Study: A culture of belonging can improve academic outcomes

College students report more positive learning experiences and achieve higher grades when faculty use equity-based resources to foster a culture of belonging, according to a new study. Published by the Student Experience Project (SEP)—a coalition of universities, researchers, and national organizations—the study finds that faculty, too, feel a greater sense of belonging at their institution when they have institutional support to improve their students’ learning experiences.

Related: 5 opportunities to build first-gen students’ sense of belonging at Georgetown >

During the 2020-21 academic year, the SEP worked with 295 faculty at six partner universities—Colorado State University, University of Colorado Denver, Portland State University, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the University of New Mexico, and the University of Toledo, Higher Ed Dive reports. Participating faculty learned about, shared, and implemented new classroom practices aimed at creating a more inclusive learning environment that fostered a sense of belonging.

The SEP followed 10,000 students at the six institutions, surveying them about their sense of belonging, identity safety, and whether they felt they were treated fairly in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses and other fields with underrepresented students. The overall share of students reporting positive learning experiences increased by 10.5% from fall 2020 to spring 2021. When focusing on Black, Latinx, and Native American women experiencing financial stress, researchers observed even larger increases—a 25% gain in the share of those students reporting positive learning experiences.

Tackling belonging at a time of disconnection

The study’s overlap with the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of urgency to the interventions, experts say. The pandemic “really interfered with students’ ability to develop a sense of belonging,” Dr. Raquel Muñiz, assistant professor in the department of educational leadership and higher education at Boston College, tells Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

To help participating faculty facilitate that sense of belonging, the SEP provided access to resources such as The First Day Toolkit, an online course module that guides instructors in revising course syllabi and content, and Ascend, a free, data-driven professional learning program that allows college instructors and administrators to get feedback on student experiences and see what changes can create a more supportive learning environment. 

For Dr. Sushilla Knottenbelt, senior lecturer at the University of New Mexico, that visibilty was crucial. “One of the most powerful things the SEP gave us was a way to measure student experience in real time,” Knottenbelt tells Diverse Issues. “I can tell you how informative, humbling, and important this tool was, to see equity gaps in your own classroom despite your own best efforts.” Faculty used the feedback to readjust and reassess their teaching practices to produce better results.

Better learning experience, better grades

As students’ learning experiences improved, so did their likelihood of earning higher grades. The rates of students earning A’s or B’s rose by 12% in fall 2020 and by 7% in spring 2021, while the rates of students earning a D, F, or W (withdrawing from a course) fell by 26% in fall 2020 and by 18% in spring 2021.

For structurally disadvantaged students, including Black, Latinx, and Native American students and students, that link between learning experiences and academic outcomes was even more pronounced. In the spring 2021 term, the association between a student’s positive experience in a class and their reduced likelihood of earning a D, F, or W was 26% greater for women than men; 43% greater for financially insecure students than financially secure students; and 31% greater for Black, Latinx, and Native American students compared to structurally advantaged groups.

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