Center for Teaching, Learning & Engagement

@ Glendale Community College, Glendale, Arizona, USA

Fostering ‘Belonging Certainty’ in STEM

At the start of this semester, I asked my students why they chose to take statistics. One student quipped, “Because I like taking courses that make me cry.” Another student said statistics in high school brought her to tears. In response, I could have channeled my inner Tom Hanks with There’s no crying is statistics! But I did not.

After all, I myself sobbed after my first statistics final. I was in graduate school – a first-generation college student with a decidedly shaky math background. I was older than my classmates with a pretty traditional female upbringing. “I. Don’t. Belong. Here!” is the mantra that ran through my head.

Cue the Research

Thankfully, new research in the Journal of Chemical Education sheds light on the importance of students having a sense of belonging in STEM fields. In the journal’s upcoming special issue on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Respect in Chemistry Education Research and Practice, researchers from the University of Utah examined this important topic.

What sets this research apart from other examinations of belongingness is it looks at the sense of belonging that is tied to one’s identity. When a student doesn’t feel “people like me” are in the course, that is termed belonging uncertainty. The researchers found belonging uncertainty predicts lower mid-term scores in a college introductory chemistry course. In a recursive process, lower mid-term scores in-turn predict belonging uncertainty.

In addition, a troubling aberration in the above pattern exists. Good mid-term scores led to higher levels of belonging certainty for the males in the study, but not the females. For the latter group, uncertainty persisted even in the face of high mid-term scores. Indeed, students who were both first-generation and female faced the greatest achievement challenges related to belonging uncertainty.

What Instructors Can Do

I shared this study today with my students in our “Stats in the News” portion of class. Just shining a light on this phenomenon with students can spur some recognition of forces that might be lurking under the learning surface. I also model what it is like to have overcome feelings of not belonging, of when I felt like an imposter in the strange land of math. Finally, I offer a lot of verbal persuasion that they can succeed in statistics. (But this only works if I truly believe it, which I do!)

The study authors offer the following set of recommendations for instructors:

Use active-learning activities to engage students

Active, as opposed to passive, learning fosters motivation to engage in the class. Such activities can involve peer interaction, which may help students see that others are perhaps grappling with the same learning challenges as they are. When the curtain is pulled back, often students realize they are not alone. Common experiences build a sense of belonging certainty.

Promote a growth-mindset

Communicate that growth is possible for all students through consistent study habits and help-seeking. I also shared with my students today about the idea of productive failure – or the power of learning from our mistakes. A study in the Review of Educational Research makes the case for purposefully putting students in a state of challenge before formally introducing a concept. This problem-solving-before-instruction approach not only leads to learning gains, but it gets students used to the idea of “not knowing” as a normal part of the learning process.

Use examples, references, and analogies that reflect diversity

Help students to see themselves in your subject area by providing images of individuals from diverse backgrounds. As you develop examples for your course, eliminate those that reflect stereotypes. For me, having empathy for how a certain presentation of information will be received and experienced by my students is a good first step.

Last week, my students completed 100% of their assignments, and I was excited to see their persistence with progressively challenging coursework. I had no formal announcements in class today, so below is the announcements slide I shared:

Using a variety of strategies for increasing my students’ belonging certainty is an ongoing goal for me. How about you? Do you have strategies for increasing belonging certainty in your students? I’d love to hear about them. Comment below and/or e-mail me at

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