SEP Practices Library
Frequently Asked Questions

The SEP Practices Library is a collection of evidence-based, field-tested resource guides outlining practical approaches that instructors can use in their courses to increase equity in students’ experiences of their learning environments, and support students’ academic success. These resource guides were developed through the Student Experience Project for initial testing in STEM courses, but as noted in the following guides, they can be applied more widely across academic disciplines.

The development of this library is led by the College Transition Collaborative Director of Research, Dr. Krysti Ryan, and Principal Investigators Dr. Kathryn Boucher, Dr. Christine Logel, and Dr. Mary Murphy, with feedback and collaboration from our colleagues in the Student Experience Project. Library resources draw on research in social psychology, educational psychology, and brain science to inform practical approaches instructors can use in their courses to promote engagement, increase equity in students’ experiences of their learning environments, and support academic success. The Practices Library was developed through the Student Experience project, and has benefited significantly from valuable feedback from students as well as the on-the-ground expertise of instructors, staff, and administrators who have tested the library practices through their participation in the SEP.

The Practices Library can be viewed in two ways: by topic area, or by social-psychological construct addressed. 

Topic Areas: In this view of the library, resources are organized by topic: Syllabus Review, Belonging and Growth Mindset Foundations, Practices to Foster Academic Engagement and Growth, and Cultivating a Supportive & Inclusive Classroom Environment. 

Social-Psychological Construct: In this view of the library, resources are organized by the social-psychological constructs that the changes in the resource address: social belonging, institutional growth mindset, identity safety, trust and fairness, self-efficacy, and social connectedness.

Early evidence from the Student Experience Project indicates that the change ideas are most effective when used collectively by groups of instructors in a community of practice. The SEP is currently developing a series of toolkits designed to support institutions in implementing change recommendations on a larger scale. The first toolkit in the series, which focuses on course preparation and the first day of class, is scheduled to be released November 2021. If you are an administrator who is interested in access to our toolkits, please sign up for the SEP Newsletter to be notified as resources become available.

For an introduction into the social psychological concepts, and research base, that serve as the foundation for the Practices Library, we recommend reviewing the overview guides that introduce and provide examples of social belonging and growth mindset -- two of the key social-psychological constructs that library resources focus on supporting. Once you are ready to make changes to your classroom approaches, we suggest considering the time point of the term, and your reason for visiting the library as a starting place:

If you are planning a new course or a retooling of a course for the next term:

Consider first how you will teach and engage with students and what assignments or assessments you will include. With this bird’s-eye view of your course in mind, a Syllabus Review, or the Policy Review and Establishing Expectations resources in the Social Belonging and Growth Mindset Foundations section of the library - which have been designed for use prior to the start of a term and in the first week - may be productive places to start.

If you are coming to this practices library at a specific time point, or with a particular challenge in mind for your course

The SEP Practices Library resources are organized into four sections by topic area. You can review each topic area to identify resources that are most relevant to the time point in the course or issue that you would like to address. 

For example, if midterms or other substantial assessments are approaching, the Practices to Foster Academic Engagement & Growth bundle may be the perfect place to start. 

If your students or your campus community has experienced a disruptive incident or event, and you are interested in approaches to support your students through a challenging time, you may want to consider beginning with the Addressing an Identity Threatening Incident resource in the Cultivating a Supportive & Inclusive Classroom bundle.  

If you want to improve a particular aspect of student experience

The SEP Practices Library contains resources that address six different social-psychological constructs that impact students' experience of their learning environment: social belonging, institutional growth mindset, identity safety, trust and fairness, self-efficacy, and social connectedness. To view the library resources organized by the social-psychological constructs that they are designed to address, please click here.

Not necessarily. All change recommendations in the Practices Library are informed by research evidence and have been field-tested and refined based on instructor and student feedback, but that does not mean that all changes are appropriate for every instructor or every course. 

For example, some instructors find sharing their own belonging story is a powerful way to boost students' feelings of belonging. Other instructors, however, particularly women or faculty of color, who already experience challenges to their authority in the classroom because of their identities and/or teaching contexts, may find this type of sharing to be problematic. These instructors often choose another activity to bolster belonging in their course, or, they implement one of the adaptations to the belonging story highlighted in the library, like asking former students to share forward their belonging stories for the course. 

Approaches to support students' experiences are most likely to be effective when they feel comfortable and authentic for the instructor who is implementing them. You know yourself, your students, and your context the best. That’s why we recommend that you use your expertise about your course and campus environment, your students’ needs, and your own considerations of risk to decide which practices in the library are best for your context.

Like any other pedagogical approach, it is possible for the change recommendations included in the Practices Library to have unintended or negative consequences. 

To help mitigate the possibility that changes will backfire due to implementation errors, each resource includes a list of key ingredients to make the changes successful and/or guidance on how to avoid common pitfalls. We encourage instructors to use these principles, along with the implementation checklists included with each change resource, to help ensure that your change has the highest likelihood of success. 

Even when changes are implemented perfectly, however, they can have unintended consequences - both for students and for instructors. For example, while many students have told us that they enjoy the popular social connectedness activity “fast friends,” other students, particularly those who are introverted, neurodivergent, or suffer from social anxiety, tell us that they find these types of icebreaker activities to be overwhelming and uncomfortable. To help mitigate this, when using this change we suggest offering an option to opt-out or engage in an alternative activity for any students who chose it. Additionally, students have told us that these icebreaker activities can sometimes make their disadvantages salient in the classroom and to their peers, so we suggest ways to curate the content of these activities with this in mind. 

To help ensure that the changes you make in your course have the positive impact you intend, we recommend using your expertise about your course and campus environment, your students’ needs, and your own risk considerations to decide which practices in the library are best for your context. Remember, approaches to support student success are likely to be most effective when they feel comfortable and authentic for you.

If you would like more information on measuring student experience in your course, please see the SEP FAQ below: How do I know if I have gaps in student experiences? Is there a way to track whether or not student experiences are improving over time?

Developing a student-centered course that acknowledges and takes into consideration the lived experiences of diverse student populations is likely to be one of the most effective things that instructors can do to drive more equitable outcomes in their courses. Doing so can help close experience and outcome gaps by helping to ensure that students' engagement and performance is not negatively impacted by lack of access to the resources or supports that will help them succeed, even when life circumstances present obstacles to education. For this reason, we recommend beginning with a syllabus review and review of your course policies. These resources lead instructors through step-by-step approaches to crafting courses that provide all students with equal opportunities to thrive.

Another way to start incorporating practices into your course is by reflecting on your observations in previous terms to identify when students have historically needed the most support, or have encountered the greatest challenges, and then consider using approaches that will help to address the social-psychological construct associated with those issues around the same time. For example, students are most likely to question their social belonging or academic ability during periods of difficulty, transition, or difference (Gurin, Dey, Hurtado & Gurin, 2002; Walton & Brady, 2020), and that these worries are often associated with key time points in the term: 

  • Upon receiving the course syllabus and/or first course announcement 
  • On the first day or in the first week of class 
  • At the first performance opportunity 
  • When early alerts or drop deadlines are communicated 
  • Near the end of the semester when next term scheduling decisions need to be made 

At these points, students are more likely to wonder:

“Does my professor think that I/people like me can be successful here?”
“If I struggle, does it mean I don’t belong?”
“Am I valued and respected by my instructor and peers in this course?”

To address these types of concerns, you may want to consider incorporating changes that help to boost students' feelings of social belonging, identity safety, or self-efficacy at or just before these time points in the term.

Ultimately, we recommend using your knowledge about the needs of your students, and your own capacity, to guide your use of this library. If you are new to the ideas in the library, just remember that it’s not necessary (or possible!) to incorporate everything at once in order to improve students' experiences. New approaches to support success can be added into your course over time. 

Whatever approach you take, also keep in mind that improving students’ experiences and perceptions can take time. No one change alone will alter students' experiences of an entire course. Instead, the most impactful approach often includes incorporating a diverse range of practices in the classroom over time that work in concert with each other to create a learning environment where all students feel valued and supported to succeed. Ultimately, the goal is to create and maintain a classroom culture where students’ potential for growth and inclusion are communicated and supported.

The resources in the SEP Practices Library can be viewed two ways: organized by topic area and by social-psychological construct. Determining the best way to view the library may help you to identify the resources that are most relevant to the issue that you would like to address. 

Topic Areas: The library is organized in four sections by topic: Syllabus Review & Revision, Belonging and Growth Mindset Foundations, Practices to Foster Academic Engagement and Growth, and Cultivating a Supportive & Inclusive Classroom Environment. Use this view if you are interested in changes for a particular time point in the term, or if you are hoping to address a specific issue.

Social Psychological Construct: This library contains resources that address six different social-psychological constructs that impact students' experience of their learning environment: social belonging, institutional growth mindset, identity safety, trust and fairness, self-efficacy, and social connectedness. Use this view if you are interested in improving a specific aspect of student experience. 

Library recommendations include possible adaptations to practices based on course size and modality, especially for online courses. However, the forms of teaching have dramatically increased over the last few years, so we are not able to include ways to adapt practices for the variety of ways that instructors may deliver their course content. In considering how to adapt included practices for your class context, be sure that you do the following:

  • Ensure that any communication from you feels authentic. Throughout these resource guides, we provide sample language, but fully expect instructors to tailor any language to fit their teaching persona. If text may not convey what you hope to communicate, try short video or audio messages. 
  • When deciding upon whether to omit or add to activities included in this practices library, refer to the checklists and the possible pitfalls sections. Any modified activity should have the key ingredients or organizing principles noted in each guide, and should avoid any identified common pitfalls.  
  • Plan activities and communications that fit the cadence of your course both over the whole term and within the week or module. This might be most relevant when giving feedback on returned work or scores and for online discussion boards.

Many of the included resources focus heavily on the beginning part of the term as this is a pivotal time to set the norms and expectations for the course and open with a supportive and inclusive learning environment. Examples within the resources, however, also include suggestions for ways to carry the practices throughout the term, to “follow up” on themes at a later date, to help instructors maintain their classroom culture across the term.

It is also important to note that some changes will be time-point specific by nature. At the beginning of the term, for example, there are more options to help students in working through struggles with the course and its content. Toward the end of the course, there may be fewer actionable steps for students to take specifically for your course, and the approaches used earlier in the term may no longer be applicable. Later term communications, however, can be adapted to focus upon what students can do in the time remaining, with a focus on what can be learned and gained for the course content and one’s study and planning skills. Moreover, these practices can be used to signal that you do not view their difficulties as a negative reflection on who they are and that they have the potential to gain the necessary knowledge and skills in future terms.

Student experiences can be measured and tracked over the course of the academic term using Ascend. Ascend is a free, data-driven professional learning program that enables college instructors and administrators to learn how their students are experiencing courses through a brief, research-based survey that has been written to correspond with the social-psychological constructs addressed in the Practices Library. A confidential report, sent directly to instructors following a survey period, shows how students’ experiences are promoting or hindering equitable learning. Ascend reports also link directly to the SEP Practices Library, so that you can use your survey results to inform the next change approaches you try. 

If you make a change based on results from an Ascend survey, you can follow up with your students by completing a new survey cycle, or by using an anonymous classroom poll, exit ticket, or a minute paper to gauge students' responses, as described here.

Congratulations on taking steps to improve students' experiences in your course! It’s understandable that you’d like to identify exactly what is driving the improvement you see. It is important to recognize, however, that no single change in a classroom will be a “silver bullet” for improving student experience. Instead, it's more likely that the constellation of changes you are making in your course, along with the other things you do in your teaching to support student learning and growth, are working together to create a learning environment where students feel valued and supported to succeed.

Sometimes, the changes that we put in place to better support our students don’t have the impact that we intended. To ensure that your changes have the best changes of success, or to identify where an approach may have gone awry, we have included a section in each resource that details common pitfalls and how to avoid them. These points are highlighted in orange text boxes throughout resources in the library. To further help instructors reflect on changes, and identify possible improvements for future implementation, we also provide a downloadable checklist at the end of each resource. Checklists are recommended for use prior to implementing a change, but can also be very helpful for reviewing and reflecting on approaches that have already been used. 

Keep in mind, also, that instructors' actions have a powerful impact on student experiences, but they are not the only things that can impact students' experiences. Developing student-centered learning environments is a process that takes time and is influenced by multiple factors, in addition to instructional practices or the course context, including: 

  • Time Course: Effective learning is a collection of behaviors that depends on skills and habits that take time to develop. Even if a practice change prompts a student to be more engaged in the course, for example, it might take time for that to translate into the habits and study skills that are markers of effective learning. 
  • Students’ Past Experiences: This could include past professors or teachers that they have had bad experiences with, or good experiences with, and their general expectations of how they, and people like them, might be valued or devalued in that particular field. 
  • Natural Transitions in the Term: There are certain periods in an academic term when confidence and belonging can naturally “dip.” For example, students’ feelings of social belonging may suffer, or dip, at points of transition (i.e., in the first weeks of the term, or after breaks), when they are likely to be having new experiences (Hurtado & Carter, 1997; Walton & Cohen, 2007; Strayhorn, 2008, 2012). Similarly, students' self-esteem in college, which is related to feelings of self-efficacy, have been found to dip in the first term of the first year of college (Chung et al., 2014). Self-efficacy and social belonging may also be subject to particular fluctuation near midterms, when early alerts are sent out, or at other points in the term where students are receiving grades or performance feedback in multiple courses that, if they are not yet meeting learning goals, could cause them to question their ability to do well in the college setting. 
  • Current or Recent Events: Recent or ongoing events in the university community, or in the local or national context can have significant impacts on students' experiences of their learning environment, particularly when the events disrupt the education system or lead to uncertainty or rapid social changes. Some examples of events that may be likely to impact students' experiences include hate crimes on campus or in the local community, public health emergencies, instances of civil unrest, and local or national political elections. In each of these instances, impacted students may experience lower levels of self-efficacy and social belonging, and increased concerns about identity threat.

Feel free to adapt the change recommendations in the library so that they work for you and your classroom context, or create your own change idea using the key ingredients for the practice associated with the issue you’d like to address (Ex: To find the key ingredients for creating your own growth mindset practice, refer to the Overview: Effective Growth Mindset Messages resources in the practice library). The key ingredients listed in the library resources provide instructors with guidelines for creating their own change ideas to help make sure that the change ideas are as effective as possible, and to guard against the potential for an unintended negative impact.

The SEP Practices Library can be used as a standalone resource, or in combination with other SEP tools: 

Ascend is a free, data-driven professional learning program that enables college instructors and administrators to learn how their students are experiencing courses through a brief, research-based survey that has been written to correspond with the social-psychological constructs addressed in the SEP Practices Library resources. A confidential report, sent directly to instructors following a survey period, shows how students’ experiences are promoting or hindering equitable learning. Ascend reports also link directly to the SEP Practices Library, so that you can use your survey results to inform change approaches you try. 

The SEP is currently developing a series of toolkits designed to support institutions in implementing change recommendations on a large scale. The first toolkit in the series, which focuses on course preparation and the first day of class, is scheduled to be released November 2021. If you are an administrator who is interested in access to our toolkits, please sign up here for the SEP Newsletter to be notified as resources become available.

The Practices Library is a living resource - we are updating it over time in response to user feedback. Please let us know about your experience using the library or suggestions for improvement here. We thank you for your contributions to this resource.


The SEP Practices Library has been developed by CTC (© 2020) through the Student Experience Project.
Copying or reproducing this resource is prohibited.

Email contact@ctcteam.org with any questions.