Last Published 9/14/23
Social Belonging may not get as much attention as other socio-emotional factors like Growth Mindset or Grit, but the research indicates that it may be as important in promoting student success and reducing equity gaps. So what is Social Belonging? Whenever we enter a particular social context, we receive cues, both explicit and implicit, that affect our perceptions of belonging. Almost everyone experiences some sense of not belonging at some point in their lives (often labeled as imposter syndrome), but in the higher education context we know that students from underrepresented or negatively stereotyped groups tend to experience higher rates of belonging uncertainty than others (Walton & Cohen, 2007; Walton & Cohen, 2011). A closely related concept is Stereotype Threat, which is the additional stress and performance anxiety that historically marginalized groups feel in academic settings resulting from fears of proving prevalent, negative stereotypes correct (Steele & Aronson, 1995). And while there are many things that influence social belonging that may not be in our control (e.g., SES, parent support, personality attributes, peer support), the good news is that there are empirically-supported methods to increase social belonging in the classroom and reduce feelings of imposter syndrome and stereotype threat.
A 15-20 minute class assignment may be enough to reliably increase students’ feelings of social belonging. In one well-supported type of exercise, students read stories from other students who are near graduation that relate how they also experienced periods of belonging uncertainty but eventually overcame them and are now completing their successful path to graduation (For more details, see
Walton & Cohen, 2011 study and
Yeager et al., 2016 study. Students are then asked to write their own letters and stories—often told that they may also be used to help future students—incorporating ideas of how belonging uncertainty is normal and can be overcome. This intervention has been found to significantly increase GPA and retention, and especially so for historically under-represented students. This type of intervention has also been tested at high access, public institutions, like CSUF, with similar success (Murphy at al., 2020). Access the
materials used in these studies and how to implement them here.
Another empirically supported pedagogical technique is to relate your own story of feeling belonging uncertainty. Ideally you would want to relate an incident in a stage of life that your own students can most relate to (late adolescence/ young adulthood). The important part of the story is to be honest about what you felt and how you overcame it.
Once again, this helps to normalize these feelings and often allows for students to share their own stories of success with one another in a context where they may feel more comfortable doing so. And as a side note, I have deployed this intervention multiple times and have always found our students to be supportive and affirming of one another in ways that has been both heart-warming and also highly effective.
NOTE: We are NOT talking about the sort of social belonging in college that is more about school spirit and pride of affiliation. That type of school boosterism is fine and can certainly add enjoyment to the college experience, but there is no evidence that it improves academic outcomes.
Good, C., Aronson, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2003). Improving adolescents' standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24, 645-662.
Murphy, M. C., Gopalan, M., Carter, E. R., Emerson, K. T. U., Bottoms, B. L., & Walton, G. M. (2020) A customized belonging intervention improves retention of socially disadvantaged students at a broad-access university. Science Advances, 6, eaba4677.
Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811.
Walton, G. M. & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (1), 82–96. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.52
Walton, G. M. & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447–1451. Yeager, D. S.,
Walton, G. M., Brady, S. T., Akcinar, E. N., Paunesku, D., Keane, L., Kamentz, D., Ritter, G., Duckworth, A. L., Urstein, R., Gomez, E. M., Markus, H. R., Cohen, G. L., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113, E3341–E3348.