Student Connection: What COVID-19 Taught Us About Student Sense of Belonging in Online Learning

Concurrent Session 8
Streamed Session Leadership

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

 As distance learning became the new “normal” across the world, COVID-19 unveiled a key component of the online student experience: sense of belonging. In this session, participants will learn what COVID-19 revealed about student sense of belonging and how universities can improve student success and connection practices beyond the pandemic.


Kamarie Carter is the Student Development Specialist II for the Office of Distance and Extended Learning (ODEL) at Texas State University (TXST). Prior to working at ODEL, Kamarie worked for Student Affairs in the Student Involvement office at Texas State University. She brings her knowledge of the student affairs side of things over to distance learning students. Kamarie serves as a liaison between students and faculty while providing resources and advising to distance learning students. She is constantly on the lookout for new ways to serve TXST students to ensure retention and academic success while catering to the current needs of the student. Kamarie has worked closely with Dr. Brown, Texas State University and Florida Atlantic University to implement he quality scorecard at Texas State.

Extended Abstract


Over 25 million college students in the United States were significantly impacted by COVID-19 (Schaffhauser, 2020). As the pandemic swept across the world, online learning took center stage to provide safe access to an education. Throughout the first two months of campus closures, students reported their online education experience to be unengaging; students were missing campus facilities and resources, social interactions with peers, and connection with their instructors (Kelly, 2020). These findings highlight the importance of student connection and sense of belonging—especially in online learning. The experience of temporary online students revealed an improvement opportunity for all of online education in the years to come—student sense of belonging.

Studies show that students are more likely to have greater academic achievement and higher retention, persistence, and graduation rates if they feel a sense of belonging and connection to an institution (Hoffman et al., 2002; Larkin et al., 2013; Laux et al., 2016; Thomas et al., 2014). Student sense of belonging occurs when a student feels accepted, valued, and understood (Vaccaro et al., 2015; Goodenow, 1993; Peacock & Cowan, 2019). When students feel connected to an institution, their sense of belonging increases, which then results in higher student success rates (Hagerty et al, 1993; Laux et al., 2016; Townsend & McWhirter, 2005).

Presentation Description

                During this session, the presenter will discuss findings related to student sense of belonging and online student success. The COVID-19 pandemic produced millions of online students in higher education—the sudden rise in temporary online students provided a unique opportunity to observe strategies and best practices in online education. The presenter will provide statistical findings regarding the experience of COVID-19 online learners and how those statistics can reveal growth opportunities for all online learners beyond the pandemic. The session will transition to a focus on connection attempts from the presenter’s institution, how those attempts fostered student sense of belonging, and what connection strategies will be used to continuously promote a sense of belonging for all online learners of the institution. The presenter will then provide strategies and best practices—based on previous findings and studies—for ensuring student connection and sense of belonging in online learning.

                After the lecture section of the session, the audience will participate in three activities designed to focus on evaluation and planning of student sense of belonging in online learning. First, participants will evaluate their office’s/institution’s response to student connection using a guiding rubric. This rubric is not designed to penalize an institution for their online connection attempts but to assist in critically evaluating improvement opportunities. Next, participants will find a partner and share answers and ideas to the following questions:

  1. What ways did your campus help students feel connected to the institution during COVID-19?

  2. What initiatives were executed well?

  3. Describe a connection opportunity that you would like to see your institution implement to foster “sense of belonging”.

Finally, participants will spend a portion of the remaining time outlining a plan for one online connection project to help foster a sense of belonging in online students. The purpose of this activity is to provide participants with time to thoughtfully evaluate the information they were provided during the session and start the process for implementing change at their institution. Participants will be provided a guide to assist them during the planning time. The session will end with a call to action concerning student sense of belonging and connection in online learning.

Participants will be provided the following materials during the presentation (electronic copies will also be provided for virtual participants):

  1. Office/Institutional Response Evaluation Rubric

  2. Planning Guide for Connection Project

  3. Presenter’s Business Card


  1. Welcome and Overview of Student Sense of Belonging (7 min)

  2. COVID-19’s Effect on Student Sense of Belonging (10 min)

  3. Implications for Future Best Practices in Online Learning (3 min)

  4. Strategies for Building Student Connection and Sense of Belonging (5 min)

  5. Activity: Evaluating Your Campus Response to Student Sense of Belonging (5 min)

  6.  Activity: Small Group Discussion – Best Practices/Ideas for Student Connection (10 min)

  7. Activity: Planning for Future Connection Attempts (5 min)

Total session time: 45 minutes

Learning Outcomes

By the end of the session, participants will:

  • Identify and align with a reason for student connection

  • Evaluate their department’s/institution’s response to COVID and student sense of belonging

  • Generate ideas for online student connection

  • Create a strategic plan to foster online student connection and sense of belonging



Goodenow, C. (1993a). Classroom belonging among early adolescent students: Relationships to motivation and achievement. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 13(1), 21–43.

Hagerty, B. M., Lynch-Sauer, J., Patusky, K. L., Bouwsema, M. (1993). An emerging theory of human relatedness. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 25(4), 291-296.

Hoffman, M., Richmond, J., Morrow, J., & Salomone, K. (2002–2003). Investigating “sense of belonging” in first-year college students. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 4(3), 227–256.

Kelly, R. (2020, April 16). 4,000 plus U.S. higher ed institutions impacted by COVID-19; more than 25 million students affected. Campus Technology.

Larkin, J. E., Brasel, A. M., & Pines, H. A. (2013) Cross-disciplinary applications of I/O psychology concepts: predicting student retention and employee turnover. Review of General Psychology, 17(1), 82-92.

Laux, D., Luse, A., Mennecke, B. E. (2016). Collaboration, connectedness, and community: An examination of the factors influencing student persistence in virtual communities. Computers in Human Behavior, 57, 452-464.

Peacock, S. & Cowan, J. (2019). Promoting sense of belonging in online learning communities of inquiry at accredited courses. Online Learning, 23(2), 67-81. doi:10.24059/olj.v23i2.148

Schaffhauser, D. (2020, May 4). Three-quarters of college students call online classes ‘unengaging’, miss campus interactions. Campus Technology.

Thomas, L., Herbert, J., & Teras, M. (2014). A sense of belonging to enhance, participation, success and retention in online programs. The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 5(2), 69–80.

Townsend, K. C., & McWhirter, B. T. (2005). Connectedness: a review of the literature with implications for counseling, assessment, and research. Journal of Counseling & Development, 83, 191-201.

Vaccaro, A., Daly-Cano, M., & Newman, B. M. (2015). A sense of belonging among college students with disabilities: An emergent theoretical model. Journal of College Student Development, 56(7).