Students learn better when they feel they belong — they are more likely to persist and succeed. Here’s my summary of some pedagogical research on belonging, and some ideas to try out next semester.

Acknowledgment: This post summarizes a chapter in The ABCs of How We Learn [1]. Its authors deserve the credit.

Why does belonging matter?

Belonging is the perception of being accepted, valued, and included. Belonging can help learning by increasing effort and decreasing negative distracting thoughts [1].

Belonging has been shown to drive middle-school students’ expectations of success and improve undergraduates’ persistence at solving math puzzles.

When is belonging threatened?

Belonging and performance are threatened by stereotypes. A student might feel they don’t belong at Cornell even though they have been accepted, or don’t belong in a major even though they have affiliated, or don’t belong in a class even though they have met the prerequisites. Race and gender identity have impacts: Asking for a racial identification before an exam caused Black undergraduates’ performance to drop, and priming women to believe that a math test was gender-fair caused their performance to rise.

How can we improve belonging?

First, be aware: negative beliefs about belonging can be reinforced when teachers and peers are unsupportive.

Second, create a community of belonging. Take a few minutes in your first lecture to emphasize that students do belong in the learning community of your class. Help students to reframe setbacks so that they aren’t a reason for exclusion, but an opportunity to grow. Build trust and establish relationships. Be active, visible, and kind in online forums such as Ed. Listen to and acknowledge what students have to say. Be authentic: interventions that feel manipulative are likely to further alienate students.

Here are some additional concrete steps:

  • Early in the course, survey students to find out their perspectives on what it means to be a “good student.” Show their results. Show your own perspectives. Talk frankly about the differences that appear.
  • Ask TAs or course alumni to write messages or record videos about times they struggled and how they overcame. Post those to students.
  • Give an assignment in which students write about their most cherished values, and how those apply to the class. Synthesize those and report back.
  • After midterm course evaluations, devote a few minutes in class to discussing the results and what you want to change — and what you cannot change.
  • More ideas…

What to learn more?

Read [1], on which this post is based. It has about 10 more citations to research on why belonging matters and how it can be improved. For more recent observations, read [2], which is based on a survey involving about 300 faculty and 10,000 students.

[1] The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them. Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica M. Tsang, and Kristen P. Blair. Norton, 2016.

[2] Increasing Equity in College Student Experience: Findings from a National Collaborative. The Student Experience Project. [pdf]