What We’re Reading: Opening Paths to Belonging

illustration by Clare Reid

There’s more than one way for students to develop a sense of belonging; that’s the message from “Multiple Paths to Belonging That We Should Study Together,” a 2019 article by Jennifer L. Hirsch and Margaret S. Clark. But, given that this article was published before the pandemic, reading it now also implicitly raises a question: to what extent are those paths complicated by our shift to remote learning?

The authors identify four distinct ways to attain a feeling of belonging. The “communal-relational path” involves the development of satisfying, mutually responsive relationships with others. The “general-approbation path,” on the other hand, leads to belonging via status and being admired by others. People can also reach belonging through the “group-membership path,” where one feels part of the community because one shares characteristics and interests with others. Finally, the “minor-sociability path” is about the feeling of inclusion that comes from “connecting briefly with others (including mere acquaintances and even strangers), being pleasantly social with them, and receiving pleasant responses from them.”

Findings show that these various routes can reinforce each other, trade off for one another—a person might emphasize one more accessible path over a less accessible one—or even sometimes conflict. But the take-home is that there’s more than one way to feel that you belong.

That said, it may be harder to take some of these routes in the virtual world of the moment. Group membership and general approbation may persist as sources of inclusion, though perhaps not as strongly; it’s possible that these social experiences feel less tangible and salient given that we’re farther away from the people to whom we might feel similar or by whom we might be admired. Similarly, although our students are presumably working hard to maintain their close friendships and bonds—the communal-relational path—social distancing makes that more difficult. But perhaps the most inaccessible path is minor-sociability; these days we generally lack the daily informal opportunities to see people, wave, say hello, and otherwise engage in small, warm exchanges that can help us feel we belong.

Nonetheless, we can try to channel our virtual classrooms so that they support our students on these various paths.

  • Icebreakers are a good start, but devoting time to community building needs to be a priority from the start of the course to the finish. These efforts can happen during synchronous class sessions in breakout rooms or full-group discussions, or asynchronously on discussion boards or other collaborations. (Just remember to reduce synchronous class time to compensate for extra engagement outside normal class meeting times.)
  • Peer learning, and especially low-stakes group work—small projects, quick tasks in breakout rooms, gatherings in office hours, etc.—can allow students to form mutual bonds (communal-relational), demonstrate their learning to one another (general-approbation), and give them a sense of shared purpose (group-membership). It may also provide opportunities for casual, friendly interactions (minor-sociability). 

Our courses are only part of our students’ social environment—but they can, if we prioritize opportunities to create belonging, be a very important part.