One benefit of being part of the College Innovation Network (CIN) is the opportunity to join Partnership in Practice virtual calls. Recently CIN hosted Dr. Geoffrey Cohen for a session on student belonging.

Dr. Cohen holds a Ph.D. and multiple titles from Stanford University. He is currently the James G. March Professor of Organizational Studies in Education and Business, Professor of Psychology, and, by courtesy, of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business. Additionally, Dr. Cohen is the author of Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides.

Why student belonging matters

According to Dr. Cohen, belonging is “the sense that you’re accepted and respected in a domain.” During the Partnership in Practice session, Dr. Cohen shared the significant role belonging plays in education. For educators, creating moments of belonging with students can feel magical. Conversely, not feeling as if you belong can be detrimental. Dr. Cohen discussed the research of psychologist Kip Williams and his colleagues who have conducted research with a program called Cyberball that has shown exclusion can lead to feeling higher levels of stress and feelings of not being in control of your own life. Something as subtle as being excluded from a computer game (the game is programmed not to pass the ball to the participant) results in a meaningful disruption to the participant’s sense of belonging. This disruption in turn leads to downward consequences in their real lives. So powerful is the need to belong that even a slight interference can fundamentally alter our experiences and abilities to focus, engage, and perform.

Dr. Cohen also talked about the ways students from under-resourced or marginalized communities can feel excluded more often. It’s an idea he first learned from Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Dr. DiAngelo labeled this a downpour of negative cultural messages. In his book, Dr. Cohen combines this idea from Dr. DiAngelo with the idea from sociologist Erving Goffman that as individuals, we may all be unwitting vectors for legacies of discrimination and sexism.

According to Dr. Cohen, the two ideas together mean that individuals can become psychological shelters to protect other people. He shared three practices to foster greater psychological resilience among students and increase belonging in higher education.

1. Help students feel seen

According to Dr. Cohen, one key aspect of the student experience is acceptance by others. Students want to feel seen for their whole selves, which includes their identities that extend beyond the academic realm. He went on to say that faculty members and advisors can use values and affirmations to help students feel seen.

Dr. Cohen encouraged faculty members or advisors to use the following steps, which come from the work of social psychologist Claude Steel:

  • Ask students to write down two to three values that are most important to them
  • Ask students to explain why these values are important

By providing students the chance to present their authentic selves, faculty show that they care about their students. Students then feel deeper trust and exhibit a greater willingness to engage with the faculty and peers in the course. These factors also have the potential to improve students' performance in the course, especially among Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students as well as other students who may experience the downpour of negative messages. In empirical studies testing these interventions, students who engage in these value and affirmation exercises can acheive higher grades, are less likely to be assigned remedial classes, and are more likely to be placed in college readiness programs compared to control groups who did not engage in these exercises.

2. Help students see their potential

The next practice Dr. Cohen talked about was helping students see that other people believe in them and that performance feedback is intended to support their growth. For many students, conveying this belief can have an incredible impact. Dr. Cohen shared the results of research he and his team conducted around this idea.

In the research, students were asked to write an essay. Each essay was graded as it normally would be by a teacher or faculty member. But in the treatment group, a note was appended to the feedback. The note said, “I’m giving you these comments because I have high standards, and I know that you can meet them.” After the essays were returned, all students were provided the choice to rewrite the essay or stick with what they turned in initially.

The handwritten note was transformative, according to Dr. Cohen. For example, among Black students who received the note, 71% chose to rewrite their essays. In contrast, only 17% of students in the control group chose to redo the assignment.

While discussing the results of the research, Dr. Cohen said he and his team believe that the note acted not only as an explicit expression of the educators’ high standards but also an assurance of their confidence in students to achieve those expectations. According to the research, this combination transforms feedback that could be perceived as criticism into an affirmation of a student’s potential. Dr. Cohen’s research further suggests that the note, and feedback like it, can fight back against subtle negative messages that make students question their own potential.  

3. Let students know they are not alone

The final practice Dr. Cohen discussed was one aimed at helping students realize they are not alone in what they are going through. Dr. Cohen said that colleges and universities can make a big impact by normalizing feelings of uncertainty, showing students that someone else understands their circumstances, and reinforcing that circumstances students face are surmountable.

To drive home the message that students are not alone, Dr. Cohen suggests having older students share about their experiences with younger ones. He discussed a study where his team recruited a group of senior and junior students to record stories about the common experiences of uncertainty and struggle during the transition to college, and how those feelings changed over time. Those stories were then shared with first-year students.

Within the stories, two central themes emerged:

  • First, it’s normal for a student to feel like they don't belong, especially during initial moments of transition.
  • Second, these feelings get better over time.

The exercise not only empowered students and destigmatized the need to ask for help, but it also boosted academic performance. Dr. Cohen explained that even though this activity lasted just one hour, his team found that it lifted the grades of students of color, not only for their first year but for all four years of their college experience.

Dr. Cohen closed the session by noting that many of the exercises and studies he shared centered on small gestures. While small, these acts can make a significant difference in students’ sense of belonging as well as their academic performance.