Sense of Belonging and Student Engagement: A Daily Study of First- and Continuing-Generation College Students

Abstract

To date, most research on sense of belonging in higher education has relied upon between-person correlations (e.g., Murphy and Zirkel in Teach Coll Rec 117(12):1–40, 2015; Ostrove and Long in Rev High Educ 30(4):363–389, 2007). In the current study, first- and continuing-generation college students (N = 280) reported their sense of belonging and their emotional and behavioral engagement in college every evening for a week. These data were used to examine both person-level and daily dynamics of sense of belonging and student engagement. With few exceptions, sense of belonging was associated with all types of student engagement at both the person and the daily levels. At the person level: replicating previous research, students with a higher sense of belonging than their peers tended to also have higher emotional and behavioral engagement. At the daily level: regardless of students’ typical sense of belonging, if they experienced especially high sense of belonging on a particular day, their emotional and behavioral engagement on that same day tended to be higher than usual. For two measures of student engagement—feelings toward school and in-class engagement—first-generation college students were especially sensitive to day-to-day fluctuations in sense of belonging. There were, however, few other effects of student generation. Overall, results suggest that sense of belonging is an important resource for maintaining student engagement among all students, but especially among first-generation students. In addition, because sense of belonging operates at both person and daily levels, schools can work at both levels to improve students’ belonging.

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Gillen-O’Neel, C. Sense of Belonging and Student Engagement: A Daily Study of First- and Continuing-Generation College Students. Res High Educ 62, 45–71 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-019-09570-y

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Keywords

  • Sense of belonging
  • Emotional engagement
  • Behavioral engagement
  • First-generation college students
  • Daily diary