Helping students develop a sense of belonging

Harriet Dunbar-Morris shares the University of Portsmouth’s response to improving student experience for the Covid-impacted cohort

Harriet Dunbar-Morris is Dean of Learning and Teaching and Reader in Higher Education at the University of Portsmouth. 

Universities are working hard to explain to students what support will be in place for them before and when they arrive on campus this autumn. There will be lots of outside attention on freshers but all students need help adjusting.

Our response to supporting new and returning students is led by our Being, Belonging, Becoming framework, based on evidence first produced by my colleague Catherine Carroll-Meehan as to how students become part of their learning community.

Integrated approach

Portsmouth formed a working group bringing together academic, professional services staff, and the students’ union to plan and oversee, in an integrated way, the progression, pre-arrival, induction, and transitions of our students and applicants.

Strategically, Being, Belonging, Becoming is intended to help students become and then be students, to connect with each other and feel that sense of belonging. It is about engendering a community (at university, course, and students’ union levels) and creating social networks; being inclusive, supportive, and accessible – catering for our diverse student body, and forming part of a whole-institution approach to fostering student wellbeing and inclusion; and covering all students (home and international, all modes).

Creating Belonging is key this year, as we offer interactive activities to help students with sense-making activities to undertake with their peers and staff in face-to-face sessions, following on from short, recorded chunks of lectures that students engage with in their own time and at their own pace.

In Becoming, we are providing the opportunity to take online modules for new and returning students to help transition to HE or to help them with learning online and learning well which includes resilience, etc.

In Being, we are supporting students through our Personal Tutoring and Development Framework, for example solution-focused coaching, to help them to help themselves.

Not only does Being, Belonging, Becoming guide us in planning teaching, learning and student experience with students, in times like these it also enables and empowers us to ensure that students catch up on any missed opportunities. That is particularly important for current students with whom we are specifically exploring responses to the skills or competencies they may not have been able to achieve easily during the last academic year as universities switched between blended and online learning and lockdowns.

Student voice

However, Being, Belonging, Becoming is much bigger than the issues we are dealing with in the present day. The student support in place for this year is only possible through the work we have done in recent years: this framework is, fundamentally, a more useful student voice model than any standard university committee.

At Portsmouth, we see the value of students in active collaboration to change the institution. For example, our Student Experience Committee, which includes staff and student representation, has been refocused to act as a research group. At the beginning of each academic year, we take data – both internal and external – from all sources across the university, and look at it together to decide where we are going to focus our attention to enhance the student experience.

The objective is to engage and empower members to focus on evidence, and adopt a role as agents of positive change to address matters and improve the student experience, instead of simply raising issues for discussion at yet another committee. It is also through this committee that our Being, Belonging, Becoming working group emerged – but the principles of partnership working are set out in our University Strategy, embodied in our Student Charter, and reflected in our Student Voice policy too.

Portsmouth is not the only institution now following the principles of Being, Belonging, Becoming. For example, we are aware that having first been used at Canterbury Christ Church University, it has been picked by Kingston University, the University of Sydney and as part of the First Year Experience Network of STARS (Students Transitions Achievement Retention and Success) in Australia and New Zealand. It is also being adopted by University of Portsmouth Academy Trust as core values for working with that multi-academy trust, whilst our University of Portsmouth Students Union has latched on to the Being, Belonging, Becoming research and is rebadging its activities under these headings.

Our work is clearly inspiring others in the sector. Ensuring students feel a sense of belonging and connection does make a difference to their experience of higher education: this was key to our approach to delivering learning and teaching during the pandemic, and is at the heart of our plans for 2021-22.

Gathering examples of good practice and feeding them out to the wider university community creates a useful ripple effect and ensures ideas are picked up and implemented by other colleagues. As we look ahead, that community needs to be created via a variety of mechanisms, online and face-to-face, if it is to be robust enough to deal with any further curveballs that Covid-19 may throw our way.

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