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Jana Renner, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Jana Renner.jpgThe sense of belonging or university connectedness and its impact on student retention and persistence has been well documented in higher education literature.  Strayhorn (2012) defines sense of belonging as “students’ perceived social support on campus, a feeling or sensation of connectedness, the experience of mattering or feeling cared about, accepted, respected, valued by, and important to the group (e.g. campus community) or others on campus (e.g. faculty, peers)” (p. 3).  This feeling of belongingness is best supported by perceived faculty and peer support on campus (Hoffman, Richmond, Morrow, & Salomone, 2002; Morrow & Ackermann, 2012; O’Keefe, 2013).  Wilson and Gore (2013) agree that “connectedness to the university is defined as students’ subjective sense of overall fit within the university and the perception that they are personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others at the university” (p. 178).  In other words, students feel like they belong when they believe they are not just a faceless number and that they matter to someone on campus.

Developing a sense of belonging in the first year is critical to whether or not a student will be retained as over half (56%) of all student departures occur after the first year (Morrow & Ackermann, 2012). Therefore, it is imperative to begin cultivating a sense of belonging in a student’s first year, and the ideal place to begin this development is during orientation and the first-year seminar.  According to Hoffman et al. (2002), first-year seminars “facilitate the development of relationships . . . and help to create meaningful bonds between students that are characterized by support” (p. 252).  The focus on support provides an opportunity for the advisor in a first-year seminar to develop strategies to encourage students’ connections to each other, faculty, staff, their major, and the institution.

While the literature is rife with research on the importance of a sense of belongingness, few offer strategies in order to foster that connectedness.  Below are five strategies that were created to nurture belongingness for first-year students in the School of Health & Human Sciences (SHHS) (formally the School of Physical Education & Tourism Management [PETM]) at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).  These strategies can be applicable to a wide range of academic programs, institutions, and advisors.  The best part is that most of the strategies can be implemented at no cost!

Strategy #1: Visual Identity.  Allowing students to show and represent their belonging to a group is an easy way to promote connectedness.  At SHHS, all incoming freshmen at summer orientation receive a “Class of” t-shirt with the School of Health & Human Sciences logo on the front.  At the end of their orientation experience, students wear the t-shirts and take a group picture that is shared on the SHHS social media accounts and website.  This visual identity helps students realize that they are a part of a cohort of students and are not alone on campus.  After orientation, students get a link to meet their classmates on the school website.

Strategy #2: Bonding Activities.  Icebreaker activities implemented in first-year seminar courses help students let their guards down and interact with one another and the instructional team. These activities range from name games to get to know one another to trust activities including a blind trust walk led by a student.  These bonding activities promote connectedness to each other right at the start of the semester and are led by a peer mentor.

Strategy #3: Assignments in First-Year Seminar.

  • “Who Am I” Presentations. Students prepare a one-slide presentation with pictures representing who they are (their major, where they are from, what their interests are, what they were involved with in high school, etc.).  Students are then paired with another student in class and then introduce each other to the class in a short presentation.  Students are given class time to meet and get to know each other prior to their presentation which in turn prompts connections and belonging in the classroom.  The Who Am I presentations allow students to identify and share what is most important to them and also presents the opportunity for students to find commonalities among varied experiences.
  • Scavenger Hunt. Campus scavenger hunts are a fun way to get students to find out what resources are available to them.  Students participate in small groups and are given clues to find various campus resources.  At each stop, students are presented with a challenge they work through as a group before moving on to the next campus resource.  This activity gives students a fun way to learn about campus resources while connecting them with other students in a game format.
  • Social Media Assignment. As a part of a weekly assignment in the first-year seminar, students are asked to submit an “insta-tweet” which is a picture of themselves or with a group and a short caption of what that picture represents.  Many insta-tweets show students and their new friends in the class out at sporting events, volunteering, or studying.  These snapshots can be shared out on social media if the student desires, but all include the hashtag #mySHHS and #jagsROAR, connecting them to both their academic school and institution.  This also allows the advisor and instructor of the course to gain a sense of how the student is connecting to others and what is important to them.
  • Digital Story. The final project in the first-year seminar is a digital story/video that includes a collage of pictures and videos set to a voice-over of the student describing their first semester. Students must include details about their orientation, first-year seminar class, extra-curricular involvement, community involvement, experiences in the classroom, and anything else they feel was important to their first semester at IUPUI.  This video allows students to make meaning of their first semester and provides insights to the connections they have made to students, faculty, and staff as well as to the Indianapolis community and IUPUI campus community.

Strategy #4: Group Advising.  The first-year seminar is also a great place to hold group advising for registration of the upcoming term.  In the group advising session, the advisor encourages students to interact and ask questions of each other in regard to their current coursework.  What classes and/or professors have they enjoyed?  What is the class really like?  How much homework is involved with the class?  Students are encouraged to share their experiences with their fellow students to gain new insights and make connections.

Strategy #5: Student Mentor and Faculty Interaction.  As a part of the first-year seminar, students are also required to meet with a student mentor who is an upperclassman in their field of study.  The students meet with their mentors twice (once in the first half of the semester and once in the last half of the semester).  This provides incoming students with another resource, in addition to the faculty and advisor, that they can turn to if they encounter problems or questions regarding campus resources.

In addition to the student mentor interaction, faculty interaction is important to weave into the first-year seminar and orientation experiences.  SHHS faculty members are present during summer orientation to introduce themselves and answer questions from the students and guests/families.  This establishes a good foundation of a relationship that continues throughout students’ first-year seminar when faculty are invited back to serve on a panel.  As the sense of belongingness is best supported by perceived faculty support (Hoffman et al., 2002; Morrow & Ackermann, 2012; O’Keefe, 2013), it is vital to have first-year students interact with their faculty early and often.

Due to these efforts, the School of Physical Education & Tourism Management (now School of Health & Human Sciences) saw an 80.1% one-year retention rate, higher than the IUPUI campus average of 75.9% for the 2016 cohort (IUPUI Institutional Research, n.d.).  These five strategies also realized a true sense of belonging for first-year students as 89.7% of students in an in-class survey indicated on their first-year seminar course evaluations that “this class helped me feel like I belong to the IUPUI community and the School of Physical Education & Tourism Management” (J. Renner , personal communication, July 17, 2018).  Continued work on efforts in increasing student belonging will only help to bolster student retention as well as the student experience of college.

Jana Renner
Senior Academic Advisor
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
[email protected]


Hoffman, M., Richmond, J., Morrow, J., & Salomone, K. (2002). Investigating “sense of belonging” in first-year college students. Journal of College Student Retention, 4(3), 227–256.

IUPUI Institutional Research and Decision Support. (n.d.). Retention and degree numbers. Retrieved from https://tableau.bi.iu.edu/t/prd/views/RetentionbySchool/Retentionand?%3Aiid=1&%3AusingOldHashUrl=true&%3Aembed=y&%3AloadOrderID=0&%3Adisplay_spinner=no&%3Adisplay_count=no&%3AshowVizHome=no#1

Morrow, J. A., & Ackermann, M. E. (2012). Intention to persist and retention of first-year students: The importance of motivation and sense of belonging. College Student Journal, 46(3), 483-491.

O’Keefe, P. (2013). A sense of belonging: Improving student retention. College Student Journal, 47(4), 605–613.

Strayhorn, T. (2012). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all. New York, NY: Routledge.

Wilson, S., & Gore, J. (2013). An attachment model of university connectedness. Journal of Experimental Education, 81(2), 178–198.


Cite this article using APA style as: Renner, J. (2018, September). Cultivating a sense of belonging in first-year seminars. Academic Advising Today, 41(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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