Fostering Belonging

How Belonging Affects Learning

College students’ sense of belonging is linked to their academic performance and overall well-being in and beyond the college classroom (Strayhorn, 2012). Although everyone shares the need to belong, college students’ perception of belonging can differ based on their identities and experiences, as well as their academic performance or preparation (Strayhorn, 2012; Walton & Cohen, 2007; Zumbrunn, McKim, Buhs, & Hawley, 2014). In learning environments in which they feel they do not belong, students are less likely to be engaged (Hurtado & Carter, 1997; Strayhorn, 2012). When students learn that it is normal to experience academic struggle, and that such struggle does not demonstrate their lack of belonging, they have improved academic outcomes compared with students who do not receive such messages (Walton & Cohen, 2007).

CATLR Tips for fostering students’ sense of belonging

Share stories that let students know that it is common to struggle academically. Provide students with accounts of students who initially struggled academically or questioned their ability but eventually succeeded—potentially including a story about your own academic challenges as a student (Aguilar, et al, 2014).

Foster a growth mindset about intelligence. In outlining the learning process for students, promote a “growth mindset” by normalizing the idea that their abilities can evolve and grow over time (Dweck, 2008). Conversely, describing student performance as a sign of natural ability conveys a “fixed mindset” and may activate stereotype threat, a phenomenon in which students’ awareness of negative identity-based stereotypes can detrimentally affect their academic performance (Steele, 2011). Therefore, it is beneficial to reinforce students’ understanding of intelligence as something that improves with effort (Aronson et al., 2002; Blackwell et al., 2007).

Convey high standards, and assure students of their ability to meet those standards. When providing students with critical feedback, be specific with your commentary and frame your feedback with a message along the lines of “I have high standards, and I know you can meet them,” in order to build their trust and help them succeed (Cohen & Steele, 2002; Cohen et al., 1999; Yeager et al., 2014). Find times throughout the term to let students know that you believe in them and that they are all capable of excelling in your class.


Aguilar, L., Walton, G., & Wieman, C. (2014). Psychological insights for improved physics teaching. Physics Today, 67(5), 43-49.

Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat on African American College Students by Shaping Theories of Intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(2), 113-125.

Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246-263.

Cohen, G. L., & Steele, C. M. (2002). A barrier of mistrust: How stereotypes affect cross-race mentoring. In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (pp. 305–331). Oxford, England: Academic Press.

Cohen, G. L., Steele, C. M., & Ross, L. D. (1999). The Mentor’s Dilemma: Providing Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(10), 1302–1318.

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Hurtado, S., & Carter, D. F. (1997). Effects of college transition and perceptions of the campus racial climate on Latino college students’ sense of belonging. Sociology of Education, 70(4), 324-345.

Steele, C. M. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2012). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. New York, NY: Routledge.

Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 82-96.

Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 804-824.

Zumbrunn, S., McKim, C., Buhs, E., & Hawley, L. R. (2014). Support, belonging, motivation, and engagement in the college classroom: A mixed method study. Instructional Science, 42(5), 661-684.