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

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — 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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In addition to Murphy, other members of the research team were Maithreyi Gopalan, assistant
professor of education at Penn State University; Evelyn Carter, director at Paradigm Strategy, Inc.;
Katherine Emerson, visiting research associate at IU Bloomington; Bette Bottoms, psychology professor
and dean emerita of the Honors College at the University of Illinois Chicago; and Gregory Walton,
associate psychology professor at Stanford University.

The full study is available at Science Advances (embargoed until July 15, 2020). Funding for the study was
provided by the participating university, the National Science Foundation, and the Russell Sage
Foundation.

Media Contact
Mary Murphy
[email protected]

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