Student belonging and sense of community drive student outcomes
Student belonging refers to the extent to which a student feels accepted within a learning environment. Camille Farrington (2015) explains: “ So the idea of ‘I belong to this academic community’ means that you can be yourself and you’re acknowledged for who you are and what you bring to that space.” Belongingness is dependent on the extent to which a student feels they are listened to and that their contributions are valued within their classes. Within many classrooms students experience a lack of belonging because their voices are not heard.
When a student questions whether they belong in an academic setting they are experiencing belonging uncertainty (SAIC concept Paper, 2015, p 5). Students of color are more likely to engage in this sort of questioning particularly when other students doubt their academic contributions. Headden and Mckay write: “Regardless of their IQs or the quality of their academic instruction, students who doubt their abilities or question whether they belong at a school can easily disengage and fall behind. For first-generation college goers and African-American students, in particular, stereotypes about academic performance can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies” (p.8). These feelings of belonging uncertainty negatively impact student outcomes as Bryk et al (2013) explain: “The theory is that if a person questions whether they belong in a class or a college, it is difficult to fully commit to the behaviors that may be necessary to succeed, such as joining study groups or asking professors for help” (p. 17). We create meaning and engage in learning through our interaction with our peers. If you lack a sense of belonging to that community you may not engage in the types of behaviors and attitudes that lead to success in an academic setting.
In contrast, a sense of belonging at school can help inoculate students from stresses and trauma they may experience in other facets of life. Farrington writes: “Feeling part of a community of learners is a powerful motivator. Students with a strong sense of academic belonging see themselves as members of not only a social community, but an intellectual community. They tend to interpret setbacks and difficulty in their studies as a normal part of learning, rather than as signs that they are “out of place” in a particular academic environment” (p. 5). The question becomes how do we cultivate this sense of belonging for all students?
Creating an inclusive community of learners is one way to foster a broader sense of belonging. Rachel Beattie (2015) from the Carnegie Foundation details some ways to mitigate belonging uncertainty: “Many of our students have questions about whether they belong. And so by building trust and a supportive community and a cohort, we can change that belief. If you change this belief, such that you feel like you belong, you’ll put more effort into the class and you’ll get better grades.” Building this sort of community where all students feel included, supported, and trusted requires open honest dialogue where each member feels acknowledged and listened to. Translating this to the classroom requires that teachers and students be in dialogue about their experiences.
The foundation for establishing a school community are positive relationships between students and teachers. When students communicate openly and support one another this helps to develop community and create a shared sense of belonging (Headden and Mckay, p. 16).
Another critical factor in in building community is establishing positive relationship between students and teachers. In fact, these positive relationships are one of the most reliable predictors of student success: “All else being equal, students achieve at higher rates, and are less likely to drop out and feel more positively about school, when they have ongoing connections with teachers” (Headden and Mckay, p. 16). When students trust and feel acknowledged by adults they are more likely to feel a sense of belonging and thus achieve better outcomes.
Students know they belong when they are asked about their experience on an ongoing basis. Unfortunately, our existing teacher evaluation systems focus on instruction or what teachers are doing rather than the experience of students. An opportunity exists to help teachers grow their practice by creating dialogue between teachers and students about the student experience.
Teacher Evaluation Systems and Meaningful Feedback
In the vast majority of schools teachers are evaluated solely by administrators. Often as part of this evaluation process teacher receive feedback from administrators or instructional coaches. Most administrators and instructional coaches have gone through traditional training programs that tend to focus on instruction or what the teacher is doing. This results in feedback that often ignores the critical areas of student motivation, belonging, and sense of community outlined above. Furthermore, administrators are often overwhelmed by the number of observations they are required to make and unable to dedicate the time to providing meaningful ongoing feedback to teachers. These are some of the reasons that the MET research paper Gathering Feedback for Teaching (2012) which brought together academics, teachers, and educational organizations to study teacher evaluation and effective teaching concluded: “There is a growing consensus that teacher evaluation in the United States is fundamentally broken. Few would argue that a system that tells 98 percent of teachers they are “satisfactory” benefits anyone—including teachers” (p.3). The current teacher feedback fails to provide the meaningful feedback for teachers to improve their practice.
To improve teacher practice, feedback should identify areas for growth and support teachers in changing their practice. For this reason, the MET team concludes: “The true promise of classroom observations is the potential to identify strengths and address specific weaknesses in teachers’ practice.” (p.14) If teachers can get feedback on the current state of their practice they can improve their practice by focusing on areas in need of growth. The current evaluation paradigm posits administrators as the natural party to be in dialogue with. However, the question becomes who is best situated to provide this meaningful feedback particularly around student motivation, engagement, and belonging?
Students may be ideally situated to provide this meaningful feedback to teachers. Seeking to understand what measures could reliably predict the effectiveness of teachers the MET team produced another research report Learning about Teaching (2010). This report suggests that student perceptions are predictive of effective teaching: “Moreover, students seem to know effective teaching when they experience it: student perceptions in one class are related to the achievement gains in other classes taught by the same teacher” (p. 9). Students can perceive effective teaching because they are experts in the experience of being a student. As Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten (2014) write: “Indeed, most students are neither disciplinary nor pedagogical experts. Rather, their experience and expertise typically is in being a student – something that many faculty have not been for years. They understand where they and their peers are coming from and, often, where they think they are going” (p. 15). Perhaps the solution to this lack of meaningful feedback is for teachers to enlist student voice to create inclusive dialogue about teaching and learning.
Student voice and improving teacher practice
Many researchers have noted the potential of student voice as a driver for school improvement. Caroline Lodge (2005) writes: “When the focus is on improving the students’ learning there is a strong argument for taking account of the young people themselves” (p. 135). Building on this argument Rudduck (1996) concludes that including student voice is critical for school improvement: “[What students say about teaching, learning and schooling is not only worth listening to but provides an important – perhaps the most important – foundation for thinking about ways of improving schools”. Student voice is so critical because it represents the experience of the end user who is most knowledgeable about the classroom experience on a day to day basis.
Student voice refers to an ongoing process of using student perspectives to inform the functioning of a school site. Seeking to define this term Fielding (2004) writes: “Student voice covers a range of activities that encourage reflection, discussion, dialogue and action on matters that primarily concern students, but also, by implication, school staff and the communities they serve.” (p.199) This understanding of student voice as implying a conversation between students and school staff is expanded by Bovilla et al (2011): “Developed largely in school contexts in the UK, Australia, Canada, and the US, ‘student voice’ is premised on the notions that students have a unique perspective on teaching and learning and that they should be invited to share their insights, which warrant not only the attention but also the response of educators” (p.2). This insistence that student voice merits a response from educators is based on a recognition of the unique positionality of students as end users who can offer valuable feedback to educators.
Various structures have been proposed to solicit this student voice but what stands out as effective about each of these arrangements is the potential for student feedback to inform teacher practice. Jones and Yonezawa (2008) propose teachers create inquiry groups with students from within their classes as a way to address inequitable practices. They offer a concrete example of the power of student voice to drive teacher practice: “At another school, inexperienced teachers were surprisingly affirmed by students comments in the inquiry groups that the teachers’ small gestures, such as saying good morning or showing an interest in students’ families, made a real difference in relationships with students and students motivation to learn and to succeed” (p. 216) This type of student feedback offers teachers ideas on how to develop the sense of belonging and community in the classroom that lead to greater student motivation and improved outcomes. Unfortunately, administrative feedback rarely focuses on belonging or community and therefore this critical element of effective teaching is often left unaddressed. While student inquiry groups can be an effective way to enhance student voice they rely on individual teachers to organize them. Unfortunately, teachers who most need to increase belonging or community in their classes will be the least likely to solicit this sort of dialogue by forming a student inquiry group.
Student consultants: soliciting student voice to increase motivation, belonging, and community
One structure to solicit student voice that seems particularly promising is a student consultant model. First deployed by Alison Cook-Sather at Bryn Mawr college the model trained undergraduate students to enter into a partnership with professors where they observed their classes and engaged in dialogue. Describing this model Cook- Sather (2011) writes: “Students are not enrolled in the courses for which they serve as consultants. Rather, each student consultant: meets with the faculty member to establish goals and plans for the semester; visits one class session each week; takes detailed observation notes on the pedagogical issues the faculty member identifies; surveys or interviews students in the class (if the faculty member wishes); meets weekly with the faculty member to discuss observation notes and other feedback and implications”(p. 3). These conversations at the heart of the student consultancy model have served as powerful levers of instructional change where instructors have utilized student feedback to improve instruction.
Enhancing student voice can be mutually beneficial to both teachers and students. Toshalis and Nikkula (2012) write of the benefit to teachers of hearing about their classroom from a student perspective: “Promoting student voice can be of enormous benefit to the teacher’s craft as well. When teachers open space for voice in the classroom, a unique window into what the student thinks and feels about her learning also opens” (p. 25). Cook-Sather expands on the benefits of this model by revealing how it can benefit teachers and students: “ In short, partnerships tend to make both students and faculty more thoughtful, engaged, and empathetic as they go about their work and life on campus” (p.3). Both teachers and students experience the same benefits because of the reciprocal nature of their dialogue whereby each party critically considers teaching and learning.
By formalizing and systematizing this dialogue between teachers and students this model ensures these conversations happen on a consistent basis. Increasing these opportunities for student voice and involving students in improving instruction is one avenue for pursuing lasting change according to Toshalis and Nikkula: “Given that real change typically requires participation by and buy-in from all stakeholders, scholars have found considerable evidence that the creation of more formalized roles for students in school improvement leads to better, more sustainable outcomes” (p. 26).
Perhaps most importantly by enhancing students voice and focusing teacher attention on student motivation and belonging this model can lead to improved outcomes for all students. Scholars have shown that students participating in a consulting program experience an increase in belonging which leads to improved outcomes particularly for students of color. (Toshalis and Nikkula, 2012; Alison Cook Sather, ) This possibility of using student consultants to grow teacher practice around student motivation, belonging, and community represents a tantalizing opportunity to improve academic outcomes for students of color. Emphasizing the potential to enhance student motivation and belonging Bahou (2011) concludes: “The qualitative impact of consultation on students learning enhanced and improved their motivation, attendance, positive attitudes towards learning, capacity for responsibility and new roles, and perceptions of teachers” (p. 4). Given its potential this student consultancy model should be implemented beyond an undergraduate setting.
Expanding this student consultant model to the high school level represent a huge unexplored opportunity. The current research base is lacking in terms of considering this student consultant model at the high school level. Employing the research into existing student consulting programs at several universities to envision a high school program a few lesson standout. It is important to start small given the complexity of developing a culture of collaboration (Cook-Sather, 2014). Alison Cook Sather cautions about trying to implement a program too quickly : “Partnerships take time to develop. Try to be patient, because both you and your students will need time to adapt to new partnership roles and to think about new perspectives that emerge” (p. 147) Helping students to shift their role into one of partnership requires opportunities for students to practice entering this new role so they gain confidence. One strategy to help students gain this confidence is to give them the opportunity to challenge traditional hierarchies by making decisions collectively about how to implement the program (Cook-Sather, 2014).
To implement our student consultant program we tried to learn from these lessons. We started by following scholarly advice to identify a representative student group who represent differing student experiences within our school site (Cook-Sather, 2014). We were deliberate in meeting twice a week with students for six weeks before starting the partnership process. We focused on developing a culture within our student consultant cohort of reciprocity and mutual respect for teachers. We sought to enlist students as co-creators in developing protocols to ensure that a relationship flourished and that students felt trained to provide constructive feedback. This sense of a relationship towards mutually beneficial ends is critical to the success of a student consulting program. Alison Cook Sather (2014) highlights “the guiding principles – respect, reciprocity, and responsibility” (p. 169)
One researcher who has considered student voice at the high school level Quaglia is quoted (2014) discussing how involving teachers in this process is a promising way to systematize student voice: “The more I talk about student voice, I realize the teachers need to have a voice as well, if teachers have confidence that they’re being listened to, then student voice won’t become just another fad or cute idea.” (Korbey, 2014)
Atkinson, M. et al (2010, December 1). Learning about Teaching Initial Findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project. Retrieved October 3, 2015.
Atkinson, M. et al (2012). Gathering Feedback for Teaching. Retrieved October 3, 2015, from http://metproject.org/downloads/MET_Gathering_Feedback_Research_Paper.pdf
Bahou, L. (2011). Rethinking The Challenges and Possibilities of Student Voice and Agency. Educate, Special Issue, 2-14. doi:January 2011
Bovil, C., Cook-Sather, A., & Felten, P. (2011). Students as co-creators of teaching approaches, course design and curricula: Implications for academic developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 16(2), 133-145.
Bryk,, A., & S. Yeager, D. et al., (2013). Improvement Research Carried Out Through Networked Communities: Accelerating Learning about Practices that Support More Productive Student Mindsets. A White Paper Prepared for the White House Meeting on Excellence in Education: The Importance of Academic Mindsets. doi:June 10, 2013
Cook‐Sather, A. (2009). From traditional accountability to shared responsibility: The benefits and challenges of student consultants gathering midcourse feedback in college classrooms. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 231-241.
Farrington, C. (2013). Academic Mindsets as a Critical Component of Deeper Learning. University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. doi:April 2013
Fielding, M. (2004). ‘New wave’ student voice and the renewal of civic society. London Review of Education, 197-217.
Headden, S., & Mckay, S. (2015, July 1). Motivation Matters. Retrieved September 13, 2015, from http://cdn.carnegiefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Motivation_Matters_July-2015.pdf
Jones, M. & Yonezawa, S (2008). Inviting students to analyze their learning experience. In M. Pollock (Ed.) Everyday antiracism (pp. 212-216). New York, NY: The New Press.
Korbey, H. (2014, October 17). How Can Students Have More Say in School Decisions? Retrieved October 3, 2015, from http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/10/17/how-can-students-have-more-say-in-school-decisions/
Lattimer, H. & Kluver, J (Spring 2015). After a Progressive K-12 Education…Then What? First Gen Youth Voices on the Transition to College. UnBoxed, 13, retrieved from http://www.hightechhigh.org/unboxed/issue13/first_gen_voices_on_the_transition_to_college/
Lodge, C. (2005). From hearing voices to engaging in dialogue: Problematising student participation in school improvement. Journal of Educational Change J Educ Change, 125-146.
Quaglia, R. (2014). My Voice National Student Report 2014 Grades 6-12. Retrieved October 3, 2015, from http://www.qisa.org/dmsView/My_Voice_2013-2014_National_Report_8_25
Rudduck, J. & Chaplain, R. et al., (1996). School Improvement: What Can Pupils Tell Us?. London: David Fulton.
Sather, A., & Bovill, C. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: A guide for faculty. Jossey Bass.
Toshalis, E., & Nakkula, M. (2012, April 1). MOTIVATION, ENGAGEMENT, AND APRIL 2012 STUDENT VOICE. Retrieved September 13, 2015, from http://www.studentsatthecenter.org/sites/scl.dl-dev.com/files/Motivation Engagement Student Voice_0.pdf