Intervening to Support Belonging: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Strength-Promotion and Threat-Reduction Approaches

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Williams, Christopher, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Wilson, Timothy, Psychology, University of Virginia

The higher education landscape in the United States is characterized by ongoing disparities in both academic (e.g., achievement) and well-being (e.g., psychosocial health) outcomes between students with underrepresented identities—including racially-ethnically minoritized (URM; Black, Hispanic, Native American, and/or Pacific Islander) students and first-generation students—and those with overrepresented identities—racial-ethnic (White and/or Asian) students and continuing-generation students. There are well-evidenced approaches to reducing these gaps with various social psychological belonging interventions. However, these interventions overwhelmingly focus on reducing threats, which do not work in all contexts and may produce unintended negative consequences. A promising alternative approach is to focus on promoting strengths, especially those that have developed as a function of students’ underrepresented social identities and associated life experiences (e.g., resilience). In this study, I developed a novel strength-promoting intervention and tested it alongside a more traditional threat-reducing intervention in a randomized controlled trial (N = 1,291; 56 class sections). I found that that both interventions promoted mentorship (Cohen’s d = 0.54) and reduced stress (d = -0.29) among URM students. I also found that the interventions exhibited heterogeneous effects across class sections, and some of this variance was explained by students’ perceptions of their instructor’s growth mindset. Exploratory analyses revealed additional positive effects of both interventions on the grades of URM participants in particular contexts, as well as positive effects of the strength-promoting intervention on the grades of first-generation students (d = 0.49). I discuss potential reasons for null effects on some primary hypotheses and how this study contributes to the wider literature on social psychological interventions.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
belonging, social psychological interventions, strength-based approaches
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