For a lot of us, when we picture college, we think of students playing frisbee on the quad, or cheering on the football team in school colors, or working on a project together in the library, or grabbing dinner together at the dining hall.

The common denominator? Students engaging with each other. Being together. Building community. Knowing that they matter to other people on campus.

But for many students these days, there’s no long a sense of belonging. With the cost of college continuing to rise faster than inflation, there are more online and distance learners that spend little to no time on campus. In fact, it’s expected that by 2019, roughly half of all college classes will be based online. There are also more commuter and part-time students trying to balance a job and family with academic responsibilities–and therefore spending less time on campus.

This means fewer in-person opportunities to interact with other students, faculty, counselors, mentors, etc. Fewer opportunities to interact means students may have a harder time connecting with others and building community.

Without a sense of community, students are less likely to feel like, Hey, this is my university. People are here for me. People care if I succeed. I belong here.



Why Mattering Matters, with Gregory Elliott, Ph.D.

That sense of mattering to others is critically important. Why? Gregory Elliott, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology at Brown University and expert on the concept of mattering explained in a recent interview with Motivis Learning. Read excerpts below, or listen to the full interview here.

For anybody who hasn’t heard of the concept before, can you give us a brief overview of mattering is and why it’s important?

Mattering is the understanding that, in any of a variety of ways, you make a difference in the world around you. It’s kind of like the obverse notion of significant other. So if a significant other is someone who makes a difference in your life, the question of mattering is whether you make a difference in anybody else’s life.

What sort of things are required to make a person feel like they matter?

Well, there are three different kinds of mattering, all of which are important. The first one is very basic, very fundamental, and I call it awareness. It is basically the question of whether you can capture other people’s attention. So when you walk into a room, do people at least look up and notice that you’ve come in? If you say something, do people acknowledge that they heard it? Can people put a name to your face? It’s a basic notion that I am not socially invisible.

Then there are two other kinds of mattering that are more relationship-oriented. The first one is called importance. With importance, it’s a matter of, do you recognize that people invest in your welfare? So for example, if something really good happens to you, does anyone else care? Or on the other side, if you have a really bad day, is there someone you can lean on because they’ll take the time to be with you? The question is whether people will take some of their precious resources, including time, and spend it on you because they want to improve your welfare.

The last one is the kind of reverse of importance and I call it reliance. That is, do people come to you with their wants and needs? Do people ask your advice about any problem that they might be having? Do people want your opinion on social and political issues? Do people turn to you when they’re having a bad time?

One of the things I read in your research that really piqued my interest was the fact that, yes, students whose parents praise their academic performance feel like they matter. But students whose parents punish them for bad grades actually feel like they matter more. Can you explain this?

The basic idea is that we want to believe that we matter and in a positive way. That’s the best of all possible worlds for people. But if you’re not getting that, then what are you going to do? Well, there are two options, neither of which is particularly enticing but can really, at least in the straights you find yourself in, seem like they might resolve your problem.

The first is, if you don’t matter just by being there, you can do something that will bring attention to yourself. That will force, or at least encourage people, to invest in you. Or maybe even remind people of their reliance on you. So for example, the young kid who says in his own mind, Okay Dad, you don’t pay attention to me during the week, but when you have to come down to bail me out of jail on Saturday, you will pay attention to me.

It’s negative attention, but negative attention is better than no attention at all. I think that issue of mattering is behind a lot of acting out behavior that we might see among young people. The other possibility is much more dire. Because if you don’t matter, you can come to the conclusion, who’s going to miss you? And you’re already socially invisible, so why not complete it by becoming totally not there?

Let’s take this over to mattering in higher ed. Why is it particularly important for students to feel like they matter in this setting?

Because they’re on a new path. They are entering one of the important transition points in life. For students that go to college, it’s probably the second most important transition point. The first is when they gain the cognitive ability to be able to think rather than just deal in the concrete and tangible, they can deal in the abstract. That’s a huge transition and it starts happening for kids around age 12, give or take.

The next big transition for those who go to college is going to college and entering an environment that is qualitatively different from their high schools and from their homes. They have to get along with people they don’t know very well, they’ve got to take classes that may be quite different, not just quantitatively but qualitatively, from the kinds of classes they had in high school, even if they went to a very good one.

There are some specific populations of students that have a harder time persisting and graduating from college. You’ve done some work with first-gen students, for example. Can you tell me why it’s particularly important for first-gen students to have community, to have a sense of mattering in school?

There’s a notion by a sociologist named Pierre Bourdieu, and he has this notion of capital. That is financial capital, can your parents pay the money, but more important than that is what he calls cultural and social capital.

Social capital has to do with whether your family and you have connections. Are there places you can go, people you can talk to, who will help prepare you for this world? Those who are in relatively higher socioeconomic levels do. They have teachers and decent schools, or they have family who have gone to college. And of course their own parents.

The other thing is the cultural capital, which is, do you have an understanding of the way the world works? Again, those who are relatively well off, middle to high socioeconomic status levels, have this cultural capital. For them, college is a transition, no doubt, but it’s nowhere near the kind of transition that it is for first gens whose parents cannot help them one iota with coming to college and who have no other resources. They may have even been discouraged in going to college by their guidance counselors.

So they’re completely on their own. If they feel they matter to the school, or even to one teacher in the school, they’re going to be in a lot better shape than if they think they are basically there alone.


2 thoughts on “Why Mattering Matters to College Students”

  1. It looks like my dissertation topic, that I’m about to complete, is timely: Where do student-to-student interactions occur in online-only and low-residency degree programs and to what extent do they relate to students’ senses of community and learning.

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