Supporting students' sense of belonging


This workshop session is designed to familiarize faculty members with the research literature on sense of belonging. The strategies highlighted in these materials are drawn from and applicable across all STEM disciplines. The workshop session is designed to take at least 1.5 hours, but could easily be expanded to encourage deeper exploration of the research literature. The session consists of a writing reflection, a presentation of key research findings, a think-pair-share activity about a well-intentioned but counterproductive intervention, and a jigsaw exploration of excerpts from research articles.

Session Goals

Participants will:

  • Be able to define "belonging uncertainty" and describe how it undermines student academic success;
  • Know about several key strategies for fostering students' sense of belonging; and
  • Have a plan to implement at least one new strategy to foster students' sense of belonging in one or more courses.

Workshop session structure

When we used these materials in a workshop for geoscience faculty members (see the 2018 Cohort 1 Change Agents Workshop program), we structured the session as follows. Details of the timing are listed below.

  1. Each faculty member responded to a reflection prompt: "Reflect on an academic moment that stands out to you where you felt (or feel) particularly at home - where you felt (or feel) you belong. What are one or two things about that environment that fostered your sense of belonging?"
  2. We presented a summary of key findings from the research literature on students' sense of belonging. This presentation emphasized what factors lead to belonging uncertainty, how belonging uncertainty can undermine academic performance, and the strategies that have proven effective in fostering a sense of belonging and normalizing academic transitions. In particular, the presentation focuses on non-cognitive interventions, which can be remarkably powerful as well as remarkably brief. The presentation set the stage for the jigsaw activity, which constituted the bulk of the workshop session.
  3. Participants engaged in a jigsaw exploration of the research literature on sense of belonging. Part one of the jigsaw consists of reading an excerpt from one of four journal articles and taking notes about key elements of the non-cognitive intervention described in that article. Part two of the jigsaw consists of sharing that information with participants who have each read one of the other excerpts and discussing the different interventions in this small group. Participants fill in a table as they discuss the interventions. The excerpts we chose focus on the following interventions:
    • Critical feedback with assurance. Excerpt from Aguilar et al., 2014.
    • Normalizing Difficulty with Transitions. Excerpt from Yeager and Walton, 2011.
    • Social Belonging. Excerpt from Yeager and Walton, 2011.
    • Values Affirmation. Excerpts from Aguilar et al., 2014, and from Miyake et al., 2010.
    The comparison table (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 50kB Jun20 18) asks participants to summarize details including what psychological concern is addressed by each intervention, what message each intervention delivers to address that concern, and what is the impact of each intervention on student academic performance. Handouts for this jigsaw activity are available upon request; send your request to
  4. Each faculty member reflected on the suite of interventions and made plans to implement at least one of them.


The workshop session is designed to take at least 1.5 hours, but could easily be expanded to encourage deeper exploration of the research literature. In our hour and a half, we spent 3 minutes on the writing reflection, 15 minutes presenting research findings, 5 minutes on the think-pair-share exercise, an hour on the jigsaw, and 5 minutes on a whole group discussion / Q&A with the session leaders to wrap it up. We consider this to be a minimum time span for this session.

Details of the jigsaw timing:

  • 5 minute introduction: Workshop leaders do a worked example of what we are asking participants to do
  • 15 minutes: Part 1 of the jigsaw - each group explores one intervention in depth by reading an excerpt from the research literature and extracting key information from it
  • 30 minutes: Part 2 of the jigsaw - re-mixed groups share what they have learned and compare and contrast the interventions, paying particular attention to the interventions advantages and disadvantages, if there are any
  • 10 minutes: Individual reflection - participants think about what intervention(s) they will implement


References used in the jigsaw activity

Aguilar, Lauren, Greg Walton, and Carl Wieman (2014). Psychological Insights for Improved Physics Teaching. Physics Today, v. 67, n. 5, pp. 43-49.

Miyake, Akira, Lauren E. Kost-Smith, Noah D. Finkelstein, Steven J. Pollock, Geoffrey L. Cohen, and Tiffany Ito (2010). Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation. Science, v. 330, pp. 1234-1237.

Yeager, David S. and Gregory M. Walton (2011). Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They're Not Magic. Review of Educational Research, v. 81, n. 2, pp. 267-301.

Additional references used in developing the presentation

Stephens, N. M., Hamedani, M. G., & Destin, M. (2014). Closing the social-class achievement gap: A difference-education intervention improves first-generation students' academic performance and all students' college transition. Psychological science, 25(4), 943-953.

Tellhed, Una, Martin Backstrom, and Fredrik Bjorklund (2017). Will I Fit in and Do Well? The Importance of Social Belongingness and Self-Efficacy for Explaining Gender Differences in Interest in STEM and HEED Majors. Sex Roles, v. 77, pp. 86-96.

Tsui, L. (2007). Effective strategies to increase diversity in STEM fields: A review of the research literature. The Journal of Negro Education, 555-581.

Walton, Gregory M. and Geoffrey L. Cohen (2007). A Question of Belonging: Race, Social Fit, and Achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, v. 92, n. 1, pp. 82-96.

Walton, Gregory M. and Geoffrey L. Cohen (2011). A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students. Science, v. 331, pp. 1447-1451.

Yeager, D., Walton, G., & Cohen, G. L. (2013). Addressing achievement gaps with psychological interventions. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(5), 62-65.

Yeager, D. S., Walton, G. M., Brady, S. T., Akcinar, E. N., Paunesku, D., Keane, L., ... & Gomez, E. M. (2016). Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(24), E3341-E3348.