Academic Belonging

Lewis and colleagues define academic belonging as “…the extent to which individuals feel like a valued, accepted, and legitimate member in their academic domain” and go on to state, “Belonging has long been recognized as an innate human need and an important driver of physical and psychological well-being” (Lewis, Stout, Pollock, Finkelstein, & Ito, 2016).

Academic belonging is a logical extension of the general sense of belonging (to a group or community). In Maslow’s widely accepted hierarchy of human needs, a sense of belonging is ranked third in order of importance, behind basic physiological needs (air, water, food) and safety needs (Maslow, 1943). For college students, a sense of belonging refers to perceived social support and connectedness, and a sense of fitting into the larger college community. This community includes the student’s departmental and classroom communities.

Why is it important?

A student who feels a sense of belonging feels cared about, accepted, respected, and valued by others on campus. Maslow argued that if an individual’s needs are not met, their physical and mental health may be negatively affected. Academic communities within an institution, e.g., MIT subjects, learning communities (FLCs), and departments with their associated faculty-student, staff-student, and student-student interactions, are critical in the development and support of students’ academic belonging. 

Tinto’s early work on the impact of learning communities underscores the importance of shared experiences and responsibilities, of belonging to an academic community on student success in college (Tinto, 1997; 2003). Numerous subsequent studies spanning the K-20 spectrum have reported a connection between a student’s sense of belonging to a community or set of communities, and the student’s achievement motivation, expectations to achieve, as well as actual academic achievement. Highlights from some of these studies are described below.

Hurtado and colleagues found that a sense of belonging is positively associated with: the ability to manage academic adjustment; grades; self-rated change in the ability to conduct research; and with perceptions of the relevance of coursework in the first year of college.  They found that Underrepresented Minority (URM) science students with higher high-school GPAs and degree aspirations tended to be less confident in their ability to adjust academically to the 1st year of college than their non-URM peers. The authors hypothesize that these students have heightened expectations of themselves and perceptions of their peers’ abilities and thus feel less satisfied with their own academic adjustment (Hurtado et al., 2007).

Hurtado found that students’ sense of belonging in their major was associated with feeling positive about the learning experiences in major classes and was associated with behavioral engagement.  In addition, the researchers found a correlation between students’ sense of belonging to the university overall and their emotional engagement.  Emotional engagement has been defined in terms of both perceived positive and negative emotional responses to academic experiences. These emotional responses can range from feelings of interest and enjoyment to anxiety/worry and discouragement (Hurtado et al., 2007).

Wilson et al. studied 403 sophomores, 633 juniors, and 471 seniors in STEM majors from five different institutions with distinct Carnegie classifications:  a large, public flagship Research institution, a small private/faith-based college, an HBCU (Historically Black College/University), a teaching institution, a women’s college.  These five institutions were selected to capture a diverse range of undergraduate experiences across different institution types that vary significantly by size (enrollments), variety of STEM majors, institutional culture, and diversity of undergraduates on campus (Wilson et al., 2015).

Other research has found [cite above] that a sense of belonging in a course was most consistently linked to engagement in STEM coursework, while university belonging was linked least consistently. (Wilson et al., 2015).

A study of 238 first-year college students found that “students’ sense of efficacy for succeeding in class and their perception of the value of tasks required in class were quite strongly associated with their sense of belonging.” (Freeman, Anderman, & Jensen, 2007 p. 216). In addition, they identified specific instructor characteristics that were associated with college students’ sense of class belonging.  These characteristics included: encouragement of student participation and interaction, instructor organization, and instructor warmth and openness.

Zumbrunn et al. found that students’ perceptions of a supportive classroom/course environment predicted students’ belonging beliefs, which were, in turn predictors of students’ motivation, engagement, and achievement in the course (Zumbrunn, McKim, Buhs, & Hawley, 2014).

Classroom & course practices

In general, classroom practices that help students feel that they are an integral part of the class, that their ideas matter and that their perspectives are welcomed, create a sense of academic belonging. Often, strategies that create inclusive classrooms and inclusive departmental environments support students’ academic belonging.  

Based on their review of empirical evidence for the efficacy of interventions designed to increase students’ sense of belonging, Lewis et al have articulated several practical recommendations:

  • Avoid reinforcing stereotypes of who “belongs or does not belong in the discipline
    • Avoid symbolic objects (cultural) that appeal to only some students, or at least strike a balance by also including physical objects that counter stereotypes or are stereotype neutral (e.g., photos of prominent female physicists, neutral art prints).
    • Consider the stereotypes that can be communicated via the material they draw upon in lectures, worked examples, and problem sets (e.g., avoid examples that assume knowledge of stereotypically male- or majority-dominated subjects).
    • Instructors can emphasize aspects of their own personality and hobbies that do not fit stereotypes in the field.
  • Openly endorse effort and hard work over brilliance (promote a growth mindset) [LINK]
    • Instead of using grading systems that are heavily based on high-stakes tests performance, educators should consider rewarding students for seeking out critique, revising work accordingly, and showing improvement over time.
    • Send messages that concerns about belonging are normal and fade with time
    • Faculty, instructors and other successful role models (e.g., TAs) should consider sharing their own personal about belonging and how they have coped with these worries.
    • Actively support and share personal stories with on-campus student groups and professional society chapters (e.g. National Society of Black Engineers, Society of Women Engineers).
  • Consider the social context constructed in the classroom
    • Utilize student-centered practices and provide opportunities to work together to collaboratively construct meaning.
    • Monitor individual student participation in collaborative activities to ensure that multiple perspectives and valid approaches are considered.
    • Set clear guidelines and expectations for participation.
  • Consider the broader social context students are a part of outside the classroom
    • When possible and appropriate, instructors should connect course-related examples to students’ interests and lives outside of the classroom.
    • Highlight societal and environmental applications of course material.
    • Help students see their successes outside the classroom as evidence of their overall belonging and competency (Lewis et al., 2016).

The following organizational and procedural practices can also support student belonging:

  • Working knowledge of students’ names
  • Clear organization scheme for the class-periods and for the course as a whole.
  • Clear expectations and requirements
  • Timely and actionable feedback on assignments and assessments
  • Clear grading policies
  • Prompt return of tests and assignments
  • Blind grading practices are used and explained
  • Grading criteria provides multiple opportunities for students to receive feedback about their understanding and support in the application of that feedback to build deeper and more robust understanding.
  • Opportunities for students to revisit, revise and resubmit material after incorporating timely, specific and actionable feedback.
  • Reducing the dependence of grades on high stakes, end of semester assessments.

Classes that utilize more structured active, interactive and collaborative classroom practices and that have a higher degree of overall organization and format can foster academic belonging by facilitating student-student and student-instructor interactions, and by promoting a sense of community. The impact of structured course-elements and activities may have a particular positive impact for students from traditionally underrepresented groups (Eddy & Hogan, 2014; Freeman, Haak, & Wenderoth, 2011).   For a comprehensive list of strategies that support classroom interactions, see the University of Central Florida – Faculty Center for Teaching & Learning: Learning Environments site.

Interventions

A range of interventions have been shown to be successful in the development of academic belonging.  Most interventions target specific groups or subgroups in particular disciplines, e.g.:

A.    Women in STEM. (Cheryan, Plaut, Davies, & Steele, 2009; Good, Rattan, & Dweck, 2012; Walton, Cohen, Cwir, & Spencer, 2012).

B.    URM students. (Hurtado & Carter, 1997; Walton & Cohen, 2007; 2011).

C.     1st Generation students. (Folger, Carter, & Chase, 2004; Hoffman, Richmond, Morrow, & Salomone, 2002; Stephens, Hamedani, & Destin, 2014).

Brief overviews of key intervention studies for specific populations are provided below.

Women in STEM

Walton et al., used interviews and focus groups with female engineering students, to identify aspects of belonging of special relevance to women in STEM. They used the information collected to design an intervention to promote students’ sense of belonging.  The students in the experimental group of the study were given materials /information that emphasized that both men and women worried about their social belonging at first in engineering but that these concerns dissipated with time and that eventually most students came to feel at home in engineering. These materials were designed to address worries about (a) being taken seriously or treated with respect and (b) fitting into a male peer culture. The materials emphasized that both men and women worry about being treated with respect at first in engineering, but this improves with time; and that even when women do not share some interests with men, they share common interests in engineering.

Key take-away from this study:

The intervention eliminated gender difference in GPA – as reported at the end of the academic year (even though the intervention occurred prior to the start of the fall semester).  Women who did not participate in the intervention had, on average, GPAs lower than those of male students (Walton et al., 2012).

Supplemental material for this study can be found at:  http://supp.apa.org/psycarticles/supplemental/a0037461/a0037461_supp.html

Cheryan et al. investigated the effects of physical environment on women’s sense of belonging in computer science environments.  They found that female students who were exposed to stereotypical objects in a computer science setting expressed less interest in computer science than those exposed to rooms with non-stereotypical objects. Male students exposed to the same two environments did not experience a similar reduction in their interest in computer science.

Key take-away from this study:

The findings of Cheryan et al. suggest that a student’s course or major selection can be strongly influenced by the physical appearance of classrooms, hallways, and departmental offices and lounges. Their study provides strong evidence for the power of environments in signaling who belongs (Cheryan et al., 2009).

In their study of the impact of classroom climate on women’s sense of belonging in 1st year university calculus classes (1854 students), Good and colleagues found that:

“…by the semester’s end, perceptions of the learning environment became significant predictors of women’s sense of belonging to math. Specifically, the more women perceived fixed-ability environments and high gender stereotyping the more they were susceptible to lowered sense of belonging, whereas the more women perceived malleable ability environments the more they maintained a sense of belonging to math even when they perceived their environments as highly gender-stereotypical. These longer-term effects of women’s perceptions of their learning environment on their sense of belonging to math could not be accounted for solely by their sense of belonging at the outset of the semester or by their prior math achievement. Rather, their perceptions influenced their sense of belonging to math above and beyond the strong effects of both initial sense of belonging and SAT” (Good et al., 2012, p. 10).

Key take-away from this study:

Data from Good et al. show that when learning environments convey a malleable view of intelligence, students are likely to have a stronger sense of belonging and be less vulnerable to the impact of negative stereotypes on achievement and intent to persist.  

In a 2015 study Leslie et al. “surveyed faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students (N = 1820) from 30 disciplines (12 STEM, 18 Social Science/Humanities) at geographically diverse high-profile public and private research universities across the United States” (Leslie, Cimpian, Meyer, & Freeland, 2015). Participants were asked to rate their agreement with four statements concerning what is required for success in their field.  The researchers found a strong inverse correlation between the extent to which a discipline valued innate “giftedness” as an essential factor for success, and the number of women and African-Americans holding Ph.D.’s in the field.  For example, Math and Philosophy have very strong cultures regarding the necessity of innate ability, and have very low number of women and African-American Ph.D.’s, whereas sociology, education, neuroscience, and molecular biology have and have relatively high representation of women and African-Americans in the fields (Leslie et al., 2015).

Key take-away from this study:

Disciplines and departments that convey the importance of innate intelligence over sustained hard work, create environments where women and African-Americans do not have a sense of belonging (as a result of stereotypes which assert the women and African Americans are inherently less intelligent).  If individuals are seeking to diversify their fields, the authors suggest that they minimize messages that convey notions of intellectual giftedness and highlight the importance of hard work and sustained effort as factors for success in the field (Leslie et al., 2015). This research is discussed in greater detail in the Mindset resource. [LINK]

URM Students

Walton and Cohen tested an intervention “to de-racialize the meaning of hardship in college and the doubt about belonging that it can trigger.” (Walton & Cohen, 2007, p. 94). First-year students in the study read stories that cast hardship and doubt in a more universal, less racially dependent light and that stressed the universality of difficulty for 1st year students.   Black students in the experimental condition reported a greater sense of “fit” on campus and an increase their belief that they could succeed in college.

The authors posit that “Black students in the treatment condition no longer globalized the implications of a bad day into a conclusion about their fitness for college.” p. 94.   Additionally, although Black students in the control condition showed a “sophomore slump” in their earned (relative to expected) GPA (similar to non-URM students), Black students in the treatment condition did not.

Key take-away from this study:

When URM students understand that academic hardship and self-doubt are experienced by most students at various points in their academic careers (regardless of URM status) they are less likely to view hardships and doubts as signs that they do not belong.  Greg Walton describes this intervention in this short video.

Hurtado and Carter examined the relationship between certain activities and behaviors and the sense of belonging of LatinX students in college.  They state:

“Our study developed the idea of membership in that the concept does not simply reflect behavior (participation or nonparticipation). If students make sense of their environments through memberships in multiple peer groups that help them acquire the skills they need in college…then particular activities and groups can both meet students’ immediate needs and link students to the larger whole of campus life. The best example comes from our finding that students who frequently discussed course work with other students outside class (in both the second and third years) had a higher sense of belonging in the third year of college.” (Hurtado & Carter, 1997, p. 338).

Key take away from this study:

For students from URM groups and LatinX students in particular, the engagement in group discussions of course-work outside of class fosters a broader sense of group cohesion (belonging) and enhances an individual’s sense of affiliation and identification with college.

1st Generation Students

Stephens et al. investigated an intervention to narrow the achievement gap between 1st generation students and those whose parents had attended college.

The researchers shared the real-life stories of seniors with incoming students about how their diverse backgrounds can shape what they experience in college. Compared to a standard intervention that provided similar stories of college adjustment without highlighting students’ different backgrounds, intervention in this study (called a difference-education intervention) eliminated the social-class achievement gap (as measured by end-of-year grade point average).  Additionally, the difference-education intervention increased first-generation students’ tendency to seek out college resources (including help from faculty) and also improved the college transition for all students on numerous psychosocial outcomes (e.g., mental health and engagement).

Key take away from this study:

As Stephens, et al. state: “The intervention provided students with the critical insight that people’s different backgrounds matter and that people with backgrounds like theirs can succeed when they use the right kinds of tools and strategies. Because first-generation students tend to experience a particularly difficult transition to college and confront background-specific obstacles that can undermine their opportunity to succeed.” (Stephens et al., 2014, p. 7). This intervention study is also described in the High-impact Practice: New Student Orientation.

Implementation Examples

Engineering teams, School of Mechanical and Systems Engineering (MSE), Newcastle University. In 2009-10 the School of Mechanical and Systems Engineering introduced a team-based model into the core curriculum for new students. On the first day of the first semester, the students were split into teams, with five students per team. Each team consisted of students with a range of previous academic performances. In addition, program organizers worked to ensure that the teams were as diverse as possible. Since the number of women in the program is traditionally, quite low – they made sure that any team with that included women, included at least 2 women. 

In an overview of the program, Thomas states, “In preparation for working as Engineering teams, all students took part in a team-building exercise during Induction Week aimed at encouraging team participation and communication. They were required to build a Lego construction. Only part of the team was allowed to see the model, meaning the team had to focus on communication skills and their ability to follow instructions. A further aim of this activity was the fostering of trust between team members. A tutor was allocated to each team with the expectation to meet on an approximately fortnightly basis. The teams were encouraged to sit together during lectures and to work together on any exercises given by the lecturer.”  (Thomas, 2012, p. 39).

Based on the results of a 2-year survey of participants, 72-83% of students (n= 134) felt that being part of an engineering team had helped them to feel that they ‘belong’ in the School. Students reported that the experience helped them make friends, identify academic support and integrate into the institution. While some experienced frustrations, students’ overall evaluation of teams is very positive. Of the 2009-10 cohort, 94% (n=100) of students remained in program the following year.  This is the highest percentage (and number) of students for the past 5 years for which data were available (Thomas, 2012).

University of Hull – Study Skills Summer School. The University of Hull in the United Kingdom has recently implemented a Study Skills Summer School as a way to promote social and academic belonging through the integration of social and academic structures. The University serves a variety of students, including non-residential, part-time, adult-learners.  Students whose lives are not centered on campus may have a particularly hard time developing a sense of belonging. The Summer School is a free, two-day, non-residential program.

The School offers lectures, seminars and practical tasks that focus on the development of academic study skills. These include sessions on critical and analytical thinking, note taking and essay writing, as well as scholarly referencing and plagiarism.  Lunch is provided each and provides opportunities for students to interact with peers, instructors and support staff. 

Preliminary program assessments indicate an improvement in retention rates at the university with only ~5% of students who attended the event withdrawing (Thomas, 2012).

Additional examples of effective belonging practices can be found in the Interventions section of the document, as well as in (Thomas, 2012).

MIT Examples

Behind the Scenes at MITProfessor Cathy Drennan in the Chemistry Department has developed a set of videos that illustrate the wide range of chemistry research and researchers at MIT. By focusing on the science being done at MIT by researchers from a range of demographics, students can better identify with chemists, and are helped to feel that they belong in the discipline.

Gender Parity in Mechanical Engineering at MIT.  In a 2017 paper by Xu and colleagues, they describe a wide range of deliberate practices that were implemented over two decades in order to achieve gender parity in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. The practices involved “three key allies: (1) the university admission office and its commitment to diversifying the overall undergraduate population, (2) the departmental faculty hiring decision-makers and their willingness to enact changes in the search process, and (3) the administrators and faculty members who not only acknowledge the existence of gender biases, but also care enough to challenge the status quo.” (Xu, Wendell, & Walsh, 2017).

By implementing these practices, the Mechanical Engineering Department was able increase the number of women undergraduates and faculty, and create a climate where more women (at all levels) feel that they belong and can “see themselves” as mechanical engineers.  While nationally approximately 13% of bachelor’s degrees go women, 49.5% of mechanical engineering bachelor’s degrees at MIT go to women. In addition, approximately one-third of the faculty and senior research staff in MIT’s Mechanical Engineering Department are women – a notable accomplishment, given the low national percentage of undergraduate mechanical engineering degrees that go to women (Xu et al., 2017).

MIT ConnectThis algorithm-driven site was developed by 2 MIT graduate students from EECS to help members of the MIT community meet other people with similar (platonic) interests.  The software matches participants and schedules meeting times and venues.  It helps members of the community connect with each other, feel less isolated, and promotes a sense of belonging among users. This project was funded by the MindHandHeart Initiative (Goodman, 2016).

Academic belonging can be supported by the following high-impact practices:

Caveats

There is little published research on specific risks associated with academic belonging interventions. Most of the issues described in the literature are associated with a lack of consistent effort and/or messaging around academic belonging. In those cases, the implementations are not reported to have a negative impact, rather no impact at all.

References

Cheryan, Plaut, Davies, & Steele. (2009). Ambient belonging: how stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 1045.

Eddy, & Hogan. (2014). Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work? CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453–468. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.14-03-0050

Folger, W., Carter, J., & Chase, P. (2004). Supporting First Generation College Freshman with Small Group Intervention. College Student Journal, 38(3), 472–475.

Freeman, S., Haak, D., & Wenderoth, M. (2011). Increased Course Structure Improves Performance in Introductory Biology. CBE Life Sciences Education, 10(Summer), 175–186.

Good, Rattan, & Dweck. (2012). Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women’s representation in mathematics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 700.

Hoffman, Richmond, Morrow, & Salomone. (2002). Investigating “Sense of Belonging” in First-Year College Students. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory and Practice, 4(3), 227–256. https://doi.org/10.2190/dryc-cxq9-jq8v-ht4v

Hurtado, Han, Sáenz, Espinosa, Cabrera, & Cerna. (2007). Predicting transition and adjustment to college: biomedical and behavioral science aspirants’ and minority students’ first year of college. Research in Higher Education, 48(7), 841–887. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-007-9051-x

Hurtado, S., & Carter, D. (1997). Effects of College Transition and Perceptions of the Campus Racial Climate on Latino College Students’ Sense of Belonging. Sociology of Education, 70(October), 324–345. https://doi.org/10.2307/2673270

Leslie, Cimpian, Meyer, & Freeland. (2015). Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Science, 347(6219), 262–265. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1261375

Lewis, Stout, Pollock, Finkelstein, & Ito. (2016). Fitting in or opting out: A review of key social-psychological factors influencing a sense of belonging for women in physics. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12, 020110.

Maslow. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0054346

Stephens, Hamedani, & Destin. (2014). Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap. Psychological Science, 25(4), 943–953. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613518349

Thomas, L. (2012). What works? – Student retention and success. Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change (Higher Education Academy.). Retrieved from https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/what_works_final_report.pdf

Tinto, V. (1997). Classrooms as communities: Exploring the educational character of student persistence. The Journal of Higher Education, 68(6), 599–623.

Tinto, V. (2003). Learning Better Together: The Impact of Learning Communities on Student Success. Higher Education Monograph Series.

Walton, & Cohen. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 82. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.92.1.82

Walton, & Cohen. (2011). A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students. Science, 331(6023), 1447–1451. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198364

Walton, Cohen, Cwir, & Spencer. (2012). Mere belonging: The power of social connections. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(3), 513. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025731

Wilson, Jones, Bocell, Crawford, Kim, Veilleux, … Plett. (2015). Belonging and Academic Engagement Among Undergraduate STEM Students: A Multi-institutional Study. Research in Higher Education, 56(7), 750–776. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-015-9367-x

Xu, K., Wendell, D., & Walsh, A. (2017). Getting to Gender Parity in a Top-Tier Mechanical Engineering Department: A Case Study. In Women in Engineering Division Technical Session 4. Columbus, OH. Retrieved from https://www.asee.org/public/conferences/78/papers/19081/view

Zumbrunn, S., McKim, C., Buhs, E., & Hawley, L. (2014). Support, belonging, motivation, and engagement in the college classroom: a mixed method study. Instructional Science, 42(5), 661–684. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11251-014-9310-0