Everyone has a memory about feeling lost on the first day of school — figuratively or literally. Whether it’s trying to find your first-ever locker at the start of middle school or stepping onto a giant college campus for the first day of classes, studies have documented how that sense of isolation can go on to diminish students’ ability to succeed academically.
If worrying about belonging is powerful enough to be a learning roadblock for students, does that mean that a potential solution is compassion?
Yes, it can be, according to two groups of researchers who have tested how programs aimed at fostering belonging have impacted students’ academic performances.
Their studies take a look at how simple assignments that ask participants to read about how other older students have felt out-of-place at school — the first year of middle school and first year of college, to be precise — can build resistance to that sneaky inner voice that says, “I don’t belong here.”
If anyone knows the importance of belonging, it’s Columbia University instructor Marcelle Mentor, who grew up as a Black child under apartheid in South Africa. Mentor is now part of the faculty at the university’s Teachers College, where one of her research areas is education equity.
She says it all comes down to the basic human need to feel cared for and to be part of a community.
“Even at institutions like the Teachers College, a predominantly white institution, for our students of color, for our faculty of color, we often hear these phrases that say things like, ‘These institutions are not made for us, they were not designed for us, and so we don’t fit,’” Mentor says. “Which is why a child who plays sports at school, or a kid that’s in a debate team with a caring educator, will do better in their academics than someone who is isolated from that.”
Middle School Blues
It’s not just your imagination. Middle school is awful.
That’s partly because, according to researchers, students are transitioning to a stage in their education where grades and academic competition between students make a marked difference between who is doing well in school and who is not.
This “can encourage harmful social comparisons among students as they are forming their academic identities,” write a pair of researchers from Stanford University and Arizona State University.
The study asked students in their first year of middle school to read and respond to first-person vignettes of past students, who wrote about their worries about fitting in with their peers.
They found that students who participated in the activity worried less about how they would fare (both academically and with making friends) in the future, compared to students who didn’t take part in the reading exercise. The participant student group also saw slight improvements in their GPAs and earned fewer Ds and Fs than their peers.
Researchers also named what they didn’t find: The exercises didn’t have a bigger or smaller impact for any particular racial or ethnic group of students.
If it seems too simple a solution to be effective, the researchers say that “social-psychological ‘quick-win’ interventions such as this one are not ‘magic.’”
“Their power lies in enabling small yet precise changes in individuals’ beliefs and perceptions at critical junctures in life, allowing for recursive processes to shape these small gains into bigger ones,” the paper states.
Mentor is inclined to agree with the sentiment, saying that storytelling has long been a tool for building connections.
“I can explain to you what my journeys look like,” she says. “Often that is how somebody else can see a glimmer of their own life reflected, and be able to take something from that.”
Reversing the Freshman Funk
When a student lacks a sense of belonging, it’s a sign that they might struggle to make progress in their college program, according to a study published in the May issue of Science.
One challenge researchers outlined is that uncertainty about belonging at college impacts groups differently, particularly students who are ethnic minorities or first-generation college students. Their aim was to find ways to help these groups to continue their studies after the first year of college, when many freshmen are at risk of dropping out.
“The history and reality of racism and social-class exclusion in higher education means that everyday challenges such as feeling excluded or having a hard time finding a lab partner can take on a racialized or social class-laden meaning for specific identity groups: ‘People like me don’t belong here,’” the researchers explain. “Because such fixed, global attributions can become self-confirming, it is important to forestall them.”
The group of 37 researchers conducted a dozen randomized controlled experiments with nearly 27,000 undergraduate students at 22 institutions.
Some of the students were selected to take part in a 30-minute online writing assignment before starting classes, where they read the firsthand experiences of older students who reassured them that “feeling homesick, struggling academically, or having difficulty interacting with professors” are normal parts of the college experience. They are also asked to express in writing how they feel about starting college and describe how they might deal with these issues as they arise.
Researchers noted that this strategy to increase students’ sense of belonging only worked at colleges where students had opportunities to connect with other people on campus. That could be social events where students could make friends or finding professors willing to serve as mentors.
But what about events like freshman orientation? Aren’t those sufficient to make students feel a part of the community?
Mentor responds with a story.
When she first arrived in the United States, it took some time to realize that people who asked, “How are you?” meant it as a casual greeting rather than a true question of concern about her well-being.
“I would stop to start saying how I am. So in my culture, I would answer the question,” Mentor recalls. But in the U.S., “the person would say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ and keep walking.”
That’s a bit like what college orientations are like for freshmen, by her comparison: mandatory practices meant to check things off a list. To make sure students know how to get from point A to B.
“And I think that the humanity is missing in these orientations that we have,” Mentor says. “When I tell my students at orientation, ‘If you need something, reach out,’ my invitation is genuine. If we are honest and genuine about creating spaces of belonging, then we should do more than pay lip service.”