By Omid Fotuhi, Ph.D., Director of Learning Innovation at WGU Labs


Student belonging has skyrocketed to the top of college leaders’ strategic priorities in the last couple years as student learning experiences become increasingly tech-enabled and dispersed. Here on the College Innovation Network (CIN) team at WGU Labs, we’ve been focusing on innovative ways in which we can leverage EdTech to help boost belonging, engagement, and equity at colleges across the country. But to do so, we first need to have a clear understanding about the nature and impact of belonging. 

At our most recent gathering of CIN members, we invited Dr. Geoffrey Cohen, belonging expert and professor of psychology at Stanford University, to have a conversation with our member institutions. Dr. Cohen’s research examines processes that shape people’s sense of belonging and self and implications for social problems. He studies the big and small threats to belonging and self-integrity that people encounter in school, work, and health care settings, and strategies to create more inclusive spaces for people from all walks of life.

Most recently, Dr. Cohen published a new book, BELONGING: THE SCIENCE OF CREATING CONNECTION AND BRIDGING DIVIDES. In our conversation, Dr. Cohen discussed the latest research on belonging that he covers in his book, and how that research can be applied in college settings. And, importantly, we discussed specific strategies that college leaders can implement at their institutions to help boost belonging among their students. Here are the highlights from this conversation.


1 – Decrease Cues of Belonging Uncertainty and Increase Cues of Belonging Certainty

Higher education was originally built and designed for a homogenous student population. But as access to higher education has broadened and the student population has diversified, we have to be intentional about the cues that students are exposed to that can cause students to feel that they don’t belong on campus.

As Geoff explains, interactions students have on campus matter for how they perceive their sense of belonging. He suggests using “situation crafting” strategies to create the conditions that clearly convey to students the three core cues needed for securing a sense of belonging: “You are seen”; “you have potential”; and “you are not alone”. 


2 – Implement Value Affirmations into the Student Experience

Value affirmations are another proven way to increase belonging and academic performance for students. The value affirmations activity reinforces students’ feelings of integrity and self-worth in a learning environment. The activity works by getting students to reflect on a broad range of values that they hold, which helps to expand the sense of self-view and buffers against a feeling of inadequacy that might come from a critical view of a more narrow self-view. That is, a student who performs poorly in math class is reminded that their sense of self-integrity is based on more than just how they do in math class, for instance that they are also a caring friend or family member.  

Although a seemingly simple exercise, it is psychologically powerful. Research shows that value affirmations exercises have profound impacts on academic performance, especially for historically minoritised individuals. Institutions might consider creating affordances where students can reflect on, and recognize the value, of their whole selves. That way, their sense of belonging isn’t as dependent on how they do on one particular domain of performance. 


3 – Highlight Common Experiences of Students

Students enter into college and experience many firsts. And many of those first time experiences can be stressful or challenging, which may lead students to question whether they are “cut out” for college. Many, if not most, students experience these stressful experiences but most don’t realize others are also feeling similarly.

While difficulties in college are universal, the interpretations about the causes of those difficulties can differ, and consequently, lead to different outcomes for different students. The solution, then, is to remind students that common challenges in college are both (1) commonly experienced by many other students (and not something that they are uniquely experiencing, despite what it might feel like at times) and (2) are often the cause of the transition into a more difficult program (and not an indication of some sort of internal inadequacy). One of the best strategies to normalize the college experience is to allow students to hear from, and share with, others about what their experiences have been like. Researchers have successfully implemented these experiences via (1) online activities that students complete on their own; (2) faculty-facilitated discussions, or (3) peer-group driven discussions. 

Each of these allows students to see that others have similar experiences and that they can be successful even when experiencing challenges along the way.


4 – Remember that Success is a Combination of Resources and Psychology

Student success is complex because students’ higher education experiences are multi-faceted and long-term. As a college leader, student success must be thought of as a combination of both resources and psychology. Students need the foundational resources for academic success, but even all the resources in the world can’t overcome the psychological need to belong in learning environments.

And although fostering belonging in students can feel overwhelming, effective interventions can be small scale and have big impacts. Even just one meaningful relationship with a peer, faculty, or staff member can make a world of difference for students’ learning experiences on campus, and their long term academic success. By creating peer or faculty mentoring programs, and other opportunities for students to create meaningful relationships can support student success.

Student psychology is central to student success. We have a fundamental need to belong, and students are attentive to cues that suggest whether they belong. As college leaders, we need to focus on creating situations that can enable meaningful learning experiences and relationships for students on campus.


The College Innovation Network at WGU Labs is on a mission to build learning communities where all students belong. Learn more about our work at