Wide Angle

Classroom Intervention Fosters Belonging, Supports Academic Success

A new intervention—the Belonging Initiative—developed by Dietrich School researchers, is helping to ensure that all students feel more at home in our classrooms.

“There is a growing awareness amongst researchers and administrators in higher education that cultivating a sense of belonging is critical for students' success. However, many students contend with doubts about belonging, particularly students from underrepresented and minority (URM) backgrounds,” explains Kevin Binning, an assistant professor in the Dietrich School’s Department of Psychology and one of the researchers leading the initiative.

“When I began teaching Foundations of Biology, I knew it was regarded as a 'weed-out' course in which students believed that ‘not everybody is good enough to make it,’” remembers Erica McGreevy, a lecturer in the school’s Department of Biological Sciences. McGreevy and her departmental colleague, senior lecturer Nancy Kaufmann, were concerned to find that many of the students who did poorly in the course were members of URM groups. Kaufmann connected McGreevy with Binning and other researchers within the University’s Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) who were developing methods to support URM students.

“From this group, I learned that there’s a lot of research to suggest that one of the causes of the achievement gap that we were seeing is that URM students experience a lower sense of belonging in science due to cultural stereotypes about who belongs and who succeeds in science,” says McGreevy.

Together, the team designed and implemented the Belonging Initiative, a psychosocial intervention “to mitigate the effects of stereotype threat, imposter syndrome, and other psychological pressures that may contribute to the racial achievement gap in Foundations of Biology,” says McGreevy.

The core idea behind the Belonging Initiative, says Binning, is that a student’s perspective on adversity is malleable. Students with belonging uncertainty may see common hurdles—for example, an unexpectedly bad grade—as evidence that they do not belong. “Instead of seeing adversity as unique to them and permanent, we try to train students that experiencing adversity is common, if not universal, and temporary,” he explains.

“This intervention uses reflective writing, student testimonials and group discussion to socially validate the idea that anxiety about belonging is normal but will dissipate over time,” McGreevy explains. “By presenting challenges as normal and surmountable, students can develop a positive mindset in which they believe that everyone struggles sometimes, but that everyone can also improve through hard work and persistence.”

The initial intervention was implemented over four semesters and included 1,200 biology students. The outcomes were encouraging: The intervention raised the performance of minority students, and all students who received the intervention had improved attendance and one-year college persistence rates.

As McGreevy and Binning shared the results of their work around campus, Chandralekha Singh, a professor in the Dietrich School’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and director of the Discipline-based Science Education Research Center (dB-SERC), saw potential applications to physics courses.

“Physics as a discipline has stereotypes about who can excel in it. This disadvantages women and students from racial and ethnic minority groups,” she explains. “The intervention was to make sure all students felt they belonged in the physics class.”

Binning was awarded the dB-SERC Course Transformation Award for the physics intervention, through which, as in the first study, “intervention classrooms did a little better in the class overall, but women in the intervention classrooms did substantially better,” he says.

“We are very encouraged by the outcomes,” says Singh.

The Belonging Initiative approach is novel because students are the vehicle for the intervention. Binning notes, “When students are granted an opportunity to freely discuss the challenges and uncertainties that they experience in college, the core message of the intervention—that struggles are common and temporary—becomes self-evident, even if when it is not explicitly stated.” The team argues that this allows the intervention message to become a classroom norm that students can use to build authentic and supportive relationships with one another.

“Students tend to think that they’re alone in their struggles,” says McGreevy. “There’s something about giving them the opportunity to talk about it with each other that relieves their anxiety because they realize that they’re not alone and that everyone feels the same way!”

Binning agrees. “My collaborator, Omid Fotuhi, has described the effect for many students as ‘like water on parched earth,’” he says. “For many students, the intervention message is revelatory and profound.”

In 2019, the faculty members were awarded the Provost’s Award for Diversity in the Curriculum for the intervention.

Binning cautions that this intervention is not a magic bullet that will fix all problems. “As we continue to scale up the intervention, we want to understand why some students and classrooms may benefit more than others, which we think we can use to make the intervention even more effective.”

McGreevy and Binning encourage faculty members who are interested in implementing the intervention to reach out to them.

“Instructor mindset is so incredibly important because students can tell if their instructor doesn't believe in them,” notes McGreevy. “If instructors communicate their beliefs with students and make it clear that they believe that every single student has what it takes to succeed, then the students are more likely to believe it, too.”

“One anecdote can help illustrate,” says Binning. “After giving a talk, I had a conversation with a faculty member who told me that, as a college student, he had actually failed the first exam in the class he is now teaching. He was curious if he thought it would be helpful for his students for him to tell them that. I said, ‘Absolutely!’ It is very powerful for students to know that even successful people were not always successful—that early struggles and failures can be overcome and, in fact, can sometimes provide the fire people need to be successful. This can change the way they see their own failures and struggles. “

Intervention scripts are published on the Open Science Foundation platform and a manuscript describing the intervention can be found here.