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Is Optimal Distinctiveness Theory Useful for Increasing Belonging in Educational Settings?

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

ERM Technical Session 10: Understanding Student Experiences

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Chris C. Martin Georgia Institute of Technology

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Dr. Chris C. Martin is a post-doctoral fellow and social scientist in biomedical engineering. His background is in sociology and social psychology. His research is supported by an NSF RED grant.

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Joseph M. LeDoux Georgia Institute of Technology

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Joe Le Doux is the Associate Chair for Undergraduate Learning and Experience in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. Dr. Le Doux's research interests in engineering education focus on problem-solving, diagrammatic reasoning, and on the socio-cognitive aspects of the flipped and blended learning environments.

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Wendy C. Newstetter Georgia Institute of Technology

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Dr Wendy C. Newstetter is the Assistant Dean for Educational Research and Innovation in the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech.

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Optimal distinctiveness theory (ODT), a psychological theory about fundamental needs, postulates that people seek to balance personal uniqueness with interpersonal similarity. We sought to leverage ODT to increase the inclusiveness of our department, hypothesizing that marginalized students feel too much uniqueness and too little similarity with peers. ODT posits that people prefer groups that provide sufficient inclusiveness within the group and sufficient differentiation between the in-group and the out-group. We wondered if ODT could also be applied to individual identity, such that individuals seek out an identity that is neither too similar to nor too distinct from their peers. We conducted two studies in our R1 university department to test if high and low levels of uniqueness and similarity were indeed associated with negative feelings. We found that the average student was not necessarily averse to high or low levels of these two factors. In Study 1, students recalled many situations in which they felt similar and positive (solidarity), distinct and positive (pride), and negative and distinct (shame/stigma). They recalled few situations in which they felt similar and negative (non-uniqueness). In Study 2, students also recalled situations with these combined attributes, although a few situations also aligned with individual-level ODT predictions. Although preliminary, these results suggest that ODT has limitations when applied to individual identity.

Martin, C. C., & LeDoux, J. M., & Newstetter, W. C. (2019, June), Is Optimal Distinctiveness Theory Useful for Increasing Belonging in Educational Settings? Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida.

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