Student Experience Research Network Blog

When people wonder whether they belong in a given situation, their answer is shaped by cues in the environment: Are people like me represented in this space? Is my culture reflected? Do the people here respect me and expect me to succeed?

When students can answer these questions affirmatively, they are more likely to be engaged in school and persist in the face of the setbacks and challenges that are essential to learning and growth. When students’ sense of belonging is uncertain, they are more likely to withdraw and disengage.

The practices, policies, and norms of American schooling often signal to some groups and individuals that they belong in school and to others that they do not.

The Student Experience Research Network recently convened 25 experts on belonging at its annual Funder Briefing to discuss what the education system can do to create environments that foster belonging for all students. This is the second of four blog posts in which we synthesize lessons from these experts’ remarks at the event. The series builds on the Student Experience Research Network’s past publications about belonging, including a research summary entitled, “What We Know About Belonging from Scientific Research,” and the opening panel discussion of the Funder Briefing, “Studying Belonging in Education: Origins, Current Themes, and Future Possibilities,” a conversation with Claude Steele, Mary Murphy, and Greg Walton.

Our first post about strategies to support students’ sense of belonging focused on shifting culture in schools. We highlighted presenters from the Student Experience Research Network Funder Briefing who are focused on holistically nurturing the conditions for student belonging in the learning environment through facilitating “cultural continuities” for students whose backgrounds are often not reflected in the dominant culture of schooling in the U.S.

In this post, we feature presenters who target inflection points in students’ academic trajectories when worries about belonging can be particularly potent, and explain what institutions are doing to address them.

Research on inflection points and recursive cycles

This approach draws on research showing that students’ sense of belonging responds to signals from their environment.

Students are particularly sensitive to these signals at certain points, such as moments of transition, difficulty, or setbacks. The cues students receive in these moments, if they do not affirm students’ sense of belonging, can set in motion negative, self-reinforcing cycles that can adversely affect long-term outcomes.

As a powerful early proof point of this concept, Mindset Scholars Greg Walton and Geoff Cohen found in a 2007 study that black students’ sense of academic fit during the first year of college was tied to how much adversity (e.g., stress over a paper) they experienced on a given day.

When students interpreted moments of high adversity as indications they didn’t belong in college, they withdrew from important academic behaviors like building relationships with faculty and peers. By contrast, when students were encouraged to see stressful moments as typical in the transition to college, and that these kinds of worries often get better with time, their sense of belonging was buffered and they remained engaged.

In a 2011 study, Greg and Geoff tracked the long-term outcomes of students who participated in a similar belonging intervention during the transition to college. The intervention improved academic and health outcomes of black students throughout college and had positive long-term effects on life and career satisfaction over the next decade.[1]

At the Funder Briefing, Greg presented preliminary results from a recent experimental trial by the College Transition Collaborative of a pre-matriculation belonging intervention conducted in collaboration with nearly two dozen four-year colleges and universities, ranging from broad access to highly-selective institutions. Their results suggest that belonging concerns in the transition to college are common across diverse postsecondary contexts, that interventions delivered just before students arrive on campus can improve outcomes through the first year of college, and that institutions differ significantly in their ability to support students’ belonging during this transition.

Examining inflection points in practice

Policy expert Bethany Little explained how the (often unintended) messages that students receive from their schools at critical points can trigger belonging uncertainty: “Where is the financial aid office located? If [schools] have hidden it away, there’s a sense of shame that you’ve got to go down in a basement to find it.”

As a new student arriving on campus, these kinds of messages could undermine one’s sense of belonging in ways that have long-term effects. Bethany encouraged the audience to think about all the different points at which schools could change their practices and policies to preemptively support students’ sense of belonging.

Here we highlight three distinct scenarios that can threaten students’ sense of belonging in school, and strategies for improving students’ experience in these situations.

Academic probation: Shifting from shame to support

Researchers at the College Transition Collaborative (CTC) have been studying letters that colleges and universities send to notify students that they are on academic probation. Psychologist Shannon Brady explained that the project began when one of CTC’s partner institutions realized that only one in four students placed on academic probation was returning to good standing.

Shannon wanted to find out if the way institutions communicate to students about probation might have a role to play in the poor results.

She learned from 155 students who had been placed on academic probation that the experience had been stressful, surprising, frustrating, and embarrassing. One student described: “For some time after getting the letter, I felt that I didn’t belong. I had already felt that way coming in, but the letter seemed to confirm that.”

These reactions were not at all what the university intended. Together, CTC and the university wrote a new academic probation notification letter that was more attuned to students’ sense of belonging.

They framed probation as a process for learning and growth, communicated that academic difficulties are not uncommon, and acknowledged that financial, health, and family issues can contribute to academic difficulty. The new letter resulted in more students meeting with their advisor promptly, ending their probation, and remaining enrolled in school.

CTC collaborator Cathy Buyarski, Executive Director of Student Success Initiatives at IUPUI, shared that focusing on belonging and the probation process has led university administrators to identify other moments that can encourage or inhibit belonging. The university, for example, often touts its high four-year graduation rates to incoming students. Once Cathy and her colleagues gained a better understanding of students’ perspective, they realized that the messaging could create intense pressure on students, who might feel “behind” as soon as they arrive on campus. They have also surfaced other inflection points that could threaten students’ belonging, such as applying to selective majors.

Disciplinary actions: Shifting from distrust to relationship-building

Mindset Scholar Jason Okonofua and colleagues created an empathic discipline intervention that aims to help teachers re-frame moments of conflict over student behavior, with the goal of keeping more students in the classroom and engaged in learning.

“There’s been an explosion in suspension rates,” Jason explained. “The wide majority of these suspensions are not because students brought drugs to school or brought a weapon to school or were fighting. They’re because of things that are more subjective in nature… the feelings that happen between a teacher and a student.” Jason shared statistics that black students are up to six times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.

While all children misbehave at times, he outlined a negative recursive cycle for students of color, in which a student can interpret a disciplinary action by a teacher as confirmation of that teacher stereotyping on the basis of the student’s group, leading to a loss of trust and engagement on the part of the student. In turn, this disengagement might lead the teacher to label the student a “troublemaker,” (and Jason’s past research shows teachers are quicker to label students of color as “troublemakers”) leading to more severe discipline.

Jason’s intervention disrupts the cycle by training teachers to adopt an empathic rather than punitive mindset about discipline, in which teachers come to value students’ perspectives and sustain positive relationships in moments of conflict. His intervention has been shown to reduce suspension rates and boost the respect that students perceive from their teachers.

Early advising in STEM doctoral programs: Shifting from tacit knowledge to explicit support

For students whose families and social networks do not include people with advanced degrees, the transition to graduate school can create a host of belonging uncertainties.

Claude Steele, professor of psychology at Stanford University, explained his own experience in graduate school: “I didn’t really know what it was about. I didn’t come from a background that knew really what it was about. And so I needed some concrete instruction about that.”

Claude pointed to the Chemistry department at the University of California, Berkeley as a bright spot for supporting student belonging. He explained that at Berkeley, experiences and expectations in the Chemistry department are highly structured; early on in the program, students are formally introduced to research via lab rotations and are told that publication of their research is their primary goal and their coursework is secondary.

Chemistry faculty are held accountable for guiding students through the academic publication process and helping them find prestigious academic positions and opportunities to present their work. A process used by advisors when students pivot in their second year from a focus on coursework to their independent research assesses whether students are on track to present academic work at a conference; if not, faculty are asked what supports will be provided to students to ensure this happens in a timely fashion. In other words, faculty “have students’ backs” and provide them with equitable access to knowledge that otherwise might only be communicated through informal networks that are majority white, middle- and upper-class, and male.

Two independent surveys of STEM PhD students at Berkeley by psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton and colleagues confirmed that students from underrepresented groups published at significantly lower rates than their white male peers, with the Chemistry department being a “conspicuous exception” with much more uniform rates of publication.

These three examples provide promising models for addressing students’ belonging concerns at key points in their educational journeys. If educators and administrators can step into students’ shoes, listen to them, and anticipate the inflection points where belonging uncertainty is likely to arise, they can build experiences that affirm belonging and keep students on a positive long-term trajectory.

Click here to read the next post in this series >>

[1] Brady, S. T., Jarvis, S., Cohen, G. L., & Walton, G. M. (2018). Downstream consequences of a social-belonging intervention in the transition to college. Manuscript in preparation.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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