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How feeling seen in the classroom helps to improve student learning outcomes

Learn more about the measurable benefits to students' learning outcomes, engagement, and overall well-being when they truly feel seen.

Audrey Campbell
Audrey Campbell

It’s no secret that humans appreciate acknowledgement. In external ways, we may associate acknowledgement with accolades and awards, the celebration of individual effort with high fives, blue ribbons, and personalized plaques.

But internally, acknowledgement can simply mean feeling seen. This elicits a deeper reaction within us, one tied to our desire to belong. In as early as infancy, our brains react in significant, unique ways to hearing our own name. And research shows that even subtle recognitions can make a big difference.

Take an experiment where participants were paid to perform a set of mundane paper tasks that, once completed, required them to turn in the sheet of paper to the experimenter. Researcher Dan Ariely and his colleagues Emir Kamenica and Drazen Prelec found that a simple acknowledgement from the experimenter inspired participants in group one to continue their work significantly longer than the other groups who received no acknowledgement whatsoever when they completed their task.

Feeling seen can mean we feel appreciated, understood, and valued. But how does feeling seen in the classroom help to improve student learning outcomes?

According to Deleon Gray, Ph.D. associate professor of educational psychology and equity in the NC State College of Education in North Carolina (USA), “When students feel a sense of belonging in the classroom, it can increase their educational success and motivational outcomes in multiple ways.” Gray’s work at NC State helps communities to better understand how belonging and motivation support students’ engagement, learning, and productivity. “Students choose to be in environments that make them feel a sense of fit,” he says.

It’s true: when students feel seen, they are more willing to show up. One study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research showed that 53% of teens attending schools with low suspension rates report high levels of school connectedness. And another study from Australia revealed that strong relationships between students and mentors or faculty “played an important role in reducing the attrition rate” of the higher education programs.

Furthermore, when students feel seen, it’s been shown to positively affect their long-term learning outcomes. In Cold Springs, Nevada (USA), the Washoe school district launched a social-emotional learning (SEL) oriented approach to increasing graduation rates. “Every student needs to belong and connect to at least one teacher or one adult in this building every day,” asserts Principal Roberta Duvall.

They called the initiative, “Every Child, by Name and Face, to Graduation.” The faculty worked tirelessly in Washoe to learn, not only the names of every student in their hallways, but their likes/dislikes, their academic standing, their stories from home, etc. In 2017, five years after adopting the SEL-oriented approach, graduation rates were up 18 percentage points across the district. Washoe schools also saw higher rates of attendance, increased scores on state reading and math tests, and fewer disciplinary infractions and suspensions.

Even within assessment, learning outcomes can improve with simple acknowledgement. In a research study conducted in 1958 by Ellis Page, students who received personalized comments on their assignments did remarkably better on subsequent assessments than those who received only a grade on their papers. Even students who received a standard comment accompanying their grade “felt seen”, and were just behind the first group in improved performance on future exams.

Acknowledgement is essential. And while it can take different forms in the classroom, whether in secondary or higher education, in person or hybrid/remote learning environments, there are many ways in which educators can ensure their students feel seen:

  • Lead with empathy. No matter your subject or grade level, remember that your students are whole people who have more going on in their lives than simply school. When you go beyond relating to them as faces on a screen or names on an attendance list, you start to truly see them and can give them a sense of belonging.
  • Listen to your students. When students feel their voices are heard, they feel respected and valued. As John Hattie said, “A positive, caring, respectful environment is a prior condition to learning,” and Beth Pandolpho offers a few tips for listening to students in the classroom here.
  • Encourage students to teach each other. Scientist Matthew Lieberman writes: “The data are clear that children learn better when they learn in order to teach someone else than when they learn in order to take a test.” One way students can feel seen is if they have a peer depending on them, looking to them for guidance or inspiration. PeerMark within Turnitin Feedback Studio is an option that allows students to provide feedback for one another, catalyzing conversation and creating connection, even in a cyber classroom.
  • Offer feedback. As the Ellis Page study shows us, personalized feedback improves learning outcomes. And when feedback is formative, actionable, and consistent, students can readily apply what they are learning in the process versus simply receiving a grade on a final assessment. In sum, feedback loops help students to feel seen and supported.

It’s no small task to ensure that every student feels acknowledged. But with such clear, measurable benefits to their learning outcomes and, perhaps most importantly, to their engagement and overall well-being, it’s worth seeing how to give it a try.