The Basics of Belonging

Lewis & Clark builds on a Stanford-led research study to help first-year students process how they think about the transition to college.

When first-year students arrive on campus each fall, they have high expectations for a fun, life-changing experience both inside and outside the classroom. But they’ll also likely face academic or social challenges, like getting a low grade or grappling with homesickness, and it will make the transition to college feel harder. Despite these challenges being common for incoming students everywhere, it doesn’t always seem that way. Students are often left feeling isolated in their struggles and doubting their ability to succeed at college.

Many students expect college to be a smooth ride, and when it’s not smooth, they can feel like everyone else has it figured out and they don’t belong.”

Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell, Professor of Psychology

“Many students expect the transition to college to be a smooth ride, and when it’s not smooth, they can feel like everyone else has it figured out and they don’t belong,” says Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell, professor of psychology.

The psychological mindset that students use to think about these early challenges can make a big difference with their sense of belonging and academic success, she explains.

That’s why Jerusha and fellow professor of psychology, Brian Detweiler-Bedell, jumped on an opportunity for Lewis & Clark to participate in a Stanford-led study that aimed to foster a deeper sense of belonging—by recalibrating how students think about the transition to college.

The study used an interactive exercise, known as a social-belonging intervention, to help students understand that their struggles were normal—and that they would get better over time. The intervention was brief—an online exercise that could be completed in under an hour—but researchers believed it could yield big results for student outcomes.

When Jerusha and Brian heard about the study in 2014, Jerusha was stepping into the role of interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. She volunteered Lewis & Clark to be the first liberal arts school, and one of the first schools, period, to join the research project.

“At the time, belonging was a new concept in academic circles,” says Jerusha, “but the research study was built on decades of existing work about belonging. The psychological concepts resonated with us, and we saw the potential to improve student outcomes at Lewis & Clark.”

The college participated in the first phase of research, and has since used the intervention to help students feel like they belong at Lewis & Clark.

Getting In on the Ground Level

The opportunity to participate in the Stanford study came from a researcher who was very familiar with the Lewis & Clark student experience.

Shannon Brady BA ’06 studied psychology at Lewis & Clark, and while she was a student, she worked with Jerusha and Brian in their behavioral health and social psychology lab. Brady went on to pursue her doctorate in educational psychology at Stanford University, where she was mentored by psychologist and belonging expert Greg Walton, the lead author on the study. When Walton and his collaborators decided to expand their research to a larger group of colleges and universities, so they could test when the tool was most effective and which groups could best benefit from it, Brady reached out to the Detweiler-Bedells to fill them in on the project.

“The work I did with Jerusha and Brian as a student is what got me interested in social psychology—and in thinking about how to apply psychological interventions in educational settings,” says Brady, who’s now an assistant professor of psychology at Wake Forest University.

Jerusha’s interest was piqued right away. She was about to assume the role of interim dean, and her work would involve assessing and implementing new institutional initiatives, like tools to help incoming students succeed. She was familiar with the psychological principles at the core of the intervention—and saw the potential to leverage those concepts to improve student outcomes at Lewis & Clark.

“We really believed in the methodologies in the study, but at the time, they hadn’t been tested with a college student population in this way,” says Jerusha. “So, we were excited to join at the ground level and see how this work could be applied to make a difference for college students.”

Building Belonging−In Under an Hour

The psychological concepts at the heart of the tool are based on decades of research, including some of Walton’s prior work, which found that uncertainty about belonging can impede academic performance.

The goal of the intervention is to shift how students think about their social and academic challenges—so they recognize that they’re not actually alone in them.

It’s about taking people’s perceptions of the challenges they face and reshaping those cognitions.”

Brian Detweiler-Bedell, Professor of Psychology

“It’s about taking people’s perceptions of the challenges they face and reshaping those cognitions,” says Brian.

“Quite simply, if you give people a sense that every single college student is going to very concretely experience one of these challenges, it turns that negative thought on its head so that when a student hits a challenge, instead of saying, ‘This is evidence that I don’t belong,’ it now becomes evidence that ‘I do belong because everyone else experiences these challenges.’ And that is a much more positive way for a student to view the challenges everyone faces.”

The intervention aims to shift perceptions through a brief online exercise. It was integrated into the matriculation process for incoming students—and became part of the checklist of other orientation to-dos, like submitting insurance information and filling out a roommate form. It wasn’t a required task, but it was strongly encouraged for students to complete the activity, known as “Social and Academic Life at Lewis & Clark.”

The exercise involved about 30 to 45 minutes of reading, writing, and reflection. Students were given a handful of stories from other Lewis & Clark students, which were informed by interviews that the researchers conducted before implementing the intervention. The goal was to draw from years of research and tailor each school’s intervention to the real-life experience of students at that institution, so stories were as authentic and relatable as possible.

In each story, students from various backgrounds shared the excitement they felt about starting college—alongside a fear, concern, or challenge they faced, and how they responded to it.

All of the stories share the same kind of narrative arc, where there’s a challenge that has to do with social and/or academic life—and then the student realizes that it’s actually common to have that worry. Utimately, they come out of the challenge and have a more positive experience on the other side of it.”

Shannon Brady BA ’06, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Wake Forest University

“All of the stories share the same kind of narrative arc, where there’s a challenge that has to do with social and/or academic life—and then the student realizes that it’s actually common to have that worry,” Brady explains. “Ultimately, they come out of the challenge and have a more positive experience on the other side of it.”

In the stories, students read about things like someone getting the worst grade of their life and grappling with feelings of inadequacy—but then realizing that performing poorly wasn’t an uncommon experience. This realization helped them embrace that college is about learning and it’s okay to receive a few bad grades along the way, says Brady.

They also read about students who questioned whether they would ever make deep friendships during college. These students shared that they’d go home for winter break and compare their established friendships at home to the ones back at Lewis & Clark and feel like they’d never belong in the same way. But then they’d realize they needed to give relationships more time to develop, and that would help them feel better about the state of their friendships.

Feelings About Belonging: What Do Current Students Say?

As part of the belonging study, Lewis & Clark and similar colleges collected reflections from a broad sample of sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Students commonly reported that, when they started college, they:

  • Worried about whether other students would include them and take them seriously in classes and coursework
  • Worried about forming study groups or finding partners to work with in labs
  • Worried about making friends
  • Felt intimidated by professors

But with time, students came to feel that they belonged in college and appreciated that they weren’t alone in their struggles. They reported:

  • Feeling comfortable in the academic environment
  • Feeling comfortable working with other students and interacting with professors
  • Making good friends in college
  • Feeling confident that professors and other students viewed their abilities positively
  • Feeling comfortable participating in class

Most students worry at first about whether they belong in college. The transition to college can go more smoothly if they know what to expect, especially when it comes to academic and social challenges. With time, they overcome these concerns and come to feel at home in college.

The stories weren’t about reassuring students that college would be easy. They were about reframing expectations.

“The stories give a realistic sense of the challenges that students are likely to face when they go to college,” says Brian. “So immediately after taking the survey, their perception that the transition to college will be difficult actually increases.”

“You might think that to make someone feel like they belong, you need to tell them all of the ways that they match the good things about other students, like valuing social justice or the environment,” says Jerusha. “But what’s so important about this intervention is that belonging is about understanding you’re not alone when you’re going through hard times and struggles. It’s about realizing that you’re very similar to everyone else, that failure is okay, and that you shouldn’t be shy or embarrassed to ask for help or support.”

Promising Results

The concepts made sense to the Detweiler-Bedells—and the results confirmed that the intervention worked; the intervention increased completion rates for first-year students, and the activity was especially effective for students in racial-ethnic and socialclass groups that had historically lower rates of finishing the first year of college.

Stanford expanded the study to include 26,911 students across 22 colleges and universities. And the findings suggested that if they scaled the belonging exercise to reach over one million incoming students at the 749 four-year institutions across the United States, an estimated 12,136 additional full-time students would complete the first year of college every year.

The sample size was small at Lewis & Clark, so it’s hard to make the same sweeping observations, says Brian, but the college did see increased retention rates and higher GPAs after implementing the belonging intervention, especially in underrepresented groups.

A paper describing the findings from the large study conducted by the Stanford team was published in Science earlier this year. And Brady is currently working on a second paper that highlights how the intervention also increased a sense of purpose for students.

Belonging as Part of the Fabric at L&C

“The results were compelling enough that Lewis & Clark decided to have all incoming students do the social belonging intervention,” says Katie McFaddin, assistant dean of student success and retention.

The college officially integrated the exercise into the orientation process for first-year students. Staff have made “informed tweaks,” based on data and observations about what worked best on the Lewis & Clark campus, says McFaddin.

College leaders were especially interested in the findings that suggested it would help support the increasingly diverse student body at Lewis & Clark.

“We’re seeing a broader representation of students, including from more diverse backgrounds and more first-generation college students. We need to make sure that these students have a better understanding about the college experience and realistic expectations about what they’ll encounter on campus,” says Jerusha.

While the results of this tool are promising, the Detweiler-Bedells stress that it’s not a silver bullet that will fix all issues with belonging, especially for underrepresented groups that face other racial, gender, and/or social class barriers.

“We’ve taken great strides over these last 10 years, but there’s always more work to be done to promote belonging, especially among our diverse student body,” says Jerusha, who’s helped incorporate concepts from the belonging intervention into faculty trainings, retreats, and L&C’s Teaching Excellence Program.

Brian remains involved with ongoing belonging efforts and says there’s been talk of introducing belonging exercises outside of the orientation process. These would be offered to students later in their academic career and would act like “booster shots” to support the initial belonging intervention—because the academic and social challenges don’t stop after the first few months on campus.

“Belonging is now part of the fabric of the student transition to Lewis & Clark,” says Brian. “But it’s essential that we continue to find ways to improve how students experience all sorts of difficulties and challenges throughout their college careers.”