Faculty Club / DEI / Cultivating a Sense of Belonging in Your Classes [Free Ebook]

Cultivating a Sense of Belonging in Your Classes [Free Ebook]

Lalaine Sevillano, PhD, shares practical strategies for empowering students, creating an inclusive classroom, and fostering community.

Lainey Sevillano, PhD


Assistant Professor,
Portland State University

Looking back at my own educational journey, I don’t really remember specific academic lessons that my favorite teachers taught. Sure, I still remember how to conjugate a few verbs in French, identify the difference between mRNA and DNA, and recall the plot of Wuthering Heights. 

However, what I really remember is my Honors French teacher asking me about which colleges I plan on applying to; my AP Biology teacher inviting our entire class to lunch at his house to prep for the exam; and my AP English Literature teacher being so excited about a paper I wrote that she shared it with the administration. 

In each of these examples, I felt “seen” by my teachers, which fueled my persistence and academic success. 

Robust research shows that a caring encounter with a teacher is strongly associated with positive outcomes regardless of students’ majors and demographic characteristics.

Lalaine Sevillano, Assistant Professor, Portland State University

These encounters demonstrated authentic care for students through attentive dialogue, active listening, and genuine respect. In return, students feel supported because teachers showed compassion, affirmation, and investment in their academic success and persistence. 

Pedagogical caring is an approach to teaching that demonstrates consideration, concern, and commitment to students (Gay, 2018). The model of pedagogical caring we highlight can be used as a tool to design courses and to manage classroom dynamics. We hope that it can facilitate an ethic of care which improves students’ sense of belonging, equity, and academic success. 

Learning Objectives for Faculty

Through ongoing self-reflection and a commitment to continual improvement, educators can cultivate a teaching practice that prioritizes the well-being and success of their students.

What this guidebook covers:

  • Describing the components of the cycle of pedagogical caring
  • Reflecting and identifying current gaps in your own pedagogical caring practices
  • Generating specific strategies for each component of the pedagogical caring model

Self-Reflection Prompts: When You Were a Student

The most memorable teachers are often the ones who care about their students as people, not just as learners. These teachers take the time to get to know their students on a personal level and show an interest in their lives and well-being beyond the classroom. 

When students feel that their teacher genuinely cares about them, it creates a sense of trust and connection that can make a lasting impact. 

With that in mind, I want you to take a moment to look back on your own educational experience.

How did educators in your own educational experiences demonstrate care for you? 

What actions did they take to make you feel seen/heard/ affirmed?

What impact did these caring encounters have on you?

Be proactive.

Foresee potential challenges and use strategies to improve accessibility of class materials and expectations.

 Teachers can be proactive in creating a culture of care in their classroom by intentionally designing a learning environment that values and supports the well-being of all students.

Teachers can be proactive in creating a culture of care in their classroom by intentionally designing a learning environment that values and supports the well-being of all students. 

This can involve establishing clear expectations for behavior and communication, actively promoting a sense of community and inclusion, and consistently modeling caring and respectful behavior. 

Additionally, teachers can prioritize building positive relationships with their students by taking the time to get to know them on a personal level and demonstrating genuine interest and concern for their individual needs and experiences. 

By intentionally creating a culture of care in the classroom, teachers can help to promote both academic achievement and social-emotional development for all students.

Student Activity #1

Have students write a 4-page (double-spaced) personal reflection essay, or narrative that describes their position as:

  • An individual member of the class
  • A member of a group within the class
  • A developing [identity] exploring [topic] in a particular context
  • A professional in the future

This assignment helps students think through how all the strands of their life come together to shape their identity and interests.

Student Activity #2

Have students bring in their own artifact (article, podcast, video, photo, song, etc.) that is relevant to the course topic and lead a lesson about the topic. 

This allows students to incorporate their “funds of knowledge.


Take a look at your class roster. Are there students that have accommodations? If so, take the time to communicate and reach out on how to best support them in your classroom.

Here are some tips for how you can feel more prepared for addressing students needs:

  • Review student files and academic histories to identify potential learning challenges or special needs.
  • If you can, talk to other faculty who have taught the class before, or seek out faculty resources you have on campus. I had a Faculty Innovation Center at a previous university that I would consult on how to accommodate students.
  • Prepare a syllabus and materials that can be adapted to meet the individual learning needs of students.
  • Communicate with parents or guardians to gain insight into their child’s strengths, challenges, and support needs.
  • Identify and provide resources for students who need additional support, such as tutoring or counseling services.
  • Take part in ongoing professional development and training to stay current on best practices for addressing the diverse needs of students.

Offer flexibility with a “Life Happened” card.

Life happens outside of school, and sometimes it can get in the way of completing assignments on time. That’s why I offer a “Life Happened” card, which allows students to get points back on late assignments. 

Here’s what I tell them on the syllabus about the “Life Happened” card:

Late submissions will result in a 0.5 point deduction for each day late (including weekends). However, I understand that life happens! You can use the “life happened” card, which will return up to 3 points of your deducted grade on assignments turned in late. You do not need to tell me what happened, but please send an email to let me know that you will be redeeming your “life happened” card. Note: This is not a “freebie” card and you must still submit the assignment.

Self-Reflection Prompts: Your Teaching Style

What is one change you can make in the design of your course to improve equity?

What is one change you can make to your teaching style to improve students’ sense of belonging?

Remain flexible.

🔀 Adapt to students’ needs in the face of unprecedented or unexpected circumstances.

🧠 Be open to change. This includes staying aware of students’ experiences in your classroom. Are classroom discussions dominated by certain students? How do we pivot to ensure other voices are heard? I like to use interactive apps like Mentimeter to ensure everyone has a chance to be heard.

📊 Create a system for monitoring student progress and adjusting instruction as needed to meet individual learning needs.

❤️ Develop a plan for providing academic and emotional support to students who may be struggling. I tend to gravitate toward academic advisors, mental health counselors, our disability resource center, and program coordinators.

💡Remain open to new ideas and be willing to try different approaches. You can provide a more dynamic and responsive learning experience that supports the diverse needs of all students.

When life happens… 

Recently, I had a student dealing with a traumatic experience and being laid off. The student had a group assignment due and felt guilty about not being able to contribute much. 

To demonstrate flexibility, I allowed the group to turn in the assignment as is while letting the other student use the aforementioned “Life Happened” card to give her more time to complete her parts of the assignment.

Self-Reflection Prompt: Providing Flexibility

A situation has occurred making it difficult for students to complete upcoming assignments. How might you accommodate students during this challenging time?

Hold yourself accountable.

We all make mistakes. Listen to feedback and take responsibility for modifying your pedagogical practices.

Teaching is a learning experience for educators. To repair any harm we may have caused, it is essential that we evaluate our practices and redress by incorporating student feedback.

Personal Reflection

I am a new Assistant Professor and still learning my way around. I received student feedback that said I assigned too many readings and assignments. 

I still have the same students in my class this quarter, so I started the class with an acknowledgment of their feedback and showed them exactly where in the syllabus this term I have limited the readings. In fact, there are multiple weeks where I assign the same readings so they have more time to process them.

Self-Reflection Prompt: Accountability

You realized that you committed a microaggression. How do you cultivate a culture of care after this mistake?

Remember: The steps in this guidebook are not linear nor mutually exclusive. To harness the power of pedagogical caring, we must see these steps as cyclical and ever-evolving to make sure our pedagogy aligns and responds to students’ needs.

Giving Space for Student Feedback

Asking feedback from students should happen throughout the course to demonstrate your commitment to working with students and being responsive to their needs. Do not wait until your final course evaluations to ask for feedback because then it’s too late!

Getting midterm feedback

Example questions for mid-term feedback:

  • Give one or two examples of what really helped you learn or engage in this class. Be specific. Concrete examples provide the best feedback to your instructor.
  • Give one or two examples of specific things in this class that made it more difficult for you to learn or engage.
  • Suggest one or two specific practical changes your instructor could make in this class that would’ve helped you improve your learning or engagement.

Other ways to get feedback include:

🔵 Exit tickets: Ask students to complete a short survey at the end of class that asks for feedback on what they learned that day, what they found challenging, or what they would like to see more of in the future. Using applications like Slido and Mentimeter can be quick and effective. 

🔵 One-on-one meetings: Schedule regular check-ins with individual students to discuss their progress, interests, and concerns. 

🔵 Classroom discussions: Facilitate class discussions and encourage students to share their thoughts and opinions on a variety of topics related to the course. 

🔵 Student self-assessments: Provide students with self-assessment tools to help them reflect on their own learning and provide feedback on what they need to improve. 

🔵 Student-led conferences: Invite groups of students to collaborate on creating a meeting agenda with you, where they have the opportunity to share their work and discuss their learning progress. Emphasize that the meeting is a safe space for them to share their honest thoughts.

🔵 Online discussion boards: Create an online discussion forum where students can ask questions, share ideas, and provide feedback on course content. 

🔵 Classroom observations: Ask colleagues or administrators to observe your classroom and provide feedback on your teaching style, classroom environment, and student engagement. 

🔵 Feedback forms: Provide students with feedback forms to complete after assignments or exams to gain insight into their learning experience and identify areas for improvement. You can make these anonymous, but encourage people to identify themselves so that you can follow up with any clarifying questions.

Final Reflections

At its core, teaching is about caring. Students’ perceptions of teachers’ caring behaviors impact students’ academic success and their well-being. This link is especially true for students who come from historically marginalized communities. When students believe that teachers are genuinely interested in their learning, students feel seen. Pedagogical caring can be a tool to incorporate students’ strengths such as cultural knowledge, lived experiences, and unique perspectives.

Download the Ebook

What’s Inside:

  • Self-reflection prompts to improve your teaching.
  • Student activities to cultivate a classroom community.
  • Practical strategies for getting student feedback.

Additional Resources

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