New Study Directly Connects Student Belonging with Academic Wellness

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When faculty are empowered with equity-based resources and when student voices and experiences are centered, students and faculty experience a greater sense of belonging at their institution and academic outcomes are improved.

Report HeadThese are the findings in Increasing Equity in Student Experience: Findings from a National Collaborative, the most recent report from the Student Experience Project (SEP), a coalition of universities, leadership, faculty, researchers, and national organizations who are committed to equitizing and improving higher education, including the Association of Public & Land Grant Universities.

Over the 2020-21 academic year, SEP engaged with six partner universities, nine peer-learning network universities, 295 faculty, and roughly 10,000 students to develop and share practical, equitable approaches to classroom instruction and broader institutional practices to build a student-centered learning environment. The initial focus of this study was science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses, and fields underrepresented by minoritized students.

“Partnering with faculty within institutions of higher education is a powerful tool for creating equitable and inclusive learning environments,” said Dr. Mary C. Murphy, a Herman B. Wells endowed professor at Indiana University, Bloomington and a principal SEP investigator. “[The faculty] are the culture creators of their classroom. Treat them as such and give them tools.”

Faculty and administration in the study were given access to SEP resources like The First Day Toolkit, which helps in the revising of course syllabi and content to diversify sources and to convey belief in students’ abilities to grow and learn. Faculty came together in professional development groups, building communities of practice to share their progress. They were able to access handbooks, libraries with field-tested guides, and a data-driven learning program called Ascend that helps users understand a student’s learning environment and what changes can make the environment more equitable, engaging, and supportive.

“One of the most powerful things the SEP gave us was a way to measure student experience in real time. I can tell you how informative, humbling and important this tool was, to see equity gaps in your own classroom despite your own best efforts,” said Dr. Sushilla Knottenbelt, senior lecturer in the department of chemistry and chemical biology and facilitator of the community of practice at the University of New Mexico, one of the six participating schools.Dr. Sushilla Knottenbelt, senior lecturer in the department of chemistry and chemical biology and facilitator of the community of practice at the University of New MexicoDr. Sushilla Knottenbelt, senior lecturer in the department of chemistry and chemical biology and facilitator of the community of practice at the University of New Mexico

Students were surveyed intermittently throughout the semester to ascertain a sense of belonging, identity safety, and whether they felt their classroom environment was treating them fairly. The data was disaggregated so faculty could assess where the gaps were in their instruction and who was most likely to fall behind.

“It shed light for me on the gap between impact and intent,” said Knottenbelt. "We have good intentions, we want our students to succeed, but often the message isn’t getting across. We reexamine how students feel, see how it goes, and reassess.”

The constant readjustment had a positive result. Over the duration of each course, student experiences improved on average by 10.5%. For Black, Latinx, and Native American women experiencing high levels of financial stress, their student experiences improved by an average of 25%. And SEP found clear evidence that when student experiences improve, so do their grades.

“The probability of earning an A or B in STEM classes increased significantly as student experience score increased," said Murphy, who noted she was “blown away” by the results. "Students were much less likely to earn a D or F or withdraw the more their experiences improved over the course of the term."

Dr. Raquel Muñiz, assistant professor in the department of educational leadership and higher education at Boston College, said that COVID-19 and the push to move education online may have increased faculty intentionality to create communities in their virtual classrooms.

“COVID, for a lack of a better word, was a complete mess,” said Muñiz. "It really interfered with students’ ability to develop a sense of belonging. Faculty members had to be really intentional about how they built that for students. It’s very much in line with research on how important it is to be intentional with equity policies and practices we adopt, which is probably why they were so successful — it requires that additional intentionality to make it happen.”

Intentional community building helped both in and outside the classroom, according to Dr. Denise Bartell, associate vice provost for student success at The University of Toledo in Ohio, one of SEP’s university partners.Dr. Raquel Muñiz, assistant professor in the department of educational leadership and higher education at Boston CollegeDr. Raquel Muñiz, assistant professor in the department of educational leadership and higher education at Boston College

“During course of the pandemic, it wasn’t just our students struggling with a sense of belonging and community, it was our faculty as well,” said Bartell. “It was something we had to intentionally focus on in the design of these communities of practice. If we were going to engender institutional change, we had to create a space where faculty felt they could be vulnerable, make mistakes, be courageous.”

Bartell said the SEP was so successful the participating faculty grew from 11 to 76 just by word of mouth at Toledo. Many have offered to return for another year, this time without the promise of compensation — some institutions used small monetary incentives to encourage participation. Muñiz said it could present a resource challenge for institutions looking to apply the SEP practices institution wide.

“How can we adopt these practices more widely, beyond only those that might be incentivized or only those willing to participate," asked Muñiz. "There’s research pointing to women taking on additional loads when they teach, adjunct professors doing this work without job security.

"It’s great we have intentional practices, but what does that mean for who they allocate that work to," she continued. "It is an issue of culture, policy at an institutional level, so that we can value this kind of practice that really improves student belonging beyond the project."Dr. Constancio Nakuma, provost and executive vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Colorado, DenverDr. Constancio Nakuma, provost and executive vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Colorado, Denver

The report functions as a “roadmap for all public institutions” to increase their focus on the individual, beyond the bureaucratic functions of an institution which makes people “expendable,” said Dr. Constancio Nakuma, provost and executive vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Colorado, Denver, another of SEP’s partner institutions.

 “The reason for a focus on equity is we’re trying to tell ourselves we’re not going to reduce people to functional tokens that bureaucracies tend to elevate,” said Nakuma. “We’re going to try our best to know what it means for the people we work with, students, faculty and staff. We’re going to make it intentional to know what their needs are and try to respond.”

Liann Herder can be reached at lherder@diverseeducation.com.