Challenge of managing different identities can lower undergraduate performance

If we increase a sense of belonging this could help to mitigate the negative outcomes resulting from a sense of identity incompatibility
- Dr Ilka Gleibs
Class room

White students who feel challenged around their existing and emerging identities in their first year at university tend to experience decreases in their academic attainment compared to BAME students, according to research from London South Bank University (LSBU) and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

The research, published in the Social Psychology of Education journal, found that although BAME student’s attainment was generally lower, they did not see the same decrease in their performance as their non-BAME peers, with the authors suggesting this is due to BAME students’ greater likelihood to have experienced similar challenges earlier in their lives.

The research data was collected at the start and the end of the academic year, sampling responses from 215 first-year undergraduate students enrolled at a London university. Of the participants, 40.1% were classed as Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME), 57.1% as non-BAME (2.8% did not provide any information on their ethnic background).

The authors questioned students about the strength of their perceived social identities, both as a student and as a member of a wider ethnic group. They also questioned the students on levels of their practical and identity incompatibility - for example, around the demands stemming from an individual’s student identity that conflict with those from other identities, such as the time commitment of adhering to a particular religion, caring for family members, or differences in cultural norms and expectations.

At the end of the academic year, each student’s average marks were recorded and linked to their scores on the other measures. Overall, BAME students showed lower academic attainment. BAME students also expressed equal levels of student identity to non-BAME students, but higher levels of ethnic identity. The researchers noted that BAME students’ experienced higher levels of both practical and identity incompatibility compared to non-BAME students.

However, non-BAME students only showed relatively lower educational attainment when their identity and practical incompatibility was also recorded as high. This finding suggests that identity and practical incompatibility are important factors that can impact negatively on academic performance amongst the non-BAME students, who appear to be most affected.

Lead author on the report, Professor Daniel Frings, Professor of Social Psychology in the Division of Psychology at LSBU, said: “Although we observed an attainment gap between BAME and non-BAME students, it was with the non-BAME students that we saw a marked decline in the levels of educational attainment when identity and practical incompatibility levels were higher.

“This suggests that some non-BAME students could be less prepared to make the transition and adjustment into higher education than BAME students, who are perhaps more used to managing different identities as they enter new environments such as higher education. Attainment gaps should be tackled wherever possible, and these results show the importance of the diverse challenges all students face as they enter higher education.”

Dr Ilka Gleibs, Associate Professor at the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE, said: “Studies have shown that if we increase a sense of belonging - for BAME and non-BAME students - by instilling the belief in students that they are worthy of their education and valued, this could help to mitigate the negative outcomes resulting from a sense of identity incompatibility.

“In addition, practical measures to help the common challenges disadvantaged students might have, such as paying for their laptop or books, can help immensely.”

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