Students from under-represented and historically stigmatized social groups may experience greater worries than their peers about whether they will fit into a social or academic setting. This “belonging uncertainty” can be caused by various factors: under-representation on campus; perceived prejudice and actual prejudice directed at the student; and “stereotype threat,” which is the fear that one might confirm negative stereotypes about one’s social group.
When individuals are repeatedly asking themselves whether they belong or not, it can make inevitable setbacks and challenges feel like a sign they can never succeed. This diminishes motivation to engage and persist in school. Students ask fewer questions in class, study less often with others, and avoid office hours. As a result, their grades suffer. In one study, daily adversity—like not getting asked to a party or to the lunch table—seemed to African American students like a sign they didn’t belong. Later, this predicted lower grades in college.
The Mindset Scholars Network and other researchers have conducted studies on multiple college campuses showing that it is possible to stop belonging uncertainty from causing low grades. In a prominent study by Network scholars Greg Walton and Geoff Cohen, college students participated in an exercise in which they were shown survey data indicating that all incoming freshmen wonder at first whether they will belong, regardless of race. They then read stories about how upperclassmen had come to get integrated into the college. This message made African American students feel less like they were the only ones to wonder about their potential to succeed. Later, experiences of daily adversity were less likely to cause them to question their belonging. Amazingly, their GPAs and overall health and well-being improved at a 3-year follow-up period.
These studies do not dismiss the realities of isolation, bias, and discrimination. Some programs being developed by network scholars Nicole Stephens and Mesmin Destin explicitly address differences across social groups. Future research will look at how institutions can change their cultures and practices to enhance under-represented students’ sense of belonging on campus. Nevertheless, programs like the one above show that there is much more to college achievement gaps than differences in preparation or motivation or ability. Instead, it seems as though a major part of racial/ethnic group differences has to do with the previously unnoticed ways in which students make sense of everyday events. When an intervention makes students feel less like those events mean they can’t succeed, then they do better.
The following studies describe various approaches that researchers have developed to boost students’ sense of belonging in a number of settings:
- Garcia, J., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A Social Psychological Perspective on Educational Intervention. In The Behavioral Foundations of Policy, E. Shafir, ed.
- Stephens, N. M., Hamedani, M. G., & Destin, M. (2014). Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap: A Difference-Education Intervention Improves First-Generation Students’ Academic Performance and All Students’ College Transition. Psychological Science, 25, 943-953.
- Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A Question of Belonging: Race, Social Fit, and Achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 82-96.
- Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.
Greg Walton has also pulled together a set of guidelines for individuals looking to incorporate elements of belonging interventions into their campuses. Individuals can also explore the work of the College Transition Collaborative, a Mindset Scholars Network-affiliated research / practice initiative to design, evaluate, and scale programs like the belonging interventions featured here.