Promoting Belonging and Mindset to Foster Resilience
When students adopt a growth mindset – recognizing that intelligence is not fixed but malleable – they are more resilient in the face of challenges and setbacks, leading to improved academic performance (Burnette et al., 2013; Dweck, 2006). Furthermore, it is crucial that students perceive their instructors’ confidence in their capacity for improvement, as this instills a greater sense of belonging (Canning et al., 2019; Muenks et al., 2020). And belonging increases engagement, ultimately resulting in better performance, self-perception, and retention.
In short, Mindset = Belonging = Resilience = Retention.
Cultivating Belonging in Your Online Classroom
What is the concept of belonging, and how does it influence my classroom environment?
In a four-year study, Kevin Binning and collaborators addressed students’ uncertainties about whether they truly belonged by instilling the belief that facing challenges is a shared and temporary experience. The 30-minute activity outlined below incorporates narrative writing, peer testimonials, and small group discussions, not only closing performance disparities among underrepresented and majority groups, as well as between genders, but also strengthening attendance, retention, and long-term performance for all students.
Introduction to the Exercise: The instructor introduces the notion that everyone encounters difficulties, and it is common to sometimes question one’s sense of belonging.
Writing Prompt (10 mins): “Transitioning to college is a significant change. Write about your experiences and challenges since coming to IUB. Reflect on making friends, attending classes, adapting to dorm life, and difficulties that have improved over time in college.” Essays are collected, and a few are briefly shared: “As I review some examples of your writing, I notice many common concerns. I share some of the same worries when I started my first year of physics.”
Peer Testimonials: Display quotes from graduating seniors, carefully chosen to highlight overcoming challenges and initial feelings of loneliness, ensuring representation from various genders and groups. Examples include: “Sometimes I struggled to grasp concepts my classmates understood. The key is not to give up and support each other.” OR “I felt unprepared for the workload and grading differences in college, causing stress. With help from the instructor and peers, I found a study group and turned things around. Looking back, my struggles seemed normal, though overwhelming at the time.”
Discussion Prompts (7-8 mins in teams):
- Why do you think people often believe they are the only ones worrying about fitting in at college?
- How do you anticipate your life will change as a junior or senior?
Debrief: “Could someone share what your group discussed? This will help summarize the discussion for everyone and provide feedback for the physics department.” The debrief is crucial for synthesizing and summarizing this exercise. This activity effectively challenges the misconception of “I don’t belong” and can be implemented on the first day of class or when approaching a known challenging concept or task.
Binning, K. R., Kaufmann, N., McGreevy, E. M., Fotuhi, O., Chen, S., Marshman, E., Kalender, Z. Y., Limeri, L., Betancur, L., & Singh, C. (2020). Changing Social Contexts to Foster Equity in College Science Courses: An Ecological-Belonging Intervention. Psychological Science, 31(9), 1059–1070
Dr. Wendi L. Benson has been at Marshall University since January 2023 as an Assistant Professor of Psychology. She teaches Industrial/Organizational Psychology, Experimental Psychology, and Statistics. She is the Principal Investigator in the TIPS (Technological & Interpersonal Predictors of Success) Lab focused on providing consulting for local non-profits and Marshall University. Her most recent publications and conference presentations are focused on the impact of collaborative assessment and faculty mentorship on college student success and sense of belonging. She recently earned a Credly badge for completing the Design Center’s first cohort of Blackboard Ultra Academy. Dr. Benson has been teaching online courses for over a decade and published an online interactive textbook on Top Hat (The Statistics Survival Guide) with an emphasis on Excel and practical applications of statistics.
The Role of an Introductory Video in Fostering Belonging
In this short video, Dr. Benson models how an introductory video can serve to foster belonging in online courses. Instructor presence is doubly important in establishing belonging in an online setting, where students lack the opportunity to form social bonds organically. Note some of the key components that make up the arc of her own belonging narrative: (1) her early experiences in academia, (2) diminishing uncertainty/empowerment through community building, (3) paying it forward.
Strategies to address Learning Mindsets
- Have activities and assignments that enable students to use their prior knowledge and strengths.
- Focus on mastery and create a class structure that rewards growth. For example:
- Use low-stakes formative assessments (e.g., quizzes, brief papers) where students can get feedback before larger summative assessments (e.g., exams, final paper).
- Create opportunities for students to submit corrections on homework, quizzes, or exams
- Allow students to do an assignment twice and their final grade is the higher of the two attempts..
- Ask students to make revisions based on feedback for assignments and projects.
- Avoid grading exams or other assignments based on a normal distribution (i.e., “curving”).
- Create support for gaining self-regulated learning skills that will help students overcome challenges and persist toward goals. For example:
- Share information about effective goal setting and have activities where students set goals, create specific plans, and monitor their own progress through a weekly action plan in their lab book, a writing plan, etc.
- Use assignments that help students reflect on their learning process to identify what they are doing well, where to improve, and how to use course and university resources.
- Scaffold larger, more complex assignments.
- Explain ways that you encourage growth and mastery through your course design and policies. For example: “This course is designed around the concept that learning is gradual and often involves errors before successful demonstration of knowledge and skills. There will often be low-stakes opportunities to practice before higher-stakes assessments.”
- Include relevant university, disciplinary, and academic skills resources (e.g. Writing Centre, Math Centre, Engineering Student Success Centre, etc.) and highlight how these are helpful for your course.
- Talk to students about how to approach your course and provide resources. For example:
- Talk about resources from your syllabus in a way that will prevent students from feeling that using them means they are less well equipped to succeed than their peers. Send the message that, “successful students seek help, and these are the pathways to help in my course” (Lang, 2020, pg. 185).
- Provide a list of curated advice from previous students. Include advice that emphasizes the challenges in the course and talks about seeking help to overcome those.
- Highlight progress made so far. For example: Discuss improvements across multiple paper drafts or exams.
- Talk to students about overcoming unhealthy social comparisons and about perfectionism versus healthy striving in the context of your course.
- Show students that it is okay to not understand concepts right away and to get things wrong. For example: 1) Check understanding in class with a “muddiest point” prompt; 2) If a student contributes an answer that is incorrect, don’t dismiss it. Help identify where it went wrong and then consider at least one way to get the correct answer.
- Give “Wise” feedback on student work.
- Use exams and other assignments as teaching tools, rather than the end of learning. For example:
- Go over parts of an exam or assignment and discuss areas of common struggle, what these mistakes mean for thinking and learning, and how they connect to new learning.
- Provide students with feedback on assignments, and discuss how to use feedback to improve.
- Talk about how you have grown your knowledge and skills over time through practice. If comfortable to you, consider sharing about a time when you struggled, failed, or made mistakes in an academic or work context, and how you moved through that challenge. Some resources for more transparent conversations around failure include this University Affairs article on Failure and this article focused on compassionate teaching
- During difficult times, create opportunities for students to practice self-compassion about their schoolwork, such as within a homework assignment or briefly during class. When students show negative thinking connected to cognitive distortions, you can help them reframe by asking them to write realistic statements about what is possible. For example:
- “I’m just not good at this.” becomes → “Facing difficulties is a normal part of learning, just because this is hard doesn’t mean I can’t do it.”
- “I know I’m going to fail.” becomes → “I can’t know yet how I will do, I can only try my best to prepare and seek out help.”
- “I worked hard, and I still failed. I am not meant for this.” becomes → “I did poorly on one exam, but now I know what to expect and will use new strategies next time.”
- Consider different approaches for students who do poorly despite exerting great effort and students who are less engaged.
- Listen to the student’s perspective and avoid minimizing their concerns. Avoid saying “This is usually pretty easy” or “This should be straightforward” or “Yes, it’s hard, most people don’t get it, maybe this isn’t for you”. Instead you might say (keep in mind, these are examples, you may want to craft your own), “Different students, with varying perspectives and aptitudes will find some areas challenging or easy”, “Can you tell me where you get stuck on this”, “We all face and grow through challenges, but we also need to decide which challenges are worth it for what we want from life”
- Where appropriate, you might consider referring students to Academic coaching through Student Affairs or a Learning Strategist in Accessibility Services.
- Help normalize struggle as a common part of academics that can be overcome. For example: “Past students who had difficulty with this told me that _____ helped them improve.”
- Work with the student to identify specific areas of struggle and 2-3 strategies for improvement.
- Encourage students to check back in and consider reaching out to follow up.
- Find a balance between academic support and autonomy. Understand when to give more direction and when to encourage independent thinking by building the student’s confidence in their personal research capabilities.
- Appreciate the student’s point of view and support the pursuit of their research questions.
- Reframe challenges as learning opportunities, and place current performance into a longer-term context.
- Cultivate trust by engaging on common ground and minimizing the usual faculty-student status hierarchy.
- Provide or help students’ access funding, equipment, or facilities to complete their research. Remember that the library has equipment such as laptops, calculators and adaptors that can be checked out. Ensure these issues are covered as part of your standard approach to students you are supervising, and not left to informal discussions which may inadvertently provide advantages to certain students.
- Give constructive feedback on written work submitted for review within a mutually agreed upon timeframe.
- Demonstrate understanding of the student as a whole person by keeping in mind the personal, scholarly, and professional dimensions of being a graduate student.
These strategies were developed by the Teaching and Learning Centre at the University of Prince Edward Island. Learn more at Promoting Student Well-Being in Learning Environments: A Guide for Instructors Copyright © by Teaching and Learning Centre and Students Affairs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
Resource Spotlight: Saying is Believing
Saying is believing.
Successful growth-mindset and social-belonging interventions highlighted in Promoting Belonging, Growth Mindset, and Resilience to Foster Student Success (2020) required students to advocate growth mindset to what they believed to be an authentic audience. They also incorporated a saying-is-believing strategy by programming a social app to ask students to take the information shared on belonging and growth mindset and put it into their own words, for others’ benefit. The social-belonging interventions were delivered every other day— on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Content included students’ stories about how they struggled to fit in and how things worked out over time. Each story was accompanied by a picture, with each student’s story and picture representing a variety of students (e.g., male, female, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, first-generation). In addition to stories, students also were informed more generally about difficulties with belonging that most students experience. For example, a student might have received this information: “Almost all freshmen at Indiana Wesleyan and other schools worry about fitting in and being accepted by other students. So this is a common concern.” The growth-mindset intervention emphasized an incremental theory of intelligence and was delivered on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. As an example, one session included the statement, “When you learn new things, the cells and pathways in your brain multiply and improve. Effort and learning create new pathways in your brain and causes your brain cells to grow.”
Others have used this “Saying is Believing” approach successfully to deliver growth-mindset and social-belonging interventions (e.g., Aronson et al., 2002; Walton & Cohen, 2011), and it is rooted in social psychology research (Higgins & Rholes, 1978).
Nothing helps a learner to internalize a concept more than teaching it. Connect with the Design Center to explore opportunities for your students to design and deliver content related to growth mindset and belonging in authentic assessment scenarios.
Promoting Belonging, Growth Mindset, and Resilience to Foster Student Success, National Resource Center for The First Year Experience & Students in Transition, (2020).
This book aims to deepen the conversation about the “noncognitive factors” that significantly impact student success. Not just a book about how to support the development of learning mindsets such as belonging, growth mindset, and resilience in students, it will also include strategies for college personnel to consider as they create initiatives, programs, and assessments to develop these noncognitive factors
Research shows that regularly expressing gratitude improves various facets of wellness and resilience for individuals and has a positive impact on larger communities. Gratitude does not cancel out negative emotions or experiences, but regularly expressing gratitude can help some individuals when they experience difficulties. Expressing gratitude can also help individuals be more compassionate toward themselves during challenging periods. Take a look at how this university community is cultivating belonging and resilience through expressions of gratitude.
This article emphasizes that teachers should establish desirable norms and habits from the first day of class, with activities and interventions adapted to the specific context. It acknowledges that we may not fully understand how people learn, but highlights knowledge about conditions influencing learning. The four key beliefs for a productive academic mindset are outlined:
- Belonging: Teachers should create a sense of belonging in the class, making students feel welcome and accepted, especially first-generation, minoritized, and non-normative students.
- Growth Mindset: Encouraging the belief that abilities can improve with effort, promoting the idea that grades reflect a starting point for improvement rather than fixed traits.
- Academic Self-Efficacy: Instilling the belief that students have the knowledge and skills to succeed, using mastery experiences, vicarious experiences, and verbal persuasion.
- Value: Teachers should demonstrate the value of the course to students, linking it to personal and professional benefits, and even self-transcendent purposes.
Psychologist Thomas Gilovich studies the barriers that prevent us from feeling gratitude, and how we can overcome them in this podcast from The Hidden Brain.