One of the most significant factors behind the academic struggles of students from marginalized groups or who are economically insecure is a phenomenon researchers call “belonging uncertainty.” If scarcity is something that prevents students from drawing upon their full cognitive bandwidth for academic tasks, Cia Verschelden writes, then we ought to view “a lack of belonging” as “another kind of scarcity,” in the same category as factors like financial precarity.1
In other words, students who are legitimately not sure they belong in college are likely to experience difficulties similar to those confronted by students who face (for example) food insecurity or a hostile racial climate. Too much of their cognitive bandwidth is occupied in negotiating these background or environmental factors, and not enough is available to do the kind of mental heavy lifting that challenging academics require of them. As a result, these students can quickly enter a cycle where difficulties begin to compound and reinforce one another, and thus pose significant barriers to their success. Moreover, belongingness uncertainty has been shown to particularly affect groups like first-generation, racially-minoritized, and financially insecure students. When we consider how many of our students at Grand View belong to one—or more—of these categories, we realize just how much of a risk factor belonging uncertainty really is for so many of the students with whom we work.
So what, exactly, is this phenomenon of belonging uncertainty? As Walton and Cohen’s (2007) foundational research on the concept argues, it’s a sense of insecurity on the part of students about their academic identity and thus their “fit” within the college environment. Students who experience belonging uncertainty wonder, for a variety of reasons, if they should even be in college in the first place. Walton and Cohen argue that “stigmatization can create a global uncertainty about the quality of one’s social bonds in academic…domains.” Furthermore, they continue, “events that threaten one’s social connectedness, although seen as minor by other individuals, can have large effects on the motivation of those contending with a threatened social identity.”2
So what might that look like? Imagine, perhaps, a first-generation student who sees very few people like them on campus, either in the student body or faculty/staff ranks. Perhaps that student is questioning whether they belong in this academic setting, as they have not experienced the same degree of academic success their peers seem to have had in high school. Maybe this student wonders how other students in their classes seem to know how to access resources like tutoring or the Math Lab, while they themselves are unsure how to do so: did they miss the meeting where everyone else apparently received the instruction manual? When this student looks at the materials for all of their courses, they don’t see anyone like them represented, leading them to wonder what kind of people are successful in these particular disciplines. Maybe a class discussion sees a peer insinuate that people from this student’s particular racial group or social background are “illegals” or “don’t deserve” socio-economic benefits. Perhaps by this point in the semester, that student is asking themself whether they should even be in college: do they belong here? Do they matter?
To be sure, every college student struggles at one time or another with academic challenges. But if that struggle is constant, if that student never knows an academic setting or task that doesn’t involve this kind of struggle, that’s more than just the garden-variety sense of difficulty. As Nancy Schlossberg put it, mattering is motivation. 3 If students don’t feel like they matter, they likely won’t have the motivation—and the cognitive bandwidth they need to have available—to successfully complete academic tasks. It’s difficult to have a sense of mattering when one finds themselves in a new role, Schlossberg argues, especially if one does not feel as if they properly belong in that role:
Every time an individual changes roles or experiences a transition, the potential for feeling marginal arises. The larger the difference between the former role and the new role the more marginal the person may feel, especially if there are no norms for the new roles.
Do students in their new roles as members of a collegiate academic comunity possess the social or academic capital to successfully navigate those roles? In other words, do they know “the rules of the road?” Or are they lost, unaware of the resources or signposts that can help guide them? If they feel lost, do they matter enough that someone else will help them find their way? Or are they too marginal for us to notice their struggles and assist them?
In short: Do they belong here?
Many of our students are asking themselves that very question, especially in this all-important early point of the academic year. And make no mistake: we’re giving them answers to that question, whether we’re aware of it or not. What are we telling them? Are we mitigating, or are we exacerbating, a sense of “belonging uncertainty?”
Are you interested in ways that we can intervene in that cycle of uncertainty, and some of the specific techniques that research shows can be effective for various student populations? You are invited to join us in the CETL for a workshop on “Helping Students with Bandwidth Recovery,” where we’ll tackle this question of belonging uncertainty and discuss strategies we can use to mitigate its effects. We have sessions available on both Monday and Tuesday, and we’d love to see you there!
Have a question? Need some assistance? Want to check out a teaching and learning book? Come by the CETL in Rasmussen 208 or contact us to set up an appointment.
Finally, a visual representation of me and the queue of papers I need to grade:
— Paul Bronks (@SlenderSherbet) September 12, 2019