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Students with a sense of belonging in school feel socially connected, supported, and respected. They trust their teachers and their peers, and they feel a sense of fit at school. They are not worried about being treated as a stereotype and are confident that they are seen as a person of value.
Why it matters
Students who are confident they belong and are valued by their teachers and peers are able to engage more fully in learning. They have fewer behavior problems, are more open to critical feedback, take greater advantage of learning opportunities, build important relationships, and generally have more positive attitudes about their classwork and teachers. In turn, they are more likely to persevere in the face of difficulty and do better in school.
When students are uncertain about whether they belong, they are vigilant for cues in the environment that signal whether or not they belong, fit in, or are welcome there. They may also be concerned about confirming a negative stereotype about their group. This hyper-vigilance and extra stress uses up cognitive resources that are essential for learning, diminishing their performance and discouraging them from building valuable relationships.
Below is an example of how students’ sense of belonging can shape their responses to adversity in school
Students from underrepresented or negatively stereotyped groups may worry about whether people like them are accepted by their peers and teachers
Sometimes, students may question whether or not they belong in their classroom or school. These questions about belonging are most common among students from negatively stigmatized groups. These students are aware that they are underrepresented in a particular environment and recognize that negative stereotypes exist about their group. Claude Steele has compared this to the feeling of being told there is a snake in your house. It could be anywhere and it could harm you, but it also might not; regardless, you are constantly on the lookout.
These students are forced to split their attention between assessing their belonging and focusing on the learning task at hand
When students have questions about their belonging, they search for cues in their environment to signal whether or not they fit in and are valued by others at school. When things are going well in school, they feel like they do belong. But when they experience adversity, their sense of belonging can decrease.
This vigilance to cues of whether or not they belong can become distracting and undermine performance. Cognitive resources that would otherwise be used to focus on learning are instead used to figure out if they belong. Because questions about belonging undermine performance and are more pervasive and persistent for students from underrepresented and stigmatized groups, they contribute to achievement gaps.
What we’ve learned about how to alleviate questions about Belonging
Studies show that brief programs can help alleviate students’ worries about fit and belonging. These programs acknowledge and normalize students’ worries about belonging and explain how these concerns can lessen with time. In recent years, researchers have also learned more about the instructional and institutional practices that make students confident they are an accepted member of their school community.
Direct-to-student programs and changes in instructional and institutional practices have been linked to long-term gains in academic performance and reductions in achievement gaps on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, and being the first in one’s family to go to college.
Effective programs help students understand and normalize questions about belonging
Programs that help reduce concerns about belonging have been particularly effective at reducing achievement gaps. In some of these programs, students read findings from a survey of more senior students. The findings that are presented show that everyone questions their belonging during academic transitions, but that these concerns typically lessen over time. They also include quotes from more senior students that specifically address their worries, such as:
“As excited as I was to come here, I must admit that part of me thought I had been accepted due to a stroke of luck, and that I would not measure up to the other students. Early on, I bombed a test. It was the worst grade I’d ever received, and I felt terrible and isolated. But then, I found out I wasn’t the only one. No one did well on that test. It was really hard—the professor was trying to set a high standard. He knew it’d be tough, but he knew that if we worked hard we could get to that level. It wasn’t for some time that I believed that I was up to par and could totally hold my own. But eventually I did, and this place started to feel more like home. Though I still have doubts about myself sometimes, I know they’re the kinds of things everybody feels on occasion.”
After students read the survey results and student quotes, they write about how their own experience is similar to those of the students they read about. They are told that their experiences will be shared with future students making a similar transition. Similar to other mindset interventions, this writing exercise helps students internalize the key message of the program and makes participation an honor rather than a remediation.
Other programs educate students from underrepresented groups (e.g., first-generation college students) about how their backgrounds may affect their experiences in school. The “difference-education” program emphasizes how students’ social-class backgrounds can be sources of challenge and strength, and provides students with strategies for how to navigate the transition to college successfully and how these might differ depending on their social-class background.
For example, incoming students heard a first-generation college student respond to the question, “Can you provide an example of an obstacle that you faced when you came to [this university] and how you resolved it?” in the following way:
“Because my parents didn’t go to college, they weren’t always able to provide me the advice I needed. So it was sometimes hard to figure out which classes to take and what I wanted to do in the future. But there are other people who can provide that advice, and I learned that I needed to rely on my adviser more than other students.”
Belonging programs have reduced achievement gaps significantly
Programs that mitigate questions of belonging have reduced racial achievement gaps in college grade point average (for example, see Figure 2), decreased gaps between first- and continuing-generation college students’ achievement, reduced gender gaps in STEM courses, reduced disciplinary citations in middle school, and even improved African American students’ health and happiness in college and their life and career satisfaction years later.
Instructional practices that promote trust and enhance belonging also have long-lasting effects on student outcomes
Researchers have also tested certain instructional practices that improve belonging among students from negatively stereotyped groups. One study examined the effect of teachers’ critical feedback on 7th graders’ academic behaviors. When the teacher’s criticism on an essay was accompanied by a message that conveyed high standards and assurances that they were confident the student could meet those standards, African American students were over four times as likely to revise and resubmit the essay than if they received the criticism alone; this type of feedback also improved the quality of students’ revisions.
Re-building trust during a critical developmental window can have long-lasting effects. Follow-up on these same students showed that students who received a personal note that built trust with a teacher in 7th grade were more likely to enroll in a 4-year college immediately after graduating from high school compared to those who did not receive the note.
Institutional actions can also affect students’ sense of belonging
Researchers have begun exploring how institutional policies and practices can shape students’ sense of belonging–and how they can be modified to support students’ sense of belonging. One area of recent study is students’ experience of being placed on academic probation, which can provoke feelings of shame and stigma that lead students to disengage from the academic environment. Changing the content of academic probation letters to clearly signal the institution’s ongoing respect for and valuing of the student, acknowledge the real challenges students may face, and emphasize probation as a process and the potential to return to good academic standing has been found to reduce students’ feelings of shame and stigma. This modified communication increased the likelihood that students took advantage of academic supports available on campus. In one sample, the revised letter raised students’ likelihood of returning to good academic standing from 26% to 43%.
Learn more about Belonging
This Research Summary synthesizes what we know about Belonging from years of scientific research.
Studying Belonging in Education: A Conversation with Claude Steele, Mary Murphy, and Gregory Walton
In this video, Lisa Quay discusses the science of belonging with Professors Claude Steele, Mary Murphy, and Greg Walton.
Mindset Programs that Forecast Common Challenges Prior to the Transition to College Can Reduce Achievement Gaps
This Research Brief summarizes the findings from three studies that explore whether online programs delivered before college can effectively prepare students for challenges they may face during the transition to college.
This Issue Brief shares what researchers have learned about how belonging concerns affect gender representation in the physical sciences and engineering (pSTEM) and how we can use this understanding to increase women’s participation in these fields.
This Research Summary presents the findings of a study that explored how teachers can foster greater trust and improved academic outcomes, particularly among students of color, in the process of providing critical feedback to students on their schoolwork.
Exploring Differences in Background Can Promote Greater Equality in Outcomes
This Research Summary describes a study that positively impacted first-generation students’ college performance when exposed to a brief intervention discussing their backgrounds and previous experiences.
A Company I Can Trust? Organizations’ Mindsets About Ability Shape Women’s Experience of Stereotype Threat At Work
This Research Brief summarizes the findings from multiple studies on the way perceived organizational mindsets can influence individuals’ behavior and experiences at work.