Multi-site trial of belonging exercise improves college students’ academic persistence

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A new study led by Indiana University researchers finds that incoming students who participated in an online belonging exercise completed their first year as full-time college students at a higher rate than their peers, but only when their institution had strong strategies and resources in place to support diverse students’ belonging.

Led by the College Transition Collaborative and the IU Equity Accelerator, the research team offered a brief online reading and writing exercise to nearly 27,000 students from 22 diverse colleges and universities across the United States in fall 2015 and 2016, including IU. These results, the country’s largest multi-site randomized controlled trial of this belonging intervention, were published May 5 in Science.

“There are hundreds of thousands of students being left behind and not supported by institutions in the way they need to be supported,” said IU Equity Accelerator founder Mary Murphy, professor of psychological and brain sciences and Class of 1948 Herman B Wells Endowed Professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences. “The Equity Accelerator is helping institutions understand what they can do to help students feel like they belong, that they are supported academically.

“It is important that students never feel alone, and that the institution offers tangible affordances that are recognized and used by students to help them feel a sense of belonging and to be academically successful in college.”

The researchers found significant effects on students’ persistence, course taking and sense of belonging after engaging with the reading and writing exercise. The intervention increased the rate at which students completed their first year of college as full-time students, especially among students in groups that had historically progressed at lower rates. However, across the 22 institutions, the impacts were much greater when the institutions had strategies and resources in place to help students feel like they belong.

The researchers have calculated that their results can be generalized to more than 1 million students annually at 749 four-year colleges and universities in the United States, where the 12-month drop-out rate for first-time undergraduate freshmen is 24.1 percent, according to the Education Data Initiative. If all schools in the generalizability sample implemented the online social-belonging intervention, 12,136 more full-time students would complete the first year of college each year. The benefits are greatest among historically lower-performing groups — students whose combined race/ethnicity and generation status is historically lower performing at a particular institution — which helps to reduce inequality on campuses.

The social-belonging intervention was delivered through an online module in the summer before students began college, typically as part of a pre-semester checklist of necessary forms and requirements. It included survey results from older students showing that everyday worries about belonging are normal in the transition to college and can improve over time; carefully curated stories from older students describing these worries and how they improved from them; and an opportunity to reflect on these stories in writing.

Results varied across the 22 institutions, since each offers different strategies, resources and programs to support the particular groups of students who historically struggle with first-year college completion. The researchers say institutional transformation and increasing support for students on campus — as well as students’ knowledge of, attitudes about and usage of these resources — are critical to improving student success.

“This work is globally reimagining the role of institutions on student outcomes, not just from an academic perspective but also students’ life outcomes,” said Sara Woodruff, chief strategy officer at the IU Equity Accelerator. “This is a call to action for the ways in which institutions take their power and use it to really move students. Through the Equity Accelerator, we’re helping institutions reexamine the contract they are creating with students, helping them call out inequities that exist and telling them in real, granular terms what they can do to change.”

The IU Equity Accelerator, formed in July 2022, is a focused research organization whose mission is to use and apply social and behavioral science to provide more equitable learning and working environments where everyone can meet their full potential. Institutions nationwide that are working to improve students’ belonging can work with the Equity Accelerator to identify, from their own students’ perspectives, what resources and strategies are needed to facilitate student belonging on campus.

“In addressing equity, it is important to have actionable results that can be used to improve student experiences and outcomes and help them be the people they are meant to be,” Murphy said. “We hope institutions can build on our findings and the work of the IU Equity Accelerator to identify better ways to support their students.”



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