B is for Belonging

Last week, I wrote a post reviewing the book The ABCs of How We Learn. The book provides a ton of information about learning science, including practical advice about how to incorporate strategies based on this science in our classrooms. After I wrote that post, I had a meeting on campus with Amanda Grazioso (Director of Residential Life) and Gail Mears (Academic Dean) to discuss the development of learning communities in the dorms for first year students in the upcoming fall semester. The conversation with Amanda and Gail reminded me of the most surprising chapter in the book, the chapter called “B is for Belonging.”

As you might guess, “B is for Belonging” discusses the learning benefits that come from belonging to a community. The authors say, “Belonging is the perception of  being accepted, valued, and included. Belonging can help learning by increasing effort and decreasing negative distracting thoughts (p. 12).”

The authors go on to say, “Learning is social. It takes place in social contexts, such as classrooms and workplaces (p. 13).” Individuals perceive themselves (and others) to be members of various social groups. And when an individual does not feel like they belong to a group associated positively with learning, it can have a negative impact on their own actual learning. For example, when a student doesn’t feel they belong in college, this can have significant negative impacts on their ability to succeed in college, especially when that feeling is reinforced by others (such as an unsupportive teacher). Many teachers are supportive but have a difficult time recognizing that belonging may be an issue for some students. “They never encountered the problem themselves and cannot recognize the student’s anxiety. … Without support for a sense of belonging, there can be a loss of engagement, anxiety, and avoidance (p. 14).”

Another way a sense of belonging can negatively affect learning is through stereotype threat. For example, there is a stereotype that women are not good at math. “Even though the stereotype has no basis in fact, it can still cause the woman to dwell on whether she belongs to the group that does well at math (p. 14).” This distraction takes cognitive resources away from math learning and can lead to poorer performance and learning. Without the anxiety, the woman would do just fine in the math class. “The negative social attribution causes the poor performance, not anything about the woman’s math abilities (p. 14).”

The obvious solution is to help people see that they do belong. How can we do that? The authors suggest two types of interventions: 1. shift the individual’s perceptions about whether they belong, and 2. change the environment and social structure to facilitate social connection and belonging. Any intervention should recognize that individuals belong to multiple social groups and should never ask someone to forego their membership in one group to become part of another.

The main way to shift an individual’s perceptions about whether they belong is to help them “reframe beliefs about their place in a community, particularly when it comes to setbacks. People can misinterpret short-term failure as reflecting that they do not belong, when in fact it may be very common to the group (p. 15).” The authors describe a study (by Walton and Cohen in 2011) in which some first year college students read survey results where seniors described their own struggles with belonging. This one-hour intervention cut the achievement gap for African American students by 79%. The authors mention several other studies that show targeted interventions can make a positive difference in an individual’s performance. For example, Spencer, Steele, and Quinn in 1999 found that telling a group of women that a challenging math test was gender-fair and would not produce differences in performance based on gender resulted in women doing as well as men on the test. Stanford University has published a list of “empirically validated strategies” for reducing  stereotype threat.

The second strategy for improving students’ sense of belonging involves changing the environment. “This can occur at the level of the whole classroom, the relationship between student and teacher, and the relationships among students (p. 17).” Engaging the entire class in the development of shared classroom goals, norms, and values can increase individual students’ sense of belonging to that classroom. Research (Goodenow in 1993; Osterman in 2000) shows that a caring relationship between teacher and student increases the student’s sense of belonging. To me, the most surprising study that the authors mention is one by Master and Walton in 2013. Their work showed that just the perception of belonging to a group increased the motivation and persistence for learning among preschoolers. Identifying with the group “increased persistence, even though the children never saw any other members of the group (p. 19).” Walton, Cohen, Cwir, and Spencer showed similar results for adults in a 2012 study.

Based on the National Survey of Student Engagement results (which I previously wrote about), I think PSU seniors have developed a sense of belonging at the University. I’m interested in how we can create that sense of belonging in our first year students. As I said earlier, Residential Life is thinking about ways to create learning communities within the dorms. I think this is a great step. But I’m also interested in thinking about what instructors can do in their individual classrooms to create community. Some departments work hard to create a sense of community for their majors, both in their introductory classes and outside of the classroom. The First Year Seminar Fellows talked about this quite a bit as we were preparing our sections to be taught this year. I think these are also important steps. But I also think we are missing an opportunity if we don’t try to create community in ALL of our classes, including General Education classes. As individuals trying to positively impact the success of ALL of our students, a great place to start is to improve the environment so that students feel that they belong at PSU.

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