Exercise in a first-year writing course increases retention at broad-access universities

Research published today (July 15) in the journal Science Advances shows that embedding a reading-and-writing exercise about social belonging into the first-year college curriculum increased the persistence and performance of Black, Latinx, Native American, and first-generation students at a large, urban, broad-access university.

Now, with COVID-19, colleges and universities are struggling economically and yet they must find ways to support students’ sense of belonging in college if they want their students to thrive and persist. The social belonging intervention appears to be one cost-effective way to do that.

The three-year study was conducted by a team led by Mary Murphy, the Herman B Wells Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University. It was the first research of its kind to examine how broad-access colleges and universities — typically more affordable institutions with less stringent academic requirements, often with a majority of the student population from marginalized backgrounds — can help reduce the social and relational barriers that might prevent many low-income, racially minoritized and first-generation students from attaining a degree.

“Especially in these uncertain times when students have more obstacles than ever in their path to and through college, it is clear that universities and colleges must do everything they can to cultivate and support students’ sense of belonging,” Murphy said. “Broad-access institutions have the potential to serve a democratizing function and can help to spur social mobility. But, these institutions struggle with low persistence and graduation rates. Unlike in more elite university environments, students in broadaccess environments often struggle with long commutes to school, balancing work with school, and fulfilling family care-giving responsibilities. Understanding that these challenges are common among students in these contexts and providing effective strategies for navigating them, helps students feel that they can come to belong and persist in college.”

In a double-blind, randomized study, the team tested an intervention strategy involving a reading-andwriting exercise among 1,063 students enrolled in first-year writing classes at a large, diverse, broadaccess post-secondary institution in the Midwest. Members of the team worked with faculty, administrators and upper-level students at the institution to develop customized materials addressing common academic and social barriers to belonging that students might encounter and coping strategies that had proven successful to overcome those barriers. Strategies included finding spaces on- and offcampus to study, making friends and studying with peers who also commute and/or work, and making time to form relationships with faculty. Importantly, these strategies were reinforced by institutional practices that made resources available to students such as a commuter resource center, social activities and clubs with meeting schedules that accommodated working students, and extended faculty office hours that provided opportunities for students to connect with faculty.

The first-year students then wrote a letter to an incoming first-year student and shared the belonging message with them. “This placed students into the role of benefactor and mentor to students who would follow,” said Murphy.

The researchers found that the intervention resulted in a significant increase in both retention and the academic performance of Black, Latinx, Native American, and first-generation students. The socialbelonging intervention boosted retention among these students by 10 percent — from 76 to 86 percent — over one year, and by 9 percent — from 64 percent to 73 percent — over two years. Grade-point averages among these students rose as well.

“Learning about the social and academic challenges to belonging that their peers experienced and learning about the coping strategies their peers used to navigate those challenges helped secure the students’ sense of social and academic fit in college one year later, which predicted their college persistence two years later,” Murphy said. “We were able to observe the long-term psychological process that help explain how these social-belonging programs have their effects.”

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Materials provided by Indiana University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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