Sense of Belonging: Its Importance in Student Success and Relevance to Evaluation Practice

Although underrepresented minority (URM) student enrollment in higher educational institutions has increased over the past decade, significant disparities remain in the retention and graduation rates of these students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. (e.g., Higher Education Research Institute [HERI], 2010). However, a growing body of research in the social sciences and education provides insight into the factors that enhance URM students’ academic success. Specifically, research from a number of disciplines points to the crucial role of identity and identity related constructs (e.g., sense of belonging) for students’ academic persistence (e.g., Osborne & Jones, 2011). Although some evaluators may believe their role is to solely measure program success according to program theory, we believe that in addition to that, it is our responsibility to use relevant research and one’s own expertise in a given discipline to help programs best address program goals and make adjustments when necessary.

A couple of months ago I wrote a blog post about my personal experience as a social psychologist working in evaluation (“The Intersection of Social Psychology and Evaluation”). At the end of the post, I encouraged evaluators to find ways in which their background and expertise could be used to influence and improve their practice. I have attempted to follow my own advice. The following describes an example of how my research background has influenced the way I view my work and how I approach evaluation practice.

As someone who studies group and intergroup processes and identity, I am constantly observing examples of how identity and identity related constructs come into play in our evaluation work. It is my observation that many STEM higher education programs provide URM students with activities (e.g., STEM field internships) that attempt to create a sense of belonging  or increase students’ level of identification with STEM (i.e., the extent to which the student defines the self through a role or performance in STEM) . Additionally, some processes that occur during program implementation (e.g., cohort tracking) also seem to increase students’ sense of belonging. When programs foster a sense of belonging (and increase identification with STEM), program participants tend to have high levels of implementation and commitment to pursuing a STEM degree. Indeed, Chemers, Zurbriggen, Syed, Goza, & Bearman (2011), found that identity as a scientist (and self-efficacy) mediated the relationship between science support activities (i.e., research experience, instrumental mentoring) and commitment to a career in science.

I believe that evaluators can use research on identity and identity related constructs to help clients understand how and why STEM program activities (e.g., STEM field internships) lead to intended outcomes (e.g., retention, persistence, and graduation). Specifically, evaluators can assess whether program activities and processes that occur during program implementation create, increase, or decrease students’ identification with STEM and sense of belonging. For example, evaluators can assess students initial levels of belongingness and identification using established scales at the start of a program (or as a pretest before specific program activities) and again upon completion of the program. Clients can use this information to develop, modify, and improve program activities and ultimately the success of their program.


Chemers, M. M., Zurbriggen, E. L., Syed, M., Goza, B. K., & Bearman, S. (2011). The role of efficacy and identity in science career commitment among underrepresented minority students. Journal of Social Issues, 67, 469-491.

Higher Education Research Institute (2010). Degrees of success: Bachelor’s degree completion rates among initial STEM majors. Retrieved June 20, 2013, from

Osborne, J. W., & Jones, B. D. (2011). Identification with academics and motivation to achieve in school: How the structure of the self influences academic outcomes. Educational Psychological Review, 23, 131-158.

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