The Secret Sauce of Belonging, Engagement, and Help-Seeking: A Q&A with Carlton Fong

February 14, 2024 | By Elizabeth Ganga

Photo of Carlton Fong
Carlton Fong, Texas State University

Carlton Fong, a professor of curriculum and instruction at Texas State University, has expertise in motivation, metacognition, and instructional design, with a focus on STEM courses. His work on student agency and how it helps students feel connected to college and motivates them to seek help touches on several areas of the Collaborative’s model of self-directed learning.

We talked to him recently to learn more about his research and how it can inform how we think about teaching practice to help more students succeed, particularly low-income, first-generation, minoritized students in broad-access institutions.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Elizabeth Ganga: Tell us what you’re studying now. What kinds of things are you working on?

Carlton Fong:
I am really interested in some of the social interactions and the perceptions of the social contexts for college students, particularly students of color in college. I’m interested in their perceptions of belonging, what it takes to belong, maybe even some of their perceptions of the costs they feel when they have to belong, and also how that relates to different motivational factors and self-regulated-learning factors like help-seeking. I’m really interested in this holistic idea of what it means for student success, because it’s clearly not just on the student.

Ganga: What factors contribute to higher rates of failure and withdrawal in online STEM courses? Is there something specific going on with STEM? And how does that contribute to equity gaps?

Fong: There are a couple of factors I would think about. I think there might be a lack of self-confidence, perhaps from previous failure that students have experienced. I think being misprepared by previous schooling experiences. They might be stepping into these gateway introductory math courses with a lot of baggage, so building some self-efficacy is really important. I also think there is, particularly in a STEM context, just this tension of whether students feel like they belong in that space.

And it depends on how instructors interact with them, how their peers engage with them. There are all these social cues going on, and they form this really interesting and potentially threatening context for students, particularly those who feel like, “Okay, I don’t really belong in this space.” And I think all of those things are heightened when we think about equity gaps.

Ganga: What does your research say about how faculty can create STEM learning environments that promote belongingness and motivation?

Fong: Some of the work I’ve done has looked at instructors creating what some scholars have been calling a motivationally supportive climate. Instructors help support the interests, preferences, and goals that students have. The more instructors can identify those inner motivational resources within students and draw them out, the more motivated I think students are going to feel. They’re going to feel more oriented toward mastery and wanting to learn for the sake of learning.

Some of the new work I’m engaging in is around the idea of agentic engagement. This means really allowing students to express what they’re interested in, their preferences for learning, and having that be inserted into the flow of instruction so instructors are able to dynamically adjust and modify what they’re teaching to best suit students’ needs and interests. We see agentic engagement as a really promising strategy, particularly for marginalized students. It’s a strong cue for saying, “You do belong here. You are a meaningful contributor to this classroom community. And we’re going to work on this together.”

Ganga: What ways do students’ families and communities support their motivation to learn and shape their attitudes toward college and their help-seeking and mindset?

Fong: I love that question. My doctoral students are interested in Tara Yosso’s community cultural wealth. This is the idea that students of color have rich assets, and these strengths and capital come from their families and their communities. They include things like familial capital, all the funds of knowledge and funds of identity they get from their family and extended family. Also their linguistic capital, social capital, navigational capital, resistant capital—all of these assets students are already bringing.

Two studies come to mind that we’ve done. One looked at Latine/x college students in STEM. We found that when Latine/x students were feeling like STEM wasn’t that motivating, what kept them going was actually their cultural capital. They were drawing from those assets.

In the second study, we also found that the cultural capital of Latine/x students—in a general context, not just STEM—was a positive predictor of adaptive help-seeking. One interesting thing about help-seeking is it can vary. The more adaptive help-seeking is when students are seeking help to really master and learn the material and not just get the answer. What we found was students’ cultural capital was actually positively predictive of this mastery-oriented help-seeking. So it’s really important for students to identify and harness the capital drawn from their families and communities, which translates to help-seeking tendencies that are really good for learning, as well as persistence in STEM.

Ganga: How is help-seeking connected to belonging and motivation?

Fong: I’m really excited about this topic. We talked about the more adaptive help-seeking that’s more mastery-oriented versus the less adaptive, maybe maladaptive, help-seeking where you’re just seeking the quick answer. So there are differences in help-seeking. There are also meaningful differences in belonging. And I think this is something we really have to grapple with.

In one study my dissertation student just completed, she measured three types of belonging. She looked at belonging to the campus; belonging socially, like connections with peers; and belonging to the classroom, like academic belonging. Those three types of belonging were differentially associated with different types of help-seeking, which I thought was super interesting. I just thought, hey, if you belong, you’re going to want to seek help. What was really interesting was that the more students felt social belonging, that actually led to a lot of maladaptive help-seeking. But belonging to the academic space, that lead to adaptive help-seeking. So I think the messaging and the interventions need to wrestle with what we mean by creating spaces of belonging.

Ganga: Have you done much work with online courses? I’m curious if you feel like this work translates between modalities.

Fong: Yeah, online is definitely more of a challenge, and we’ve learned that especially during the pandemic. I’ve done a lot of asynchronous online teaching, and I feel like it’s hard to adapt your instruction to students’ needs. But what can be really useful, especially for online, asynchronous teaching, is to have a choose-your-own-adventure type of approach to learning. I try to have as many choices as I can built into assignments and ways of engaging with the course. I think that way, it feels like students still have agency.

Is there an example of an instructional strategy that is effective in tapping into those assets students bring, something you’ve seen concretely in a classroom?

Fong: The one that I’m thinking about is with this agentic engagement study, where students were expressing what was interesting to them. This can happen during the flow of instruction when students are raising their hand and giving input into what resonated with them. But I think this can also happen more structurally. Instructors can do exit tickets, where at the end of class they ask, “Hey, write one thing that was interesting, or one thing that connected with something from your personal life.” Those little tidbits become clues. Teaching is like being a detective. What can I do to make stronger, more vivid connections with my students’ lives? I think that’s the secret sauce.

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