Everyone has a memory of feeling lost on the first day of school, figuratively or literally. Whether it’s trying to find your first locker at the start of high school or entering a giant college campus for the first day of school, studies have documented how that sense of isolation can diminish students’ ability to succeed academically.
If worrying about belonging is powerful enough to be an obstacle to student learning, does that mean compassion is a possible solution?
Yes, it can be, according to two groups of researchers who have tested how programs designed to promote belonging have impacted the academic performance of students.
Their studies look at how simple tasks that ask participants to read about how other older students have felt out of place in school (freshman year of middle school and freshman year of college, to be precise) can generate resistance to it. sly 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 girl under apartheid South Africa. Mentor is now on the faculty of the university’s Teachers College, where one of her research areas is educational 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 Teachers College, a predominantly white institution, for our students of color, for our faculty of color, we often hear phrases that say things like: ‘These institutions are not made for us, they were not designed for us, so what we don’t fit,’” says Mentor. “That’s why a kid who plays sports in school, or a kid who’s on a debate team with a caring educator, will do better academically than someone who’s isolated from that.”
high school blues
It’s not just your imagination. High school is horrible.
That’s partly because, researchers say, students are moving to a stage in their education where grades and academic competition among students make a stark difference between who’s doing well in school and who’s not.
This “may encourage harmful social comparisons among students as they form their academic identities,” write a pair of researchers from Stanford University and Arizona State University.
The study asked high school freshmen to read and respond to first-person vignettes by former students, who wrote about their concerns about fitting in with their peers.
They found that students who participated in the activity worried less about how they would do (both academically and making friends) in the future, compared to students who did not participate in the reading exercise. The participating group of students also saw slight improvements in their GPAs and earned fewer D’s and F’s than their peers.
The researchers also mentioned what they didn’t find: The exercises had no major or minor impact for any particular racial or ethnic group of students.
If it seems too simple a solution to be effective, the researchers say that “‘quick win’ social-psychological interventions like this are not ‘magic’.”
“Its power lies in enabling small but precise changes in people’s beliefs and perceptions at critical moments in life, allowing recursive processes to transform these small achievements into larger ones,” the paper states.
Mentor is inclined to agree with the sentiment, saying storytelling has long been a tool for building connections.
“I can explain to you what my trips are like,” she says. “Often this is how someone else can see a glimpse of their own life reflected back and be able to take something from it.”
Reversing the freshman funk
When a student lacks a sense of belonging, it’s a sign that they might struggle to progress in their college program, according to a study published in the May issue of Science.
One challenge the researchers described is that uncertainty about college membership affects groups differently, particularly students who are ethnic minorities or first-generation college students. His goal was to find ways to help these groups continue their studies after their 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 left out or having difficulty finding a lab partner, can take on racial or social class significance for identity groups. specific: ‘People like me don’t belong here,’” the researchers explain. “Because such fixed global attributions can become self-confirming, it is important to prevent them.”
The group of 37 researchers conducted a dozen randomized controlled experiments with nearly 27,000 college students at 22 institutions.
Some of the students were selected to participate in a 30-minute online writing assignment before school, where they read first-hand experiences from older students who reassured them that “feeling homesick, struggling academically, or having difficulty interacting with the teachers” is normal. parts of the college experience. They are also asked to express in writing how they feel about starting college and to describe how they might address these issues as they arise.
The researchers noted that this strategy to increase students’ sense of belonging only worked at universities where students had opportunities to connect with others on campus. That could be social events where students can make friends or find teachers willing to serve as mentors.
But what about events like freshman orientation? Are they not enough to make students feel part of the community?
Mentor responds with a story.
When she first came to the United States, it took her a while to realize that people who ask, “How are you?” she said it as a casual greeting rather than a genuine question of concern for her well-being.
“I would stop to start saying how I am. So, in my culture, I would answer the question,” recalls Mentor. But in the US, “the person would say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ and he keeps walking.”
By comparison, that’s a bit like college orientations for freshmen: required practices aimed at checking off things on a list. To make sure students know how to get from point A to B.
“And I think there is a lack of humanity in these guidelines that we have,” says Mentor. “When I tell my students at orientation, ‘If you need anything, please reach out,’ my invitation is genuine. If we are honest and genuine about creating spaces of belonging, then we should be doing more than just paying lip service.”