Student Experience Research Network was founded in 2015 as Mindset Scholars Network, based on a growing body of evidence showing that how students make meaning of their experiences in school, through the lens of their beliefs about ability, belonging, and relevance of their schoolwork, influences their learning and well-being. This research makes clear that it is not enough to focus exclusively on inputs and outcomes in education; we must also consider how students are experiencing the system itself.

This means interrogating every aspect of the education system: what’s taught, how it’s taught, who is teaching, what’s assessed and how, how students and families are treated in schools, how schools are resourced, and much more. The signals conveyed through these structures can either support or undermine a student’s ability to bring their full self to school and devote their full attention and energy to learning.

Over time, we identified a through line in various scientific fields, disciplines, and concepts that were part of our work. In order to learn and thrive, students need to experience respect as valued people and thinkers. This experience of respect cannot come from interpersonal interactions alone, although relationships are critical. It must also be embedded in practices, policies, and norms that communicate to every student that they are valued as a person and thinker by their institution and by the education system.

Research that speaks to this idea affirms what stakeholders across the education system intuitively know, including what we heard from speakers at our events, about how to create learning environments that support students to learn and thrive.

“It is impossible to belong in a place where you are not valued as a full human being.”

Sasha Rabkin, Chief Impact Officer at Equal Opportunity Schools

“When students feel their voices and perspectives matter, their education becomes a transformative experience.”

Ana De Almeida Amaral, student at Stanford University

“Being seen and heard is a basic human need and fundamental precursor to learning.”

Na’ilah Suad Nasir, President of the Spencer Foundation

“Belonging is students’ deep and abiding sense that they are welcome, supported, and respected in their classrooms and schools.”

Thomas Dee, SERN Scholar

However, this truth is yet to be manifested in our education system. Institutional segregation and resource inequities are upheld by legislation, judicial decisions, and individual choices. Curricula and instruction have traditionally privileged certain knowledge and cultural legacies and excluded others. Institutional policies and national trends have produced an instructional workforce that does not reflect the diversity of the student body. Policies around tracking, assessment, special education, and discipline are exclusionary and punitive and disproportionately deployed.

Research demonstrates how students’ experiences of these structures affect their learning and well-being:

In a study of 33 teachers of Latinx students in grades 3-5, Matthews and López (2019) found that teachers who practiced critical consciousness – an awareness of and commitment to challenging historical and contemporary inequities – were more likely to integrate content related to students’ culture into instruction, and in turn, were more likely to incorporate and honor Spanish language in their classroom. Students of these teachers had higher mathematics achievement, highlighting the importance of language and culture in a subject that is often misconstrued as being “culturally neutral.”

Cheryan and Markus (2020) studied a computer science department in which prior programming experience was highly valued. While this may seem innocuous on paper, men are more likely than women to have prior experience, and students with less experience had a lower sense of belonging in the introductory course. When the department allowed students to self-select one of two options for the introductory course, one for students with prior experience and one for students without (both of which prepared students equally well for subsequent courses); trained faculty to redirect students who dominated class discussion and intimidated their classmates; and sent women majors to the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the percentage of undergraduate degrees going to women increased from 10% to 55% over ten years and the program’s U.S. News & World Report ranking improved.

Widely held beliefs in the U.S. about academic success value competition and individual achievement over collaboration and contribution to communal goals. This can contribute to “mismatch” between students’ goals and the norms in the environment. Shifting these norms supports students from collectivist contexts to learn and thrive. Research by Gray, McElveen, Green, and Bryant (2020), for example, found that Black and Latinx sixth graders in a Design and Modeling course were more engaged when learning opportunities were oriented toward serving the community. Dittmann, Stephens, and Townsend (2020) demonstrated that working in groups improved the performance of postsecondary students from working-class backgrounds and that groups with more students from working-class contexts earned higher grades on group assignments than those with fewer.

Research that draws on rigorous approaches from across the social sciences and integrates the perspectives of education stakeholders is essential to understanding the complex ways these practices, policies, and norms systematically and differentially shape students’ experience of school—and how they can be changed. But this type of scholarship is not supported by the current structures of the academy, and the knowledge that is created often doesn’t reach decision makers in a timely or useful fashion.

Student Experience Research Network worked to advance scientific knowledge – and bring it to decision-makers – to create a better system: one that supports every student’s learning and well-being by respecting them as a valued person and thinker.