Indiana State University Newsroom

Student success speaker focuses on 'social belonging and growth mindset'

October 28, 2014

When Michelle Robinson arrived at Princeton University, the first-generation student from the south side of Chicago wondered if she belonged at the Ivy League School. She didn't know anyone on campus except her brother, didn't know how to pick the right classes or find the right buildings and didn't even bring the right size sheets for her dorm room.

"I didn't realize those beds were so long. So I was a little overwhelmed and a little isolated," Robinson said. "My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘Blackness' than ever before . . . no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong."

Robinson overcame her feeling of not belonging. She graduated cum laude with a bachelor's degree in sociology and went on to earn a law degree at Harvard and marry a fellow attorney named Barack Obama.

Yes, the woman who initially felt she didn't fit it in college is now first lady of the United States.

Keynote speaker Mary Murphy shared the first lady's story during Indiana State University's second annual Student Success Conference as a way of showing how common it is for students, especially those from traditionally under-represented populations to question whether they fit in at college.

Many students fail to overcome their initial feelings and never complete a college degree but Murphy, assistant professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, has developed and tested theories on how social identity and group membership effects students' thoughts, feelings, behavior, physiology and motivation.

"The work of Dr. Murphy and her colleagues is emerging as the most important breakthrough research on how to positively impact student persistence to graduation, particularly for low-income, first-generation and historically under-represented college communities, " Josh Powers, associate vice president for student success at Indiana State, said in introducing Murphy.

Questions about fitting in can stem from classmates leaving for dinner without inviting a student to the cafeteria, Murphy said. Failing a first test may cause a student to question their ability and boring assignments may cause students to feel college is meaningless, she added.

"Research shows short exercises can help students answer these questions in more productive ways," Murphy said. "Eventually, students come to feel at home, that struggle actually means you're learning - not that you have reached your capacity to learn, that even when school work is boring it can help you become the kind of person you want to be and that when you receive critical feedback, it doesn't mean that the evaluator is biased, it means they have high standards that they are challenging you to meet."

Experiments have shown that even one instance of social isolation can undermine well-being, performance on IQ tests, self-control and critical functioning, she said.

"All students are going to question their sense of belonging, but it is especially likely among students in groups that are targeted by negative stereotypes and stigma," Murphy said.

Students often see intelligence and ability as fixed qualities that cannot be improved, "I either have it or I don't," she said. "A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence and ability can be developed and expanded through effort, persistence and good strategy.

As principal researcher with the Stanford University-based College Transition Consortium, Murphy and fellow researchers have begun working on a growth mindset approach - the belief that intelligence and ability can be expanded through effort, persistence and good strategy. Murphy and the consortium will be working with Indiana State in that area thanks to a $1.6 million U.S. Department of Education grant.

Interventions used elsewhere are the basis of a project at Indiana State to prevent at-risk students from using negative experiences as evidence they don't belong.

A study involving second semester freshmen at an east coast school provided students with "a new narrative that frames social diversity as common and short-lived, encouraging students to attribute adversity not to some kind of fixed deficit that is unique to them but as part of the college adjustment period," Murphy said.

"This treatment actually leads to a linear increase in performance by these students, especially among black students," she said. "It reduced the black achievement gap by 52 percent over a four-year period."

By freeing students from psychological worries about building relationships, participating students are much less likely to view everyday negative events as proof of a lack of belonging, Murphy said.

"They are also more likely to engage in productive school behavior ... more likely to make friends over time, live on campus and join extra-curricular groups," she said.

Other approaches have also proven successful, she said, citing online pre-orientation interventions for high school students that have long-term effects on college enrollment, first-year academic achievement and persistence. Indeed, these effects are more than six times larger than economic interventions that awarded scholarships to students for returning to college each year, Murphy noted.

Indiana State is one of 12 diverse institutions around the country that have been selected as a College Transition Consortium partner for the largest randomized, controlled trial of a social belonging intervention. It will involve a pre-orientation intervention for the entire incoming class in fall 2015 and will be customized for issues Indiana State students feel are relevant to their transition to college.

Growth mindset interventions will be used in gateway math and psychology courses involving 10,700 students during a four-year period, thanks to the U.S. Department of Education "First in the World" grant, so named because the grants are designed to restore the U.S. to its prominence of having the highest percentage of citizens with college degrees.

"There are some really exciting interventions that are going to happen at Indiana State in the next year," Murphy said.

About 150 faculty and staff attended the day-long conference, which also included breakout sessions and roundtable discussions on more than two dozen topics, including the impact of faculty members on student success, incentives vs. punishment, engaging students in a personalized way, curriculum and career readiness and poverty and student success.

"Any time that you have issues that need to be addressed, and you don't really know how to do it, bringing in consultants that have done the research in that area is great," said Venita Stallings, an academic advisor in University College. "From what I've heard today in the different workshops, I think we're on the right track. We need to understand some of the issues and uncertainties that (under-represented students) have coming to college. I'm all for what's happening and hopefully we will be able to get these things in place in time that some of the students we have now will continue on."

Photo: - Mary Murphy, assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University, delivers the keynote address Oct. 14, 2014 at Indiana State University's second annual Student Success Conference. (ISU/Angelique Bokamba)

Photo: - Josh Powers, associate vice president for student success at Indiana State University, speaks Oct. 14, 2014 at the university's second annual Student Success Conference. (ISU/Angelique Bokamba)

Photo: - About 150 faculty and staff attended Indiana State University's second annual Student Success Conference Oct. 14, 2014. (ISU/Angelique Bokamba)

Contact: Josh Powers, associate vice president for student success, Indiana State University, 812-237-8378 or

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3743 or