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A group of diverse college students chat sitting at desks in a college classroom.

Student belonging can improve student persistence and retention in college.

Paul Bradbury/OJO Images/Getty Images

Promoting belonging in college communities has become more challenging for higher education practitioners in the age of remote and digital learning environments. Tyton Partners’ newest report, “Listening to Learners 2023,” addresses the ways institutions and their members can bolster belonging among learners to increase persistence and retention, contributing to overall student success.

Researchers gauged the student experience regarding addressing barriers to student persistence and success measured against faculty, adviser and administrators’ perspectives.

The report identified four ways institutions can foster belonging inside and outside the classroom, based on students with a stronger sense of belonging:

  • Increase the frequency of evidence-based teaching practices among professors, including active learning.  
  • Add more digital tools to create community and collaboration. 
  • Create heightened awareness and utilization of breadth of student support services available. 
  • Promote specific engagement with academic advising, financial aid and mental health service staff.  

Survey Methodology

Tyton Partners surveyed 2,056 students, 1,748 instructors, 1,493 front-line support staff and over 500 administrators at two- and four-year institutions, both public and private, in March 2023.

Front-line support staff include academic advisers and other counselors who work with students outside of the classroom.

Evidence-based teaching: Students whose instructors use evidence-based teaching (EBT) practices report a greater sense of belonging to the institution as a whole, compared to their peers who did not report their professors used EBT.

EBT practices include transparency, active learning and metacognition. The methods particularly benefit Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, low-income and first-generation students in gateway courses.

Digital tools: When looking for academic support, students are most likely to turn to their peers or the professor, according to survey data.

Approximately three in five students report that they would ask a peer for course help, with returning students slightly more likely to do so compared to their first-year peers. In comparison, 57 percent of first-year students say they would ask their instructor for help, greater than the 51 percent of their peers who are not first-years.

Around one in three first-year students says they would turn to friends or peers at their institution who are not in their course for help, as well.

Ranking slightly lower for help resources among both groups of students were course materials and supplements, free online resources, and study aid providers. Generative AI ranked lowest among resources, with only 10 percent of first-year students preferring to use the tool and 5 percent of returning students selecting it.

Fully online and first-year students are more likely to use study aids like Chegg, Quizlet or CourseHero and to participate in collaboration or engagement tools in their highest-enrollment courses.

Digital preferences: Consistent with national trends, 75 percent of students say they prefer digital course materials like e-texts or courseware, and 23 percent preferred print, with 2 percent having no preference. Student preference differs greatly from professors’, with fewer than half (46 percent) of instructors selecting digital course materials as their preference.

Faculty members are also more likely to prefer face-to-face course delivery (55 percent), but around three in 10 students (31 percent) share their preferences. HyFlex courses, or those delivered face-to-face and fully online simultaneously with students deciding their modality each session, have the greatest difference in preference, with 12 percent of students and 1 percent of professors preferring that modality.

However, many students continue to face challenges in getting online. Just under 80 percent of students experienced unstable internet in the past year, and 39 percent struggled with access to a device including computer or laptop in the past year.

Student support awareness: As noted in Tyton’s July report, many students lack awareness of the available resources on their campus to promote academic success. Those who are aware of resources and utilize them are more likely to feel as though they belong at their institution, compared to their peers.

Students who say they strongly feel they belong at their institution use on average three student support services, and peers who say they do not feel they belong use on average 2.3 services.

The survey found learners at two-year institutions are less likely to be aware of key services including academic and career advising, financial aid counseling, and accessibility services (despite practitioners reporting similar levels of service availability across institution types). First-generation students, though more likely to be aware of student services, are less likely to use services.

Communication from the institution does not always match students’ needs and preferences. Academic advisers, for example, are overwhelmingly using institutional email to contact students (97 percent), but only 56 percent of students prefer that channel. That preference drops to 23 percent when looking at community college students specifically.

Physical and digital co-location of student support services is also important to students’ perception and use of the resources, so officials should consider creating a one-stop shop or hub to elevate service visibility. A one-stop or digital portal can help with integration and coordination among services, as well.

Intentional interactions: Informational and supportive academic advising can promote student belonging, according to the report.

Students who are aware of academic advising are more likely to feel like they belong, feel confident they’re going to pass courses this term and feel confident they’re on track to graduate, compared to their peers who are not aware of academic advising. A similar trend of belonging and confidence exists among students who use their academic advising services.

However, students say they meet with their adviser less frequently than advisers say they see students. At public four-year institutions, only 20 percent of students have mandatory meetings with an adviser, compared to 37 percent of two-year college students and four-year private students.

Key takeaways: For higher education practitioners looking to make intentional changes at their college or university, consider the following interventions:

  • Instructors looking to implement digital learning practices should consider access and infrastructure opportunities for students to ensure they have the resources they need to succeed.
  • The connection between awareness and utilization of services to belonging should encourage higher ed leaders to pay attention to student access and awareness and which students are utilizing services.
  • Messaging regarding student services should be relevant and specific to the needs of the students serviced. First-generation students, for example, may need more encouragement to access resources and leaders should focus on normalizing seeking help for them. Learners at two-year institutions prefer to hear from academic advisers via systems like the LMS, an advising platform or CRM.
  • Several students say their academic advisers served as crucial informants in sharing available resources, which falls outside the traditional job description of an adviser but remains important for student retention.
  • Students’ sense of belonging is directly connected to their financial wellness and ability to pay for college. Advisers can also support students through sharing financial resources to promote belonging.

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