Why A Sense of Belonging Matters For Learning

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This week I blogged about a new study that suggests one reason why there are so few women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math): they are vulnerable to feeling that they have to put in more effort than others to achieve the same results, and that therefore they must not “belong” in that sphere. There’s a lesson here about the importance of a “growth mindset”—researcher Carol Dweck’s term for the belief that success is all about effort, and that “even geniuses work hard”—but what I want to focus on today is this notion of belonging, and how crucial it is for effective learning.

Learning is social, as I wrote in this New York Times piece about social factors that affect intelligence. The level of comfort we feel in another person’s presence can powerfully influence how intelligent we feel, and in some sense, how intelligent we actually are, at least in that moment. Now multiply that one-on-one interaction by tens or hundreds, and you start to get a sense of how important a sense of belonging to a learning community can be.

Early on in school, some children get the sense that, academically speaking, they don’t belong—that they’re not one of the “smart kids.” The same thing can happen when young people start middle school, or high school, or college: they take a look around and think, “I don’t belong here.” In our work lives, too, we may form an assumption that we’re not quick or sharp enough, not sufficiently creative or innovative, to belong at the top of our fields.

Social psychologists have documented how corrosive this self-doubt can be: sapping our motivation, lowering our expectations, even using up mental resources that we could otherwise apply to absorbing knowledge or solving problems. The feeling of not belonging becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. By contrast, a solid sense that we’re among our peers, that we’re where we ought to be, can elevate our aspirations and buoy us in the face of setbacks.

So: how do we bolster a sense of intellectual belonging—in ourselves, our children, our students and employees? Here are three ideas.

Create your own community. In the late 1970s, Uri Treisman was a researcher at UC-Berkeley interested in why African-American students often struggled in the university’s math courses, even as Asian-Americans in the same classes flourished. With some probing, he discovered part of the answer: Asian students studied together in groups, while black students tended to work alone. Treisman’s insight became the basis of his Emerging Scholars program, in which students organized into study groups tackle challenging problems together. The lesson: even if you don’t feel a kinship with the school or company you’re a part of, you can find a smaller community within it that will foster the feelings of belonging and identification that allow learning to blossom.

Take care with transitions. When we’re starting at a new school or a new job, our sense of ourselves is especially fragile; we carefully inspect our new environment, looking for cues that this is a place we belong. Some researchers, in fact, have tied the slide in many students’ grades that happens in middle school to the transition from elementary school itself: during this fraught passage, some students decide school isn’t for them. Studies by Stanford professor Gregory Walton and others have shown that interventions delivered at such key moments—like a video shown to college freshmen in which upperclassmen explain that everyone feels unsure of themselves early on, but that these feelings go away—can increase feelings of belonging and improve performance.

Avoid impossible role models. Although we’re supposed to feel inspired by successful figures, comparing ourselves to these superstars can make us feel that we’ll never belong in their stratosphere. A recent study of middle-school girls exposed to eminent women in STEM fields, for example, found that the experience actually made them less interested in math, and led them to lower their their judgment of their own ability and their odds of success. The achievements of these role models, investigators concluded, seemed “unattainable.” What’s the alternative? Find flawed role models—people who succeed but also fail. In one study, for example, students who were taught about the failures and setbacks of well-known scientists became more interested in science, remembered the material from their science lesson better, and did better at complex open-ended problem-solving tasks related to the lesson. Reminding ourselves that those we look up to struggle, too, can make us feel that we belong in their company.

How about you—did you feel like one of the “smart kids”? Did you feel like you belonged in high school or in college—and do you feel like you belong in your career now? Please share your thoughts.

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3 Responses to “Why A Sense of Belonging Matters For Learning”

  1. Keith Devlin says:

    Yes. This is a major theme I push on my recent “Inspired by Math” podcast interview about my Stanford MOOC.
    http://www.buzzsprout.com/5316/73937-keith-devlin-part-i-inspired-by-math-17. MOOCs are Facebook, not YouTube.

  2. Nikia says:

    I had read this posting some time ago, and it did not resonate at that time. This morning, somehow, I read it and saw myself. I attended nine schools up to college (five states in two countries), and I was used to being among the best students up until the last two schools. By then my dad stopped coaching me in math since I started to hit areas he wasn’t as immediately conversant in (ie trig and calculus), and my general reliance on memorisation as a studying technique became insufficient. Gradually from that point on–ie college and grad school–I started feeling less and less like I belonged among my academic peers, and that unlike what I had thought when I was younger, I was not one of the quick ones. Because I selected a course of graduate study that did not rely on memorisation, and because I found and still find it difficult to follow explanations verbally (eg when I would ask a TA for clarification), the sense of not belonging among the smart ones was reinforced. It’s taken a few decades to understand that I *can* learn things that are not easy to understand immediately but that it takes trying many different methods, resourcefulness (thank goodness for the internet) and lots of trial and error. Offloading the sense that “I’m not one of the smart ones” like so many quick and young people I know has been a gradual process, but it involved consciously taking on work assignments that were beyond my then span of abilities, which is an opportunity not everyone has easy access to (such opportunities usually get assigned to others), and many people consciously or unconsciously do not put themselves in such an uncomfortable position. It takes a bit of blind confidence that one can deliver. It has been in this process, over two decades after my academic “decline,” that I have realised that my sense of self had been tied to being one of the smart ones early on, and when I lost that because I never found reliable and efficient strategies for learning well, I boxed myself in and limited my expectations of myself. It’s really important to learn what to do when we don’t understand something, including the explanation that comes after we ask for clarification and don’t understand: just keep at it.

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