what students don’t have and what they need, and how we can change things for them. But I think we need to focus more on what they bring to the table, what we can help to cultivate, what strengths they already have to deploy to find success in higher education. A lot of what we do in assessment concerns what they don’t have, their weaknesses, and the gaps that need to be filled. But what we really need to do better at assessing at the outset includes student strengths, capabilities, and whether they can deploy them to find success in college and classrooms.
We focus a lot on what students don’t want to do, what they haven’t done, the courses they have not yet taken, but we need to focus more on what they have done, the courses they have taken (and what they’ve taken from those courses), and where they’re going. What are their current needs?
In the United States, institutions largely operate according to an individualist perspective—that is this society’s dominant cultural orientation. We live in a capitalist society that is all about competition, all about winning. In most college classrooms, professors call on the person whose hand is up first, the one who has their hand up the highest, the one who’s screaming and hollering and dancing in their seat the fastest. To me, this is the consequence of a culture that fixates on the product, not process; the grade, not growth; the testament, not the test that gives it any meaning. The opportunity always goes to the person who gets there first, the fastest, the one who outpaces or outsmarts others.
But interestingly enough, as we’ve opened up diversity and access in higher education, we’ve brought in newcomers who are more collectivist in their orientation, who don’t operate according to unfettered competition. These students would say, “I don’t want to beat her. I just want to help her. Why can’t we all get the A?” They might rally for AIDS policy though they live a ‘diagnosis-free’ life, or march for LGBTQ rights as a straight Black male ally. These are far more complex and complicated decision-making patterns than suggested by most traditional models.
As students from collectivist backgrounds enroll in larger numbers at traditional colleges, they will need help adjusting to new rules and values. Student orientation programs must be about more than just where the library is located, or the history of the campus. They must also help students understand the new rules, how they’re different from what they may be used to, and how to reconcile those differences in ways that preserve their right to be themselves—these are the kinds of student-orientation programs that really fuel students’ belonging and success.
And let’s look at success—access without success is useless. What’s the point of gaining access to our institutions if you’re not going to be successful there? Higher education insists on students having consistent goals over time, insists on more is always better. Higher education says, “You should take more credits, that’s not enough,” without thinking about what the student’s strengths are, their ability to manage a certain course load in light of their other out-of-classroom commitments.
Most academic advisors ask advisees: “Hey, what do YOU want to major in?” That’s reflecting the dominant individualist orientation again. When are we going to ask students different questions? When are we going to ask them: “What major do you want to declare that prepares you to make the difference that you have in mind? What does your community really need you to bring back in terms of good skills and abilities? What does society really need from you that you want to offer society? What’s the problem in society that the education you’re about to get addresses?” To me, that would be a culturally grounded approach to student-centeredness that I have not yet seen in higher education, academic advising, or student services. I think we can begin moving towards it.
A lot of this comes from my research on belonging. My work on belonging is fundamental to a lot of the thoughts I have about student success. I ground my work on belonging in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow says as humans we have basic human needs, like air, food, water, shelter, sleep, and sex [laughing]—Maslow said it, not me. He said these basic needs must be satisfied before higher-order needs like safety and security can be considered. After that, there’s love and belongingness needs that lead to self-esteem, and then the stuff that any employer wants like creativity, self-authorship, moral and ethical behavior, and self-actualization. We’ll never get to those highest-order things—the apex of the hierarchy—until we fulfill the more basic needs like belonging.
Food is a basic physiological need. It’s hard to major in science or pass a math test if you are hungry and don’t know where your next meal will come from. I’ve interviewed students who recall experiences failing tests. It’s not that they don’t know the material. It was because they were hungry. Some students were distracted from the test by their growling stomach. Others split their working memory between problems on the quiz or test and devoting energy to thinking about when they ate last and when they’ll eat again. Some worried that other people could hear their stomach and became embarrassed. All these things affect the grade. That’s why any approach to academics that focuses simply on students’ grades or their effort is shortsighted and limited. The grade is a consequence of numerous factors, including basic needs like food, water, and other needs like belonging.
The reason why parents bring their kids to college campuses and entrust them to us is based on belonging—though they don’t know the language for it. They say, “I’m trusting this institution with my kid because I believe it has something to offer right now that’ll make them better off in life.” So this is our social contract, and fundamentally it’s about belonging.
Let me explain with a story: I was sitting in a coffee shop and met a parent who used to live in Columbus, Ohio. Lebron James is not in Columbus, he is in Cleveland, but he is very, very big in Columbus (and he’s very big period). This mother told me that she just paid a lot of money for her son to be part of Lebron James’ summer camp. I asked, “Why? Does he want to be a basketball player?” And she said, “Oh no. This summer camp is not just about basketball; it’s a leadership camp and Lebron brings in all these speakers and all these big names and my son gets to sit down and talk with them and they all get to go to concerts, and learn so much. . . . I mean it’s incredible.” So this mother paid thousands and thousands of dollars for her son to have this experience, which she called “incredible.”
After she paid her bill and left, I sat there thinking how this experience sounds very familiar—it sounds a lot like higher education. But why don’t parents and students think about college like that? You pay money for your student to come to Dillard to spend four or five years with world-class faculty. They get to study where many leaders have studied before. In fact, they get to study from THE expert in that field. Sometimes the very person who ‘wrote the book’ on a topic. They get to pick up new experiences outside the classroom, engage in laboratory research, attend concerts, do all these kinds of things people want to do. College provides. But there are some who see what Lebron James offers as different from what we offer in college. Part of the reason for that comes down to marketing. But the other part, from what I understand about his summer program, is that Lebron James does a better job than we do in connecting what he offers, the experiences he provides, to the reality of the students. He helps families and students understand that he wants your student there. Your son or daughter or student will not be overlooked. They belong at the summer camp. And each of them matter.
Mattering has a number of components. It involves attention, dependence, importance, and ego-extension; all of these are psychological terms that have real-life applications. Students feel that they matter in higher education and in our classrooms when they feel they are important to us. When they feel like they have our attention; when they experience ego-extension. How many of you have a best friend? Maybe you call them your “bestie.” Ego-extension makes a lot of sense in terms of the bestie experience. Every bestie knows that when their bestie calls and says, “Oh my gosh, I had a terrible day,” you don’t say, “Well that’s great, call me later.” Besties know that the moment that the bestie calls and the phone says bestie calling, they have to answer. If the bestie needs you, you must be there for them. If the bestie says, “I’m having a bad day,” the other bestie says, “Hold on, let me close my office door or stop what I’m doing to give you my undivided attention and then you can tell me all about it.” Besties want the other friend to know that they’re heard, they’re cared about, and they’ve got support.
What’s actually being communicated is ego-extension. It’s the idea that we experience ourselves in the emotions of someone else. Students feel like they matter in our classrooms or on our campuses when someone is there to share the experience of their troubles, challenges, or successes. Some one else is concerned about their academic success and equally as frustrated by their struggles and failures. We help students feel like they matter when we show that we are proud of them for passing a quiz. When we can’t wait to give the test back because we are so excited about their success. When we are equally frustrated when they don’t do well, because we know their potential and believe they want to excel. When students face diversity challenges, whether it’s a professor being insensitive in the classroom or a peer who has said something that was offensive, we don’t say things like, “Well, put on a tough skin,” or “Well, you shouldn’t be so sensitive.”
We need to signal to students, through our responses and our behavior, “We’ve got your back and we hear you. We understand or we’re trying our best to do so in a way that supports you.” Ego-extension is powerful.
Before I close I want to share a story from a visit to a college in Wisconsin. I took the elevator in one of the campus buildings to find my way to the ballroom where I was scheduled to speak. The elevator doors were closing behind me and were nearly shut—well beyond the point where most people would dare interfere. Out of nowhere, someone threw their hand in to force the doors back open. The owner of the hand, a student, then stumbled in panting. I’m looking at him, thinking, Oh my gosh! You just risked your your arm to get into this elevator—where can you be going that’s so important? So I asked him, and he replied, “I’m going to class. I have science class and I can’t be late.” I asked him, “Why are you panting so hard?” And he said, “I ran all the way through the parking lot.” And I said, “Why?” “Because I cannot be late.” “Why can’t you be late to this class? You must have a test.” “No, it’s because the professor told us you can’t be late.”
Well that’s crazy, I’m thinking to myself. I tell my students not to be late on their first day, and they’re still late sometimes. Then the student explained what his professor had actually said. He had told them on the first day of class, “Look, you can’t be late because I have a lot I want to teach you. I need all the time with you I can get, and I can’t teach you if you’re not here. In fact, I can’t start my lectures without you being here. I don’t want to leave anyone behind. I’ve done a lot of research and I’ve written a lot of books, but they mean nothing if you’re not here. I’m not going to teach it to myself! I really need you in order for this class to work. So that’s why we all make sure we’re there; he really needs us.”
And I’m sitting there thinking, Wow, this is fascinating! This is what it means to create a classroom where students feel we depend on them, that we need them there to teach, that they’re important to us. It signals: I cannot start without you.
So I wanted to find out more. “What happens if you’re late?” I asked. He said, “Oh, if you’re late, he’ll say things like ‘oh my gosh, I’m so sorry you’re late. You missed five minutes and we had such a great time without you. Would’ve been better if you were with us.’” I said, “Have you ever been absent?” And he said, “Yeah, but you don’t want to be absent because then he writes you an EMAIL.” “What do you mean, an email?” “Like a long one. I’m talking two to three sentences.” “What does it say,” I asked, “things like ‘Hey, I told you not to be late?” “No,” he said, “Things like ‘Gosh, I hope everything’s okay. Missed you in class today. We talked about something I really wanted to hear your perspective on. You always add a unique perspective to the conversation. Someone brought up something and you should have been there to challenge it because I know you. You’re a challenger. See you next class.’”
That’s what our feedback to students sounds like when we start to create a classroom environment that capitalizes on students’ strengths and assets, their gifts and talents, a place where students feel like they matter, they’re important, and they have our attention.
To me, all of this just affirms that there are lots of ways in which campuses can signal to students that they belong. For the second edition of my book, I did a survey that found hundreds of institutions used the language “You Belong Here” on their application websites to compel students to come and apply. Interestingly enough, many institutions that use “You Belong Here” really can do a lot to ensure that students feel a sense of belonging. There are all sorts of things—assignments, films, readings, signs, YouTube videos, alumni campaigns, to name a few.
There are other strategies for fostering belonging in college classrooms; one of them is rewriting negative scripts. Students often feel like they don’t belong, partly because they tell themselves they don’t belong. I don’t fit in. I’m not college material. And if they don’t tell themselves this, someone else somewhere may have: People like you don’t go to college. If you do go, then you won’t succeed. Self-defeating mindsets. There’s this concept called rewriting negative scripts that seems to work, at least in the small-scale interventions that I have conducted. We can help students stop this dirty thinking if we help them see behavior as the result of faulty thinking. It all starts with the mind. Consider a student who says, “I’m going to fail this quiz.” The probability is high that they will, in fact, fail the quiz, because they told themselves that. If students change their self-beliefs and messages about their success, they can also change their outcome.
Most of this stinky, dirty thinking comes out of internal feelings of inadequacy: I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, I don’t have the skills. Students haven’t spent enough time thinking about where these negative thoughts have come from, and they need to replace them with scripts based on more positive thoughts about themselves, which we can give them through our feedback and grading. (A lot of this is echoed in Carol Dweck’s book Mindset.)
We also have to avoid contributing to their negative thinking; we have to avoid creating failures for them. We create failures for students when we are not clear about campus policies, rules, and regulations. When we’re not clear about what matters, when we have these perspectives that are supposed to be student centered, but aren’t really. When we don’t connect the dots for students and when we fail to build meaningful relationships with students. We need to turn our students inward to increase their self-esteem and self-beliefs, but also work with them in the classroom to connect with them powerfully.
The word education in Latin is “educare,” which translated means to draw out the light that is within. When we connect with our students in meaningful ways, when we enact the paradigm shift that I described, and when we do good work to foster their sense of belonging in ways that ensure student success, we educate . . . we help connect them to their inner light and draw it out for all the world to see. My grandmother was the one who helped me understand the connection between teaching, education, light, and the gospel song “This Little Light of Mine.” [Strayhorn sings the song] When my grandmother was alive she would ask, “Hey, baby, what is it that you travel the world giving?” I said, “Keynotes.” She said, “Ahh. I’m going to get me one of those someday.” She didn’t live to give a keynote; she lived to be the keynote. And the latter is far more virtuous. Thank you.