How to Foster a Sense of Belonging in Large STEM Courses

Teaching a large STEM course can be daunting, partly due to the number of students. It can be difficult for instructors to foster a sense of belonging among a big group, but one way to do so is by creating name tents, writes Cynthia Brame, Ph.D., associate director at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching and senior lecturer in Biological Sciences.

In the blog post, Dr. Brame cites a paper from a few years ago by Katelyn Cooper and Sara Brownell, which shows that using name tents, or folded papers placed in front of students in a high-enrollment, upper-level biology class, increased students’ perception that the course instructors knew their name. Students surveyed for the study also said that having name tents made them more comfortable asking for help, and fostered a sense of community in the classroom.

However, using name tents isn’t a foolproof method. Dr. Brame mentions a student who stopped coming to class because they had anxiety, and were worried that they would be forced to participate.

To address this problem, Dr. Brame had students write their names on both sides of the name tent, but on one side, the student could add a box, which symbolized that they did not want to participate that day. The student could turn their name tent in either direction depending on their mood or willingness to participate. This technique worked well to foster active learning while reducing anxiety among students, writes Dr. Brame in the blog post.