“We Have Our Own Belonging”: A Qualitative Investigation of Postsecondary Students' Sense of Belonging Across Online and Face-to-Face Course Formats


  • John Eric M. Lingat University of Kentucky
  • Jonathan Ryser-Oatman University of Kentucky
  • Jayson W. Richardson University of Denver
  • Marcus Epps University of Kentucky
  • Shannon O. Sampson University of Kentucky
  • Michael Toland University of Toledo
  • Debra Brace University of Toledo


As courses and degree programs delivered through distance, remote, and virtual learning formats expand, higher education institutions are faced with the challenge of engaging fully online students to ensure retention and achievement. In traditional, face-to-face course formats, postsecondary students’ sense of belonging has been evidenced to effectively address these issues. However, research on sense of belonging in fully online courses is limited. The current study is a qualitative investigation of postsecondary students’ sense of belonging, conducted at a large university in southeastern United States. Several themes emerged from individual and group interviews suggesting that a sense of belonging can be fostered through substantial relationships, supportive interactions, and establishing affiliations with others in their courses. Unique needs of fully online students, differences from their fully face-to-face peers, and implications for instruction are discussed. Findings from our study extend the literature on belonging, establish a foundation for empirical studies of this construct in online courses, and inform how higher education institutions prepare inclusive, rigorous learning across formats for all postsecondary students.


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biographies

John Eric M. Lingat, University of Kentucky

Dr. John Eric M. Lingat (University of Kentucky) is an educational psychologist interested in the measurement, assessment, and evaluation of cognition, performance, and achievement in various learning environments.

Jonathan Ryser-Oatman, University of Kentucky

Dr. Jonathan Todd Ryser-Oatman (University of Kentucky) is a Counseling Psychologist interested in promoting the relationship health of the LGBTQ+ community.

Jayson W. Richardson, University of Denver

Jayson W. Richardson is a professor and department chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Denver. His research is focused on technology leadership and leadership for deeper learning leadership.

Marcus Epps, University of Kentucky

Marcus’ primary research interests involve Black male college-aged students’ identities as they relate to academic achievement.

Shannon O. Sampson, University of Kentucky

Dr. Sampson leads evaluation studies and teaches graduate courses in program evaluation, measurement, and survey research methods.

Michael Toland, University of Toledo

Dr. Toland’s research focuses on the application of advanced statistical and measurement models in the social sciences.

Debra Brace, University of Toledo

Debra S. Brace is an associate professor at the University of Toledo where she has taught at master’s and PhD students in the Higher Education program since 2010. She coordinates the master’s program and advises the Higher Education Student Association. Debra conducts the majority of her research in the areas of student development and teaching and learning in postsecondary education. She is particularly interested in the spiritual and faith development of college students.


Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2013). Changing course: Ten years of tracking online

education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group. http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/changingcourse.pdf

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal

attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497

Cockshaw, W. D., & Shochet, I. (2010). The link between belongingness and

depressive symptoms: An exploration in the workplace interpersonal context. Australian Psychologist, 45, 283-289. https://doi.org/10.1080/00050061003752418

Decker, J., & Beltran, V. (2016). Students' sense of belonging in online classes: Ddoes

age matter? International Journal of Online Pedagogy and Course Design, 6, 14-25. https://www.learntechlib.org/p/185696

Delahunty, J., Jones, P., & Verenikina, I. (2014). Movers and shapers: Teaching in

online environments. Linguistics and Education, 28, 54-78. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.linged.2014.08.004

Francis, M. K., Wormington, S. V., & Hulleman, C. (2019). The costs of online learning:

Eexamining differences in motivation and academic outcomes in online and face-to-face community college developmental mathematics courses. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2054. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02054

Freeman, T. M., Anderman, L. H., & Jensen, J. M. (2007). Sense of belonging in college

freshmen at the classroom and campus levels. Journal of Experimental Education, 75, 203-220. https://doi.org/10.3200/JEXE.75.3.203-220

Goodenow, C. (1993). The psychological sense of school membership among

adolescents: Scale development and educational correlates. Psychology in the Schools, 30, 79-90. https://doi.org/10.1002/1520-6807(199301)30:1<79::AID-PITS2310300113>3.0.CO;2-X

Gummadam, P., Pittman, L. D., & Ioffe, M. (2016). School belonging, ethnic identity,

and psychological adjustment among ethnic minority college students. Journal of Experimental Education, 84, 289-306. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220973.2015.1048844

Gunn, J. F. III, Lester, D., Haines, J., & Williams, C. L. (2012). Thwarted belongingness

and perceived burdensomeness in suicide notes. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 33, 178-181. https://doi.org/10.1027/0227-5910/a000123

Hausmann, L., Schofield, J., & Woods, R. L. (2007). Sense of belonging as a predictor

of intentions to persist among African American and White first-year college students. Research in Higher Education, 48. 803-839. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-007-9052-9

Hewson, E. R. F. (2018). Students’ emotional engagement, motivation and behaviour

over the life of an online course: Reflections on two market research case studies. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 1, 1–13, https://doi.org/10.5334/jime.472

Hernández, M. M., Robins, R. W., Widaman, K. F., & Conger, R. D. (2017). Ethnic

pride, self-esteem, and school belonging: A reciprocal analysis over time. Developmental Psychology, 53, 2384-2396. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000434

Hurtado, S., & Carter, D. F. (1997). Effects of college transition and perceptions of the

campus racial climate on Latino college students' sense of belonging. Sociology of Education, 70, 324-345. https://doi.org/10.2307/2673270

Hussain, M., & Jones, J. M. (2019). Discrimination, diversity, and sense of belonging:

Experiences of students of color. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/dhe0000117

Lehner, R. D., & Hight, D. L. (2006). Appreciative inquiry and student affairs: A positive

approach to change. College Student Affairs Journal, 25, 141-151.

Lewis, J., Mendenhall, R., Ojiemwen, A.,Thomas, M., Riopelle, C., Harwood, S., &

Huntt, M. (2019). Racial microaggressions and sense of belonging at a historically White university. American Behavioral Scientist. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764219859613

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-


Miles, M. B., Huberman, A. M., & Saldaña, J. (2019). Qualitative data analysis: An

expanded sourcebook (4th ed.). Sage.

Museus, S. D., Yi, V., & Saelua, N. (2018). How culturally engaging campus

environments influence sense of belonging in college: An examination of differences between White students and students of color. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 11, 467-483. https://doi.org/10.1037/dhe0000069

O'Shea, S., Stone, C., & Delahunty, J. (2015). "I 'feel' like I am at university even though

I am online." Exploring how students narrate their engagement with higher education institutions in an online learning environment. Distance Education, 36, 41-58. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2015.1019970

Peacock, S., & Cowan, J. (2018) Towards online student-directed communities of

inquiry, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 42, 678-693, https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2017.1302569

Preskill, H. S., & Catsambas, T. T. (2006). Reframing evaluation through appreciative

inquiry. Sage.

Saldaña, J. (2016). The coding manual for qualitative researchers. Sage.

Salmi, J. (2020). COVID’s lessons for global higher education.

https://www.luminafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/covids-lessons-for-global-higher-education.pdf (accessed 14 May 2021)

Slaten, C. D., Ferguson, J. K., Allen, K.-A., Brodrick, D.-V., & Waters, L. (2016). School

belonging: A review of the history, current trends, and future directions. The Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 33, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1017/edp.2016.6

Strayhorn, T. L. (2012). College students' sense of belonging: A key to educational

success for all students. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203118924

Teng, M. Y., Brown, M.-L., Jarus, T., & Bulk, L. Y. (2020). How does a sense of

belonging develop in postsecondary? A conceptual belonging in academia model (BAM) from sighted perspectives. Research in Education, 108, 80–103. https://doi.org/10.1177/0034523719882455

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, 69‐80. https://doi.org/10.5204/intjfyhe.v5i2.233

Tinto, V. (1975). Dropouts from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent

literature. A Review of Educational Research, 45, 89-125. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543045001089

Tinto, V. (2017). Through the eyes of students. Journal of College Student Retention,

, 254–269. https://doi.org/10.1177/1521025115621917

Vaccaro, A., & Newman, B. M. (2016). Development of a sense of belonging for

privileged and minoritized students: An emergent model. Journal of College Student Development, 57, 925–942. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2016.0091

Walton, G. M., & Brady, S. T. (2017). The many questions of belonging. In A. J. Elliot,

C. S. Dweck, & D. S. Yeager (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation: Theory and application (pp. 272-293). Guilford Press.

Watkins, J., & Cooperrider, D. (2000). Appreciative inquiry: A transformative paradigm.

OD Practitioner, 32, 6-13.




How to Cite

John Eric M. Lingat, Ryser-Oatman, J., Jayson W. Richardson, Marcus Epps, Shannon O. Sampson, Michael Toland, & Debra Brace. (2023). “We Have Our Own Belonging”: A Qualitative Investigation of Postsecondary Students’ Sense of Belonging Across Online and Face-to-Face Course Formats. Student Engagement in Higher Education Journal, 4(3), 68–90. Retrieved from https://sehej.raise-network.com/raise/article/view/1136