It has long been understood that feeling a sense of belonging is strongly associated with academic and social engagement while at university – and can make or break students’ overall experience.
Concerns about belonging have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and – despite the heroic efforts of universities and students’ unions – the experience of disconnection, disengagement, and loss of academic confidence became much more widespread.
To better understand which areas impact students’ sense of belonging and support the sector in its efforts to “build back” student experience, Pearson and Wonkhe are undertaking a year-long study of belonging and inclusion.
When we asked staff about the subject, we uncovered some truths that many in the sector will already know – the closer students’ relationships are with academics, the higher their academic confidence, representation within the curriculum and the staff body can heighten students’ feelings of inclusion, adjustments made for students’ circumstances adds to inclusivity, and facilitated peer connections and co-working opportunities build a positive community. These were incorporated into the best practice initiatives we showcased at our recent launch event. The slide deck of results used at that event is also available.
However, a prominent secondary theme that echoes through these research findings is that academics and professional service staff can feel overburdened, sometimes overwhelmed, and often under-resourced. When this is the case, they feel they can not carry out initiatives to support student belonging – even if they strongly believe they are necessary.
Often, strategies developed without consideration of staff capacity were described as “disjointed” and even when appropriate resources were allocated some staff reported that they still did not fully understand what was expected of them, or what services were available to students. It is clear that any institution wishing to use this research to improve their students’ sense of belonging should approach change with the full inclusion of their staff body – both in development and implementation.
A year-long look at belonging
Our first project was a survey of 5,233 students, undertaken in partnership with 15 students’ unions across the UK. That survey explored a range of possible dimensions of the experience of belonging – feeling “settled in”, personal priorities and academic confidence, the way the course is run, sense of connection and inclusion on the course, connections outside the course (extra-curricular activities), inclusion in the university, sense of safety, being valued and empowered, friendships and peer connections, feelings of happiness and loneliness. The results showed clear associations between a sense of belonging and all these different factors.
To add depth to our understanding of the student experience, we have been collecting monthly diary entries on an anonymous basis and have conducted several student focus groups to explore some of the emerging themes.
As we reviewed the findings in Spring 2022, it was clear that we were missing the university staff and students’ union staff perspectives. Which areas impact on students’ sense of belonging, and where does responsibility lie for meeting challenges? What initiatives are already in place and making a difference?
To answer these questions, we ran a survey from Monday 11 April to Friday 6 May, which was promoted via Wonkhe’s free weekly briefing – Wonkhe Mondays. Of the university staff and students’ union staff involved, 89 per cent work for providers in England, 7 per cent work for providers in Scotland and 3 per cent work for providers in Wales. The overall response rate was 430, and these respondents were self-selecting.
We have not weighted the responses. However, we have broken down the survey responses by job roles to see if there were differing perceptions depending on the respondent’s positioning:
- Academic engaged in teaching and learning – 32 per cent
- University, HE provider, or college staff engaged in supporting
- students’ wider experience and development (E.g. student support, registry, careers advice, accommodation) – 32 per cent
- Students’ union staff or student representative – 19 per cent
- University, HE provider, or college staff engaged in supporting students’ academic learning – 9 per cent
- Other – 9 per cent
Our initial student survey found associations between students’ sense of inclusion on their course and their sense of belonging. For example, students who disagreed they feel a sense of belonging were less likely to agree that the content taught on their course includes varied, diverse voices, and less likely to agree that their course is consistently taught in an inclusive style. In this survey, we defined “inclusion” as “the ways the constituent parts of a course (e.g content, teaching style) create a space in which you (i.e students) feel comfortable and confident to be yourself.”
In the staff survey we asked respondents to what extent they agreed with this definition. 42 per cent agree, and 51 per cent partly agree. For those who partly agree or disagree, many feel that the definition is too centred on the course and does not recognise the role of the wider university when it comes to inclusion – i.e. the culture of the university and the support, environment, communication, accommodation, study spaces and extra-curricular activities. Other comments believed that it focused too heavily on the individual when the focus should be on a social relational element.
Using our definition of inclusion, 11 per cent of respondents believe that courses at their institution are inclusive, and 77 per cent think they’re inclusive “to some extent.” Examples of inclusive courses suggested by participants included:
- Diverse curriculum
- A choice of assessment styles
- Accessibility of online resources
- Diverse external speakers.
- Representation in staff
Interestingly, many student diary entries said that the lack of inclusion and representation in their course content caused them concern about their academic ability and/or competency in the graduate workplace. Two white medical students wrote that they were concerned that the lack of black patients used as examples in textbooks meant that they would struggle to diagnose skin conditions on black skin (conversely, another medical student praised the use of mannequins with different skin tones).
A Psychology student, however, praised that their lecturer encouraged them to challenge racism within the field and note how certain groups were, and still are, pathologised or misdiagnosed due to racial stereotypes. Notably, this student saw this inclusion as appropriate academic rigour.
In the open text comments, respondents noted that:
Who is teaching matters (alongside teaching style). My students have responded very positively to guest lecturers who can speak to a topic in a different (more authentic way) because of their lived experience.”
Representation within the staff body was particularly important in our student diary entries. A diverse curriculum was not enough to encourage a sense of belonging and inclusion among students. A non-binary student wrote in their diary that their non-binary PhD teaching assistant “makes [them] feel very comfortable” to be themself. However, they were demoralised when they overheard staff misgendering the teaching assistant which demonstrates that representation alone is not enough to promote inclusion – institutions need to work on inclusive culture actively.
59 per cent of all respondents believe that their institutions are working on improving academic inclusion and a further 33 per cent say this is happening “to some extent.” 29 per cent of total participants agree that their institution engages with students when accessing and improving inclusion on courses and a further 47 per cent agree that this happens “to some extent”:
The key thing is always to involve students at all stages of decision-making and action – e.g. from the initial ideas stage to planning, implementation and evaluation. Belongingness’ does not come from having things done ‘to’ you – it’s all about collaboration and co-construction.”
This corresponds with positive themes from our student diary analysis – where students described how being actively involved in processes to improve inclusion fosters both academic confidence and a sense of belonging.
Notably, one commuter student described how they feedback to a module leader that the weekly Friday assignments were difficult to reach for students with travel commitments or childcare responsibilities and that moving them to a Monday morning would give these students the weekend to work on them. After engaging with all students on the module, the assignment deadline was changed to be more accessible and inclusive. The student described how this enhanced their sense of belonging.
Many students viewed the accessibility of content and resources as an indicator of inclusion.
- availability of online slides and recordings of lectures
- how quickly slides and recordings were made available online after the class
- availability of books in both the online library and physical libraries (and the opening hours of the latter)
- affordability of textbooks
Surprisingly, only 8 per cent of staff respondents prioritised “the broad accessibility of learning resources when developing inclusive courses.” This may be due to factors such as access to learning resources not being considered part of inclusivity.
Our definition of inclusion is (“the ways the constituent parts of a course (e.g content, teaching style) create a space in which you (i.e students) feel comfortable and confident to be yourself”) which – as respondents noted – focused on the individual. This may have prompted respondents to consider inclusion in terms of race, religion, sexuality and gender and not accessibility (which would impact students with caring responsibilities or part-time jobs).
Indeed, a high percentage of respondents – 64 per cent – selected ‘a lack of consensus about what inclusion looks like’ as one of their top three barriers to improving inclusion in academic courses.”
“Low knowledge and confidence of staff to adopt inclusive practices” was selected by respondents as one of the top three barriers to improving inclusion. When split by role, 68 per cent of all academics answered this, which raises questions about how equipped and supported staff feel about implementing institutional strategic priorities around inclusion in teaching.
A respondent did suggest that “[w]ide ranging best practice examples for all departments would be very helpful.” This could include simple suggestions like the availability of presentations after a lecture.
72 per cent of respondents selected “other competing priorities” as one of the top three barriers to improving inclusion.
Excessive workload is a topic that has emerged many times throughout this research and will need to be addressed carefully before any recommendations are actioned.
I believe many staff wish to improve academic inclusion. However, the approach is disjointed across the institution and the resources required – staff time in particular – are lacking.
41 per cent of respondents believed that poorly articulated policy or obstructive cross-institutional plans and policies prevented improving inclusion in academic courses. This would suggest that there is more to do to involve staff in discussion about strategic developments – from inception to implementation – for institutions to thoroughly understand any operational implications.
Most staff believe that “the student’s demographic background and personal socio-economic circumstances” make the most significant difference in whether they feel confident about their academic skills on arrival at university, although the results are relatively evenly split between all factors offered:
- The student’s demographic background and personal socioeconomic circumstances (e.g. first in family)
- The type of qualifications the student has achieved (e.g. A levels, BTECs) and the assessment process
- Whether the student has had encouragement and support (or lacked these in prior educational settings)
- The quality of induction support that HE providers offer to support transition
- Whether the student’s family or personal network is supportive
- The student’s personal self-efficacy, e.g. ability to manage time or ask for help
- The student’s prior development of cognition and academic skills, e.g. numeracy, writing
When broken down by role type, staff supporting students’ academic learning tend to see students’ backgrounds as the most significant influence on their confidence. In contrast, SU staff or student representatives see this as the quality of their induction.
12 per cent believed that “the student’s personal efficacy” made the most significant difference in whether they feel confident about their academic skills. Personal efficacy is the ability to manage time, motivate oneself, and ask for help if needed. It is worth institutions exploring how they help students develop these skills.
27 per cent of respondents believe that “the quality of student’s relationship with academics teaching on the course” makes the most significant difference to their academic confidence. This position was also verified by students themselves in the learner survey and diary analysis, where students reported at every stage of the research that the better and closer their relationship with academics, the more confident they were about their academic ability.
Interestingly, only 5 per cent ranked “the quality of the student’s relationship with their personal academic tutor” as their first priority (raising only to 7 per cent when looking at staff supporting students’ wider experience and development as a role), which raises questions about the role of the personal tutor versus the role of the academic when it comes to building student confidence, and perhaps the efficacy of communication about this role.
The open text comments, as with inclusion, raised concerns surrounding dwindling resources, growing student numbers, and already high academic workloads. This particular comment, again, speaks to the need for any strategic approach around belonging and inclusion to be joined up:
Why take the time to develop a student’s academic confidence when you have a research proposal to develop. The research will get you promoted – working with students won’t.”
If there are remit expectations for staff, but only some of these are rewarded, then those without reward – such as fostering student belonging – can logically be expected to be deprioritised. Any strategic approach to belonging and inclusion likely needs to start with conversations with staff around what is realistically achievable and what needs to be deprioritised to achieve this.
Staff time and resources were also a concern in developing a broader department culture that nurtures students’ confidence. While 40 per cent of overall respondents believed that “the academic culture of the discipline that the student is studying” made a significant difference to their academic confidence, the capacity for staff to develop this was questioned by many respondents:
We are exhausted and are continually getting asked to do things by management that take away time and energy from developing that sort of culture. It is all cutting budgets, streamlining/cutting services, etc. You can’t build a good programme in that atmosphere when the university efforts and headwinds are all against it.
Concerns surrounding the culture of a department or discipline also raise questions about whether certain courses are seen as competitive or collaborative and whether student confidence is considered when these courses are designed. It also suggests that courses can be proactively designed in a way that supports academic confidence as standard rather than something that is addressed within a deficit model – often seen within widening participation approaches.
In particular, if courses can be – and are – designed in a way that encourages students to feel confident, then this may solve the concern that many respondents felt of “students slipping through the net.” This concern was heightened for respondents who reported larger intakes.
When asked what the barriers to developing academic confidence were, the three selected as most significant by respondents were:
- Understanding what support, intervention or structural change might be required to address low academic confidence
- Knowing what would help but not being able to implement the intervention
- Identifying the students who might be struggling with lower academic confidence
In the open text responses, the first two barriers were attributed mainly to inconsistent pedagogy across the institutions and a lack of resources. Some respondents said they knew what “top-down” approaches were recommended but did not have the capacity or resources to implement them. Others said they were unsure of what university services were available to recommend to students.
Students seem to be given wrong or just strange advice on where and how to seek additional support. This is top-down. Vital help pages are hidden on the university intranet. Academic staff themselves do not know what support.”
The third most significant barrier – selected by respondents – to supporting the development of students’ academic confidence is “identifying which students may be struggling.” In the open text responses, many respondents elaborated that intervention strategies often rely on deficit models – particularly those aimed at widening participation students – which may result in students being reluctant to draw attention to themselves as lacking ability:
…confidence itself is a barrier to asking and taking help.”
A significant number of respondents indicated that staff feel they do not have the capacity to offer struggling students the support they would like to give. This suggests that taking time to revisit workload models that factor in student support needs is an important consideration.
76 per cent of respondents believe that “forging new connections & building peer relationships is an essential part of the university learning experience for all students” compared with 1 per cent who saw it as “an added bonus” but “not material to the learning experience.”
This supports findings from our learners’ survey. When we asked students what would help them feel a greater sense of belonging at university, the top answer was “getting to know other people on my course better”, closely followed by “developing closer or more friendships”:
…peer support is so important as it can make it much easier for students to ask what they worry might be ‘silly’ questions and demystify some of the different experiences on the course.”
When we asked respondents in what ”space” students are most likely to forge connections with their peers, the top answer was “on their course during scheduled contact hours.” This was closely followed by “in their student accommodation,” which was followed by “while engaging in student societies, sporting, and extracurricular activities.”
The course is the one central place we know all students will interact and the one place we can definitely influence in a way which is a core part of the learning experience, instead of as a bolt-on”.
When asked to rate the level of responsibility the institution has for enabling students to build peer connections, the median score was 8 out of 10 (10 being the highest and most active level of involvement). Regarding who should have lead responsibility for enabling students to build peer connections, the three top choices were the students themselves, the course tutors and module leaders, and the students’ unions.
Many respondents felt it was a collective responsibility but that the course was where all students would definitely interact – particularly given that extra-curricular activities – such as clubs and societies – would not work for all students. There were differences of opinion in the open comments about the extent to which academic staff should have any responsibility.
One respondent noted that:
The course is the one central place we know all students will interact and the one place we can definitely influence in a way which is a core part of the learning experience as instead of a bolt-on.
While another argued that:
It would muddy the waters (let alone break teaching staff) to also have the responsibility to facilitate the building of social connections.
It is important to identify that there is a clear delineation between “coursemates” and “friends”. When discussing connections within their learning communities in our focus groups, students would specify that their learning communities were “very course specific, coursemate friendship[s]” and that the time spent together was enjoyable but that they were “very much course orientated and very much thinking about the course materials.”
Some students – such as mature students who already had systems of support, such as a spouse, specified that they were not interested in making friends but that they were interested in belonging to a learning community. They did not want to socialise but wanted opportunities to network – both in formal and semi-formal settings – and to collaborate and co-work on projects. These spaces are essential for students for whom other activities such as students’ unions’ societies – which tend to be perceived as being for younger students – may not work.
More to be done
Many of the responses to the staff survey questions simply prompted further questions in our minds about the way institutions as a whole work toward an inclusive environment that fosters a sense of belonging. It is, however, clear that clarity and joined-up approaches across whole institutions are fundamental to getting this right.
There has not only to be a compassionate goodwill buy-in from staff, but senior leaders must also return this goodwill in the form of compassion and understanding around staff’s time, resource, and capacity limitations. It is also fundamental to point out that staff, too, must “feel comfortable and confident to be [them]selves” if we are to expect them to instil this in students.
You can find the full results from the staff survey here and a recording of an event we held to launch them – Taking action on belonging and inclusion. The first stage of the research can be found here. We are enormously grateful to Pearson for continuing to support this research.