Why didn’t I know about this?

Imagine if scientists found a cheap, easy-to-administer, minimal-side-effects, drug that could significantly reduce your chances of getting cancer. It would be front page news, we would all be popping this new magic pill, and it would be morally wrong to not allow everyone access.

Well in this case, the cancer is the fact that there is an achievement gap between students who are African American or Latino/a, and their white counterparts. And the “drug” is a small social intervention that can (should!) take place in freshmen courses.

It’s not often that a paper published in Science has a big impact on my life. But I will now approach my introductory courses differently after recently reading an article that was published in Science 5 years ago. This paper is “A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students” by Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen of Stanford University. It’s available for free and I highly recommend that you read it.

The research in a nutshell

The researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial (the gold standard in experimental design) which measured the effect of having freshmen students read a survey, with actual quotes from upper level students from the same university, about how feeling isolated and intimidated is typical in the first year of college but these feelings go away and are replaced with a sense of comfort and belonging. Basically that being worried about acceptance and not fitting in is a normal part of the college experience and NOT an indication that someone shouldn’t be in college. Then the students wrote short reflective essays on what they read and created videos that shared their insights with future students. And before you worry about all the class time lost to such an activity, the researchers reported that it took less than one hour of class time.

The results

I’m going to focus on the long-term results of the study, collected during the second semester of the students’ senior year, because I think these results are the most impressive. But the researchers also looked at short term results.

3 years after the treatment there was:

  • An increase in GPA for African American students who received the social intervention treatment. This halved the achievement gap between African American and European American students.
  • An increase in the self-reported health and well-being of African American students in the treatment group compared to the control group.
  • A decrease in self-reported doctor visits by African American students in the treatment group compared to the control group.
  • No difference in any of the measured variables between European American students in the treatment and control groups.

This research shows that feeling excluded can lead to lower academic performance and lower health outcomes. First year college students experience feelings of doubt, intimidation, and social adversity. Most European American students don’t view these social belonging struggles as an indication that they don’t belong in college. However, many African American and Latino American students do. And this feeling of not belonging leads to less success. All our students need to feel like they belong in our classes. Their success depends on it.

How this will change my teaching (and please consider letting it change yours):

I cannot teach an introductory course again without applying this research. I am going to build a similar type of intervention into my courses, measure the impact on student success, and teach others how to do the same.

Here is what I will do:

  • I will collect stories from a diverse group of graduating students about their journeys through feeling like they did not belong in college to finding that they did fit in and could be successful.
  • I will share these stories with incoming students and ask my students to reflect on these stories.
  • I will give students an assignment where they need to create their own group or individual videos to share with future students.
  • I will strive to make my classroom an inclusive classroom. This means that I will know everyone’s name, encourage and expect participation from everyone, and I will regularly share diverse stories of how normal it is to struggle, fail, try again and finally succeed.
  • I will educate myself further about this type of research.

Why didn’t I know about this?

I’m still a bit incredulous that the first time I came across this study was in CIRTL MOOC that I just finished up called “An Introduction to Evidence-based Undergraduate STEM Teaching”. FYI – this course is free and available from EdX. It provides a great overview of the backward design process, which most ICbGers will be familiar with, and it also has a great section on Inclusive Teaching.

When this paper was published in 2011, I was an assistant professor who would have readily admitted to all of the following: putting teaching above research, wanting all her students to succeed, caring about social justice issues and receiving my weekly subscription to Science magazine. I don’t remember reading this article (I’m embarrassed by how many issues of Science I have recycled unread), and I know it was not brought to my attention at work. I think it should have been. CTL directors, department chairs, SOTL scholars and professional educators should have been talking about this (I’m sure some were. I just never got the memo) and, much more importantly, implementing this. We’re talking about a relatively easy way to improve the success, health, and well-being of a group of students who have been chronically underserved by our educational system.

Now I admit that we still need to research if this intervention works for most students under most circumstances. And I am planning on looking more deeply into this research (this paper has been cited by 542 other articles according to Google Scholar) and similar studies. But in the meantime, we need to be incorporating this strategy into our classes and teaching other faculty to do the same. I believe that if we don’t apply this knowledge, then we are being negligent as educators.


Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331(6023), 1447-1451.

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