Do you Belong in College? How you Answer May Indicate How You’ll Fare

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College is an important time of transition for many students. They’re learning new things, meeting new people, and exploring new surroundings. But managing the many changes taking place isn’t always easy. That’s because with the many changes and opportunities also come challenges for students, and with that can come the feeling like they may not belong in their class, or even in college at all.

There are a range of reasons why students may not feel like they belong, and it varies widely from student to student. Some may be the first in their families to attend college. Some students may struggle with mental health issues. Some may simply find it difficult to make friends. And yet others still may have challenges with their financial situations. For these students, feeling like they do not belong, or are an “imposter” can hinder their academic success as well as their mental health, and overall well-being. Some students from traditionally underrepresented minority groups may also feel a sense of marginalization or stigmatization on campus. 

Research has demonstrated that students who feel like they belong are more likely to be engaged in their studies, perform better academically, and are more likely to stay in college and graduate. For example, a recent study found that students who report a higher sense of belonging at the end of the first year do better than their counterparts, persist more in their second and third years and have lower levels of mental health issues.

“Regardless of the reason, when students feel like they don't belong, the consequences can be detrimental,” said Macmillan Learning Research Specialist Sarah Gray. “It can impact the students’ future career opportunities and earning potential alongside society as a whole by creating higher levels of social inequality and race-based disparities in academic achievement.”

At Macmillan Learning our mission is to inspire what’s possible for every learner. That’s why we’ve been so interested in learning more about how having a sense of belonging impacts student performance, and whether courseware can have an impact. Most recently, we have been conducting research in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to learn more about digital tools that could foster a sense of belonging and the impact that may have on student success for underserved student populations.

What is Having a Sense of Belonging

Sense of belonging in the college settings refers to how students understand their role and their social fit in a collegeLeasa Quote (2).png environment. It goes beyond just physical presence on campus. Rather, it's a feeling that students have that they are part of a larger community, where they are valued, understood, and supported. It’s also about having social and cultural capital–understanding the social norms, shared values, and expected behaviors of college. Their sense of belonging can be enhanced through both social and academic interactions in their classrooms and institutions. 

According to Gray, an unfortunate reality is that underrepresented minority groups can report a weaker sense of belonging than their White peers on their campuses.  “Having a sense of belonging is not necessarily a binary issue, where students either feel like they belong or they don’t. Rather, it's a complex and dynamic feeling that can be influenced by a variety of factors, including social identity, campus climate, individual experiences and cultural norms,” said Gray.

She added that having a sense of belonging can be further complicated for underrepresented minority students by assumptions that they are coming into college with a deficit of the knowledge and skill needed to succeed, as well as the pressure to fit into the campus environment at the expense of their home culture.

There are three types of belonging that Macmillan Learning has been particularly interested in learning more about: students’ individual sense of belonging, their sense of belonging in a particular class, and their sense of belonging within college. 

Individual belonging reflects a student's overall sense of belonging within the college environment. It encompasses their feelings of social and academic fit and can be influenced by factors such as campus culture, social identity, personal experiences, and individual personality traits. Students who feel individual belonging may feel like they are valued for their unique perspectives, and that they are free to express themselves and explore their interests without fear of judgment or discrimination.

Belonging in class reflects a student's sense of connection and engagement within a specific course or academic program. It's having a sense of ownership over their learning and success in that course or program, and understanding how their classwork is helping them achieve their academic goals. A student who feels a strong sense of belonging in a particular class might feel comfortable speaking up in class discussions, collaborating with their peers on group projects or feel close with their instructor. 

Students may or may not feel like they belong at college at all, and it has to do with their sense of connection and belonging that expands beyond just their individual academic programs or their courses.This belonging encompasses their feelings of social and academic fit, as well as their sense of connection to the broader campus community and institutional values. Whether or not they feel like a welcome part of a larger community that shares similar values and goals.

Studying Sense of Belonging

Macmillan Learning’s Sense of Belonging and Metacognition study seeks to understand the impact of using digital tools like out-of-class peer learning, low-stakes quizzing, and routine sentiment check-ins embedded within a digital courseware platform, like Achieve, to improve students’ sense of belonging and metacognition skills. The study will also examine whether improved sense of belonging and metacognition skills are related to other student outcomes such as course retention, content knowledge and exam scores. 

The study is part of the company’s ongoing research about how digital learning platforms and courseware can help to close equity gaps in course completion for historically and presently underserved students, and students experiencing poverty. Initial research began in Spring 2023, and further research will take place in Fall 2023. 

“We believe that having a sense of belonging can have an impact, and are testing related digital courseware solutions that administrators, instructors and students said would be helpful. This will help us to see what works best in practice, what students will actually use, and how they will use it,” said Guido Gatti, Sr. Quantitative Research Analyst.

In the second part of this series, we’ll offer practical examples of tools and activities that instructors can use to help foster students’ sense of belonging both in and out of the classroom.