Values Affirmations & Social Belonging Interventions

August 17, 2020

As we prepare for fall, many of us are considering how best to welcome students to our remote classrooms, our disciplines, and our campus. A number of studies have demonstrated that activities like values affirmations and social belonging interventions can be small but powerful tools to support student learning and self-acceptance. These techniques, or variations upon them, have been applied by faculty here on the Berkeley campus and elsewhere.

They’re Not Magic

Keep in mind that brief psychological interventions are not magic. They may need to be adapted for specific contexts to speak to students’ experiences effectively. In addition, they are effective only when they remove barriers that otherwise prevent students from learning. That means that if a given barrier isn’t relevant in a setting, a psychological intervention that removes it won’t be effective. It also means that if students don’t have opportunities to learn more effectively in a setting, removing a psychological barrier to learning won’t be sufficient.

Yeager, D. S. & Walton, G. M. (2011). "Social-­‐psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic." Review of Educational Research, 81, 267‐301.

From "A Small-Group Discussion About Coming to College" by Greg Walton, Shannon Brady, Joe Powers, and Geoff Cohen.

What are they?

Values affirmation and social belonging interventions are brief psychological interventions that can be performed in or outside of the classroom, and have been shown to improve students’ learning and academic experiences, particularly for students from underrepresented communities. When incorporating these interventions into your course, consider the timing and context of students’ learning experiences so that students engage with values affirmations or social belonging strategies at key points in the semester including, but not limited to, leading up to a particularly challenging assignment, high-stakes exam, or stressful point in their academic careers.

How might they support student learning?

Values affirmation and social belonging interventions are strategies for mitigating demotivating social factors, like stereotype threat, and closing the performance gap between majority represented and underrepresented students in higher education. In particular, periodic, brief reflective writing assignments have been shown to reduce the achievement gap in STEM courses for women and other students from underrepresented communities (Miyake et al. 2010, Jordt et al. 2017). Similarly, attitude-changing strategies leveraged to foster a sense of belonging have been shown to enhance the achievement and health of first-year students from underrepresented communities (Walton and Cohen 2011).

What might these look like in your courses?

Example 1: Identifying values during an in-class written exercise (~10-15 minutes)

Miyake et al. (2010) incorporated values affirmation exercises at three strategic points in the semester: at the start of the course, prior to students completing the first homework assignment, and prior to a midterm exam. Students were asked to complete a brief (10-15 min) writing exercise to identify personally important values from a list (including relationships with friends and family) and write about why these values were important to them. This reflective writing technique substantially reduced the performance gap between men and women in an introduction to physics course.

Example 2: Watching, reflecting on, and recording “narrative(s) that framed social adversity in school as shared and short-lived” outside of class (~1 hour)

Walton and Cohen (2011) implemented a social belonging intervention for first year students designed to bolster students’ sense of belonging and frame social adversity in college as common and temporary. The exercise was implemented in 3 steps during a 1-hour laboratory visit. (1) Participating students first read survey responses from more senior students. Many of the responses reflected on challenges and concerns about belonging in college in their first year that dissipated over time as their confidence increased. (2) Participating students were then asked to write an essay describing how their own experiences in college may be similar to those in the survey. (3) These essays were then delivered orally and recorded by video, with the idea that they would be used to help future students with their college transition. The study capitalized on the “saying-is-believing effect” to promote student internalization and endorsement of their own messages.

Example 3: Identifying values during two web-based written exercises (~15 minutes each)

Values affirmations exercises have also been implemented in online contexts, both as online homework assignments as well pre-course surveys, with notable benefits to student performance and persistence. For example, in a study by Jordt et al. (2017), students were asked to complete a values affirmation as an online writing assignment completed outside of class. The exercise was framed as a standard class writing assignment given twice during the term: (1) during the first week and (2) after receiving feedback from the second exam (roughly half way through the term). Similar to Example 1, the exercise was designed to take about 15 minutes and asked students to identify and reflect on values of personal importance to them. 

Wondering about the efficacy of these strategies in asynchronous teaching and learning contexts? Both values affirmation and social belonging exercises have also been extended to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) (Kizilcec et al., 2017).

Example 4: An in-class instructor led discussion on shared difficulties (~1 hour).

This exercise is adapted to a remote Berkeley semester from “A Small-Group Discussion About Coming to College” by Greg Walton, Shannon Brady, Joe Powers, and Geoff Cohen, Stanford University, January 2014. Students are asked to (anonymously) reflect upon their transition to college, their difficulties with it, their anxieties about it, and ways in which they have begun to improve. Then students read a selection of their peers’ responses and the instructor leads a discussion to highlight that many of their difficulties and anxieties are widely shared among other students - that they are not alone in how they feel.

Next steps

Interested in learning more about values affirmations and social belonging exercises and how they might work in remote teaching and learning contexts? Schedule a consultation with the Center for Teaching and Learning to discuss how you might implement some of these strategies in your fall semester course.

References and further reading

Empirically Validated Strategies to Reduce Stereotype Threat. Retrieved from

Jordt, Hannah, Sarah L. Eddy, Riley Brazil, Ignatius Lau, Chelsea Mann, Sara E. Brownell, Katherine King, and Scott Freeman. “Values Affirmation Intervention Reduces Achievement Gap between Underrepresented Minority and White Students in Introductory Biology Classes.” Life Sciences Education, 16(3).

Kizilcec, Rene F., Andrew J. Saltarelli, Justin Reich, and Geoffrey L. Cohen. 2017. “Closing Global Achievement Gaps in MOOCs.” Science, 355(6322): 251-252.

Miyake, Akira, Lauren E. Kost-Smith, Noah D. Finkelstein, Steven J. Pollock, Geoffrey L. Cohen, and Tiffany A. Ito. 2010. “Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation.” Science, 330(6008): 1234-1237.

Walton, Gregory M. and Geoffrey L. Cohen. 2011. “A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of MInority Students.” Science, 331(6023):1447-332.