Special issue


A collaborative group of interdisciplinary faculty-researchers at a regional comprehensive university in the United States implemented two pedagogical practices, real talks and alternative lessons (together called the pedagogy of real talk), and investigated students’ sense of belonging in classrooms using these practices. Real talks are planned interactions wherein faculty share human stories from their lives on a universal theme and invite students to share their own stories on that theme. Alternative lessons are faculty-designed learning experiences that build upon understandings of students’ worldviews and experiences. Survey data from over 30 student classes across two semesters in 2021 were compared with university-wide climate survey data to posit that sense of belonging in these classes was higher than that in the university as a whole. Case study data selected from a repository of faculty descriptions written between 2020 and 2021 further fleshed out examples of specific real talks and alternative lessons. The authors found these practices are particularly significant in their impact on typically underrepresented students, who often contend with feelings of exclusion in their pursuit of higher education.

Practitioner Notes

  1. The faculty practice of crafting and sharing stories from their lives and giving students space to share their own stories on the same universal theme (real talks) supports students’ sense of belonging.

  2. Designing lessons that combine content objectives with students’ worldviews or with social and cultural issues important to students (alternative lessons) supports students’ sense of belonging.

  3. When faculty use their diverse lived experiences and the experiences of their students to increase the relatability of course content, students feel a greater investment in their education, which supports engagement and persistence.

  4. Typically underrepresented college students especially benefit from real talks and alternative lessons.

  5. An increased sense of belonging motivates students to attend class more consistently, participate in class assignments and activities, and trust their professors enough to communicate with them when they need additional support, either within the academic class or from other support services at the university.