Sense of Belonging: Background Literature

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Sense of Belonging: Background Literature

The desire for social bonds and connections with others has a long history in psychological research. It has been referred to as the need for affection between people(Murray, 1938), the need for positive regard from others (Rogers, 1951), belongingness (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Goodenow, 1993b; Maslow, 1954), affiliation motivation (McClelland, 1987), and the need for relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 1991; Ryan, 1993; Vallerand, 1997). It has also been defined in a number of ways. For example, Deci and Ryan suggested that the need for relatedness ‘encompasses a person's striving to relate to and care for others, to feel that those others are relating authentically to one's self, and to feel a satisfying and coherent involvement with the social world more generally’ (p. 243). Vallerand suggested that the need for relatedness ‘involves feeling connected (or feeling that one belongs in a social milieu)’ (p. 300). Goodenow proposed that a sense of belonging at school reflects ‘the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment’ (p. 80).

Baumeister and Leary (1995) suggested that the need to belong is characterised by a need for regular contact and the perception that the interpersonal relationship has stability, affective concern, and is ongoing. In their seminal article on the importance of sense of belonging to wellbeing, they proposed the ‘belongingness hypothesis’, suggesting that “human beings have a pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships” (p. 497). Failure to have belongingness needs met may lead to feelings of social isolation, alienation, and loneliness. Thus, a sense of belonging can be seen as a precursor to social connectedness. In their detailed analysis of the relevant research, Baumeister and Leary argue that the need for belongingness is more than the need for social contact. It is the need for positive and pleasant social contacts within the context of desired relationships with people other than strangers. That is, the need for belongingness is satisfied by an interpersonal bond marked by “stability, affective concern, and continuation into the foreseeable future” (p. 500). This relational context of interactions with other people is essential for satisfying the need to belong. They also propose that people who are well-enmeshed in social relationships should have less need to seek and form additional bonds than people who are socially deprived. As their need for belonging has been met, and is no longer such a significant drive, they do not express or display the need for belonging as strongly as those for whom this need has not been met. Importantly, however, individuals differ in the strength of their need to belong. As Kelly (2001) points out, some people with lower need to belong may be satisfied by few contacts, while others with greater need to belong may need many such contacts. It is the lack of satisfaction with personal relationships relative to their need to belong that puts the individual at risk of loneliness.

The need for belonging can contribute to explaining a variety of human behaviour, cognitive, motivational processes, and emotions. For example, individuals explain the reasons of their behaviours in association with the need for belonging. The satisfaction of this need leads to the experience of positive emotions such as happiness and joy, whereas deficiency can cause the experience of negative emotions such as anxiety, jealousy, depression, high level of stress, and loneliness. Many negative behavioural, psychological, and social outcomes, including mental illness, criminal tendency, and social isolation are explained by lack of sense of belonging. Maslow (1968) indicated that beneath most emotional breakdowns lies a need for belongingness, being loved, and respected.

Sense of Belonging among Students

Proper, adequate, and timely satisfaction of the need for belongingness leads to physical, emotional, behavioural, and mental well-being (Maslow, 1968). In a set of three consecutive studies, Sheldon, Elliot, Kim and Kasser (2001) asked college students to remember the most satisfying events in their lives and to rate the needs that had been satisfied through experiencing those events. The ratings in all three studies revealed that relatedness was one of the four major psychological needs that students felt most satisfied when they experienced it. It is important to indicate here that although in some contexts the need for relatedness and the need for belongingness have been conceptualized differently, given that “the need for relatedness is the need for experiencing belongingness” (Osterman, 2000, p. 325) relatedness and belongingness were used interchangeably throughout this section. Goodenow (Goodenow, 1993b) described sense of belonging in educational environments as the following:

Students’ sense of being accepted, valued, included, and encouraged by others (teacher and peers) in the academic classroom setting and of feeling oneself to be an important part of the life and activity of the class. More than simple perceived liking or warmth, it also involves support and respect for personal autonomy and for the student as an individual. (p. 25)

Many educational researchers agree that the need for belonging is one of the most important needs of all students to function well in all types of learning environments (Connell & Wellborn, 1991; Deci & Ryan, 1991; Finn, 1989; Osterman, 2000). The feeling of belonging may have a direct and powerful influence on students’ motivation (Goodenow, 1993b). For example, perceived support and the sense of belonging are expected to increase students’ beliefs in their success and accordingly to increase their academic motivation. Goodenow (1993a) stated that one of the reasons that there is a poor fit between the opportunities provided by middle school environments and the developmental needs of adolescents is that middle school environments do not respond adequately to students’ need for belonging and support, which leads to a decrease in student academic motivation.

Goodenow (1992) suggested that belonging and support may be especially important for academic motivation, engagement, and performance of adolescents coming from ethnic minorities and economically less advantaged families. In a review, Becker and Luthar (2002) support Goodenow’s assertion, revealing that one of the key factors affecting economically disadvantaged minority students’ academic motivation and classroom engagement in middle schools is the sense of belonging.

In fact, studies consistently reveal that students who experience a sense of belonging in educational environments are more motivated, more engaged in school and classroom activities, and more dedicated to school (Osterman, 2000). Moreover, existing research suggests that students who feel that they belong to learning environments report higher enjoyment, enthusiasm, happiness, interest, and more confidence in engaging in learning activities, whereas those who feel isolated report greater anxiety, boredom, frustration, and sadness during the academic engagement that directly affects academic performance (Furrer & Skinner, 2003). Satisfying the need for belongingness in educational environments takes on a greater importance during early adolescence. Students within that developmental period start going to peers and adults outside their family for guidance (Roeser, Eccles, & Sameroff, 1998) and their “sense of personal ‘place’ is still largely malleable and susceptible to influence in both positive and negative directions” (Goodenow, 1993b, p. 81)(Goodenow, 1993a, p. 81). If this need is not adequately satisfied in educational environments, students will look for other ways and people to get that satisfaction. For example, a link has been found between a lack of sense of belonging and delinquency (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).

Perceived sense of belonging decreases the experience of stress and school-related anxiety as well as the experience of self-consciousness, especially in early adolescent years (Boekaerts, 1993; Goodenow, 1993a; Roeser, Midgley, & Urdan, 1996). Increased self-consciousness in adolescence may negatively affect students’ classroom engagement due to a heightened feeling of public exposure, which stimulates the experience of negative emotions, such as embarrassment and shame. On the other hand, a sense of belonging in the learning environment may balance students’ increased sense of public exposure (Goodenow, 1993a). Additionally, research supports that sense of belonging mediates the relationship between contextual variables of the learning environment (e.g. teacher-student relationships and classroom goal structures) and self-efficacy beliefs of adolescents (Roeser et al., 1996; Roeser et al., 1998). Studies also report positive associations between adolescents’ feelings of belonging and academic achievement, academic help-seeking behaviour (Newman, 1991), and avoidance of self-handicapping behaviours (Dorman & Ferguson, 2004). The sense of classroom belonging leads to the formation of sense of school community, which increases students’ positive behavioural, psychological, and social outcomes such as achievement motivation, self-esteem, self-efficacy, academic and social intrinsic motivation and competence and decreases negative outcomes such as delinquency and drug use (Battistich, Solomon, Watson, & Schaps, 1997).

Based on an extensive review of the literature, Osterman (2000) indicates that satisfaction of the need for belonging in educational environments is significantly associated with students’ academic engagement and involvement in school and classroom activities, academic and social behaviours, motives and attitudes, expectancies, values and goals, emotional functioning, and the development of fundamental psychological processes (e.g. intrinsic motivation, self-regulation, internalization, and autonomy), and psychological outcomes like self-concept, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. Supporting this argument, in a three-year longitudinal study involving 248 students, Flook, Repetti, and Ullman (2005) found that lack of peer acceptance reported in the fourth grade predicted lower self-concept and internalizing symptoms (e.g. shyness, loneliness, negative emotions such as sadness and anxiety) in the fifth grade and, in a longer period, predicted lower academic performance in the sixth grade, when fourth grade academic performance was controlled. Path analysis on the same data revealed that almost 25% of the variance in students’ academic performance in sixth grade was explained by lack of peer acceptance in the fourth grade.

Finn (1989) suggested that perceived feelings of belonging may decrease at-risk students’ alienation from school and their decision to drop out of high school. The participation-identification paradigm, explained by Finn, emphasizes that the lack of sense of belonging leads to adolescents’ physical withdrawal from school-based activities and results in academic failure, which provokes non-identification with the school (emotional withdrawal) and alienation.

In several related studies Goodenow (1993b) examined the association between adolescents’ sense of belonging and their expectancies, values, motivation, effort, and achievement. In the first study, involving the development of The Psychological Sense of School Membership (PSSM) Scale, Goodenow investigated the relationship between sense of school membership, expectancy of success, value, and effort for 1,366 fifth through eighth grade students from one suburban middle school and two urban junior high schools. Findings revealed that the sense of school membership was significantly associated with expectancies for school success and educational value but not statistically significantly related to academic effort or behaviour. Goodenow suggested that motivation might be mediating the relationship between the sense of school membership and academic effort and achievement.

In a follow-up study, Goodenow (1993a) investigated the relation between adolescents’ sense of belonging/support, academic motivation, academic effort and achievement. Three hundred fifty-three sixth- through eighth-grade students in a suburban middle school responded to a questionnaire measuring their domain specific motivation (expectancy of success and educational value), feelings of belonging, and personal support in four domains: math, social studies, English, and science. To assess students’ academic effort and performance, English teachers were asked to rate students’ potential final grade and academic effort. Classroom belonging and support emerged as the most powerful and significant predictor of adolescents’ educational values and expectations of success. The most powerful single factor associated with students’ effort and achievement was students’ perceptions of teachers in terms of teacher interest, support, and respect to students.

A similar age group was also the focus of Roeser and colleagues (1996) in an investigation of the relationship between the contextual factors of school environment and students’ motivational, emotional, and academic outcomes. Two hundred and ninety-six eighth-grade students participated in this study. Students’ responses to self-report questionnaire revealed that students’ perceived sense of school belonging was one of the most powerful predictors of their perceived academic self-efficacy. The sense of school belonging showed a small but significant positive relation to the academic outcomes. Students who reported a high sense of belonging in the school environment reported less self-consciousness (e.g. nervousness and embarrassment) in their task-related engagements in the class and school than those who reported less belonging to the school. The feelings of school belonging was also significantly associated with the positive school affect (e.g. good mood and happiness).

Sense of Belonging and Student Persistence

Perceived sense of belonging in academic environments has a powerful effect on students’ emotional, motivational, and academic functioning from anxiety, distress, engagement, competence to self-referent thoughts and even to dropping out. Undergraduate student persistence is a broadly studied topic within the field of higher education studies. Key in this work is the research of Tinto (Tinto, 1975; Tinto, 1988; Tinto, 1993; Tinto, 1997; Tinto, 1998). Focusing on institutional structural factors, Tinto’s theory posits that early withdrawal is impacted by a variety of factors. As students come into an institution, they do so with a variety of backgrounds, intents, and commitments.

A key aspect of Tinto’s model is concerned with the interactive effects of academic and social experiences on a student’s decision to remain at an institution. Tinto’s model asserts that students who engage in formal and informal academic and social integration experiences are less likely to leave their institution. Also, individuals reformulate goals and commitments as a result of integrative experiences; positive experiences reinforce commitment. Tinto’s model is multi-faceted and considered three groups of variables.

1. ‘Pre-college characteristics’, such as, family background, skills and abilities and prior schooling experiences;

2. College experiences, such as students’ area of study, academic performance (grade point average), and the amount and quality of student-faculty interactions. These are seen as indicative of students’ level of academic integration in the college environment.

3. Students’ out-of-class experiences, such as participation in extracurricular experiences, including paid work, and student-student interactions. These represent students’ social integration in college.

Braxton et al. (2000) (building on Braxton et al. 1997) sought to elaborate Tinto’s theory of college student withdrawal. They sought to estimate the influence of such forms of active learning as class discussions, examination questions, group work, and higher-order thinking activities on social integration, subsequent institutional commitment, and student departure decisions. A longitudinal study (three surveys: at orientation, in semester one and in semester two) of 718 first-time, full-time, first-year students at a highly selective, private research university indicated that active learning influenced social integration, subsequent institutional commitment, and intent to return. A subsequent edited book (Braxton, 2000) focused on the first year and included a reworking of Tinto’s ‘interactionalist’ perspective. Following critiques of the theory, the contributors offered a variety of both theoretical and methodological perspectives on student departure leading to recommendations to institutional administrators. Contributions also included minority student retention, the link between college choice and student persistence, and the effect of the classroom experience on the student’s choice. Furthermore, in another text designed to further adjust Tinto’s theory, Braxton and Hirschy (2004) examined institutional commitment and integrity. They argued that institutional integrity (the congruence of the actions of managers, administrators and teachers to the mission and values of the institution) and communal potential (the student-perceived possibility of an affinity group) are important concepts. They concluded that the greater the level of institutional integrity and commitment to the welfare of the student the more likely the student will achieve social integration and hence the more likely they are to persist. Similarly the stronger the perception of the communal potential of campus life the more integrated the student is likely to become.

Tinto’s theory has faced other critiques and adjustments. Stage and Anaya (1996) were of the view that far too much theorising on retention has been inductively derived from causal modelling that focused too heavily on traditional, white young American first-year students in private residential institutions. Tierney (1992, 2000) critiqued Tinto’s model because it misrepresented the cultural aspects of transition and, despite Tinto proposing a sociological model and being hostile to psychological interpretations, placed far too much emphasis in his approach on withdrawal as an individual matter. Yorke and Longden (2004) argued that the theorising of retention is too restricted to cope with the many influences on student persistence. Further, academic and social integration, so central to the preponderant approach, have been operationalised in diverse ways, which casts doubt on the accumulation of research findings. They claimed that retention and success are influenced by sociological and psychological considerations, augmented by economic factors.

Sense of belonging as a concept is often used interchangeably with social integration. However, Hurtado and Carter (1997) argued for sense of belonging as a measure empirically distinct from integration. Sense of belonging is a psychological factor focusing on students’ subjective feelings of connectedness or cohesion to the institution. In a longitudinal study, Hurtado and Carter explored a set of factors associated with sense of belonging, concluding that these were essential contributors to student persistence. By including a separate measure of sense of belonging, researchers are able to examine both the participation in particular activities and what that participation means to the student. Following this it can be argued that sense of belonging taps into feelings or perceptions of association or group membership (Maestas, Vaquera, & Munoz Zehr, 2007).

Since noting the importance of sense of belonging in persistence models, other researchers have investigated factors associated with sense of belonging. Hurtado and Carter’s (1997) sense of belonging measure focused on students’ attachment to the campus community as a whole. Other researchers expand the concept to consider feelings of attachment to various communities or other university contexts (Hoffman, Richmond, Morrow, & Salomone, 2002; Kember & Leung, 2004; Lee & Davis, 2000). Principal distinctions of this concept rest with the two main campus communities, the students and the faculty. Hoffman et al. examined the main conceptual dimensions of a sense of belonging instrument that considered student-to-peer and student-to-faculty psychological connections. They found five factors related to sense of belonging: (1) empathetic faculty understanding, (2) perceived peer support, (3) perceived isolation, (4) perceived faculty support and comfort, and (5) perceived classroom comfort. Similarly, Kember and Leung used a measure of sense of belonging that encompasses attachments to the broader university, department, teaching staff, and peers.

Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) pointed to the impact of the college environment on student retention, while Christie and Dinham’s (1991) study of 25 first-time, full-time, first-year students at a US university revealed that post-matriculation experiences external to the institution are important to social integration.

Zea, Reisen, Beil and Kaplan (1997) showed that both academic and social integration experiences impacted on student persistence in college. In a study of 512 first-year students, Beil et al. (1999) found that academic integration and social integration predicted students’ institutional commitments, which in turn influenced their persistence in college after three years. However, the literature is not so clear on the relative weights of social and academic integration.

In Ireland, Trinity College Dublin conducted two surveys of first year students. The first, by Harrington, O’Donoghue, Gallagher and Fitzmaurice (2001) asked about students’ educational background, finances, and academic and social college life. They were also asked whether they had ever felt like dropping out of college. Students who had experienced academic difficulties, financial worries, difficulties with settling into college and concerns about career prospects were more likely to have considered withdrawing. The authors claimed the findings confirmed the importance of successful integration and the necessity for a multi-dimensional approach to student attrition. Baird (2002) undertook a second study, which examined the reasons students withdrew from the university. The most-cited reason for withdrawal was a lack of commitment to the course, combined with a host of satellite reasons. An important finding was that two-thirds of the former students reported that they were satisfied with their decision to withdraw and most students continued on in third-level education. This suggests that retention must be viewed carefully as withdrawal may sometimes be in the best interest of the student, indicating need for flexibility and support for students in transition. These studies led Trinity College to review the variety and complexity of its support services and to move towards a more co-ordinated approach (O’Connor, Richards, & Lumsden).

Need and De Jong (2001) examined the effects of local study environments on the achievements in higher education of Dutch undergraduate students. They found that the grade averages, the number of courses successfully completed, and the drop-out rates of students were the results of individual factors, that is, differences in the ways in which students selected their institutions and differences in the degree of success of their academic integration into the institutions they chose. The higher education institution attended had only slight impact on success.

A study by Wilson (1984) of adjustment to university life in Africa used a two-stage process to identify and explore the extent of transition problems to the University of Zambia. A total of 40 different types of problems were identified, some of which were sufficiently potent, general or persistent, to be a cause for concern to the university authorities. The main problems identified were academic: difficulty of obtaining books because of insufficient copies in the library and bookshop; academic workload; poor matching of students to compulsory courses; difficulties with techniques of learning and studying at university. However, amongst the most serious problems was the university catering with a menu that lacked variety and poorly-cooked food.

Bers and Smith (1991) examined student-level data from one community college in the Midwest and found that academic and social integration played a role in determining which students would persist in, or withdraw from, higher education. They noted that social integration had a larger effect on persistence outcomes than did academic integration. However, the authors noted that a student’s educational objectives (for example, reasons for attending school) and employment status (part time or full time) contributed more to differentiating persisters from non-persisters than did academic integration and social integration experiences.

Mackie (2001) explored undergraduate student withdrawal behaviour in the business school of a UK post-1992 university through a comparative, qualitative study of the experience of students who had left, and of those who had experienced similar difficulties and doubts but chose to remain. Attention was given to the complex interplay of personal, institutional and contextual or external factors that impacted on decisions to leave or to stay. Both groups of students experienced difficulties of integration within the formal and social aspects of university life, and a problematic context. However, leavers and doubters had different levels of commitment to the university experience. Homesickness, levels of perceived control over events and alienation were also found to play a role in the decision to withdraw.

Roberts, Oakey, Watkin and Fox (2003) reported similar results in the preliminary outcomes of their study based on the faculty of business and informatics at a UK university. The authors noted that there was considerable literature on the reasons for non-completion of first-year higher education programmes in the UK and suggested that data gleaned largely from institutional sources suggested non-completion was variously related to: lower socioeconomic status, entry through clearing or lower entry qualifications, late starting, mature entry, subject taken (particularly mathematics-related subjects), being male, living at home, little prior work experience and poor academic performance in the early stages of the first year. They noted that there is less research on those who successfully complete the first year, despite sometimes wavering in their commitment. Using the 2001 entry cohort they examined responses from leavers, persisters who had doubts and persisters who had no doubts about continuing. The research included a survey of 466 respondents (186 doubters and 280 non-doubters), which showed no marked differences over a range of demographic variables. However, significant differences were found across the whole range of attitude questions, with doubters responding less positively per se, than nondoubters.

A marked difference in attitudes was noted across the sub set of questions relating to the student experience. Although all students responded more positively on these measures by the start of the second year, doubters responses at this stage still only corresponded with responses from non-doubters at the start of the first year. The authors note that persistence was facilitated largely by within-the-individual factors, goal orientation and its antecedent self-efficacy, and an increased ability to adapt to the new environment over the first year.

Johnston (1997) presented the results of a 1994–95 survey of institutional records at a new Scottish university after an analysis showed around a quarter of first-year students in 1993–94 either withdrew or failed. The survey suggested that non-academic problems are more likely to contribute to a student’s failure to progress than academic problems and that the range of non-academic problems was both broad and complex. In addition, staff perceptions of the degree of influence wielded by such problems was not always matched by the recorded incidence in the survey. Course leaders cited academic problems for 37% of the students. Anecdotally, financial difficulties were often cited as a reason for high student drop out rates. Of the student records analysed, 12% had cited finance as a factor in non-progression, which while substantial, is not as high as anecdotal evidence suggested. However, it was notable that although the incidence of illness was almost equal to those with financial problems, the perception amongst course leaders of its impact as a contributory factor was considerably lower. Respondents cited personal reasons in 29% of cases of withdrawal. These were wide ranging and included general unhappiness (14%), domestic problems (10%), psychological/emotional problems (8%), inability to ‘fit in’ (8%) and immaturity (3%). A relatively small group of students (8%) had left to take-up full-time employment. In addition some students moved courses to another institution. The project has persisted and inter alia has resulted in a diagnostic text and a further study of first-year progression (Johnston, 2001)

Wintre, Bowers, Gordne and Lange (2006) showed that ‘leavers’ at a Canadian university were far from homogenous and that two-thirds of them did not leave higher education altogether but transferred or took temporary leave. Interview data demonstrated that reasons for leaving were more related to mobility, exploration and career paths, characteristics of emerging adulthood, than to negative university experiences.

In a rare comparative study, Blais and Pulido (1992) compared the effects that academic study had on various aspects of the life of adult students enrolled in first- and second-cycle programmes at a university in Canada and in Venezuela. The major differences between the two groups lie in family, social life and leisure.


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