The concept of belonging is notoriously hard to define.
Despite ‘belonging’ being the buzzword in universities – and known to contribute to student success -there has been relatively little insight at a sector-wide level. Covid-19 dialled up the barriers to creating student belonging, and as the country emerged from the lockdown restrictions, it became clear that re-engaging students would be a significant challenge.
Over the last year, Wonkhe and Pearson have worked with staff and students to build a rich and multifaceted understanding of student belonging. The staff and students involved in the research taught us more about belonging and inclusion than we ever could have predicted and gave us a wealth of insights from which we could analyse the conditions and interactions that contribute to feelings of belonging. The report we are launching today identifies tangible ways that institutions can re-engage students and help them develop a sense of belonging.
The conclusions are based on a survey of 5,233 students, a survey of 430 staff, a partnership with 15 students’ unions across the UK (13 in England, 1 in Scotland, and 1 in Wales), over 240 monthly diary entries from anonymous student participants, multiple student focus groups, and 52 projects by sector colleagues from across UK universities.
Foundations of belonging
There are a multitude of ways in which feelings of belonging are established, nurtured and hindered in universities. While the factors that promote belonging vary by person and personality, there are recurring themes within our data, which come together to form four foundational areas: connection, inclusion, support, and autonomy.
Getting to know their peers profoundly affects students’ sense of belonging because it enables them to build a support network and develop confidence. In our research, both staff and students agreed that this is critical, yet students did not report a strong sense of connection, either at the course or university level. When we asked staff about the most significant “space” students are likely to forge sustained peer connections and develop friendships, the most popular answer was “on their course during scheduled contact hours”. Students also felt strongly that they wanted to build connections at course level.
In the quantitative research, staff tended to overlook peer connections as a basis for confidence, whereas students reported that exposure to other students through academic societies, group work, or in seminars, studios, and labs increased their confidence levels. The benefit of students being able to support each other should not be overlooked.
Having those bonds and those people around you to support you when you’re having those moments of doubt [is the key to overcoming imposter syndrome]”. Student
The report recommendations cover a wide variety of activities and initiatives which can help students build connections, and include online social spaces, communications between staff and students, personal tutors, group work and communal spaces. Wherever possible, these recommendations should be integrated into course pedagogy.
Students associated diverse, inclusive content with course credibility. In our qualitative findings, there were rarely comments from students about how diverse content related to “seeing themselves” in the course material or the standalone need for diversity. Notably, students saw diverse content as appropriate academic rigour and giving them a more rounded perspective of the discipline:
Reading work by indigenous authors and minorities is really important from an inclusion perspective, but I also think it is more enriching for my course as well.” Student
A lack of diversity led students to question the credibility of their course and the expertise of their educators. It also led them to question how well their course was preparing them for the graduate workplace.
I know for certain that I [a medical student] will meet and look after people from all walks of life, varying in skin colour, gender orientation, social circumstance, and so I am not fully comfortable that my learning resources do not fully address this.
In addition to recommendations around inclusive content, the report also explores accessibility, neurodiversity, access to resources and representation of staff.
Well-defined, clearly articulated, inclusive support systems and networks were fundamental to building a sense of belonging in students. Above all other findings, eliminating a deficit model approach to support by integrating support throughout the course and across the university had the greatest potential to remove deeply engrained feelings of unbelonging, “otherness” or “imposter syndrome”. Feeling like you ‘don’t deserve to be a university’ was prevalent among students regardless of their achievements or background.
University staff survey respondents felt strongly that supporting students should be a shared responsibility across the institution, enabling students to access appropriate support at the point of need. We found that when students had to request support specifically, they often had to overcome bureaucratic administrative burdens, which was both frustrating and alienating.
I’ve had no extra support even though I’ve been through three mental health advisors and loads of different lecturers…It’s just going round in circles, trying to find who I’m meant to actually go to.
With an ever-diversifying student body – and that is a testament to our sector – the varying student needs are also diversifying. This complexity can mean that tutors are unsure or unconfident about the ‘right’ support to offer and where it is within the institution. Training and support for staff is critical to ensuring students can benefit from the provision in place, as and when they need it.
Being able to make informed decisions about their learning and contribute to the wider university experience was a strong indicator of feelings of belonging. Despite an increasing number of projects around co-creation in the sector, the practice is not widespread. One of the key recommendations in this section, particularly with reference to developing more inclusive content, is for co-creation to become standard practice.
Through the qualitative research, we saw that mindset played a part in the feedback students received – students displaying growth or fixed mindsets among our diarists appeared to respond differently when receiving poor grades. Positive, productive feedback on assessments gave students a straw to clutch at when anxious about upcoming assessments. It ensured students felt able to progress as not knowing where they went wrong was a key reason for feeling disappointed but also anxious about improving for future assessment.
We found that the four foundations of belonging exist symbiotically with one another, whereby the presence of one foundation, when facilitated well, would enhance others.
Students placed in group work tasks by educators seeking to enhance connection within the cohort also reported higher levels of autonomy as they became active participants in their own learning and received higher levels of support from peers within a learning community. Students also reported higher confidence levels as they found camaraderie and shared ownership of the learning experience with other students.
Students who received diverse and inclusive learning materials felt they were being better supported by their institution to prepare for increasingly globalised careers and/or to enter a diversifying graduate workplace. Students who were invited to contribute to the curriculum, either from their lived experience or academic interests, to make it more diverse and inclusive felt more connected to their cohort and academic staff and higher levels of autonomy over their learning experiences. When educators were flexible about the topics that students could write their assignments on or were open to student suggestions on course content, students reported being able to rectify non-inclusive content through their own scholarship increased their perception of the inclusive content of the course and their autonomy over it.
Barriers to belonging
Alongside the foundations, three overarching narratives reflect the challenges of building a sense of belonging in students and implementing the recommendations:
Lack of integration between the course and curriculum and the wider experience.
Our findings indicate that a “course plus everything else” approach to student belonging is unlikely to work, so we are advocating for a whole institution approach. If universities are serious about implementing measures to build and maintain, student belonging, they will need to avoid creating “bolt-on” programmes that run adjacent to the student learning or wider student experience.
Poor mental health creates a major barrier to belonging and inclusion.
There was a clear interaction between to what extent students felt that they belonged at an institution and how well they rated their mental health. This correlation was consistent across the student experience, whether we were asking students to rate their peer connections, confidence, how inclusive they found course content or whether they felt they could speak freely at university. Students with lower mental health scores were lower on virtually every question they were asked. It is clear that mental health must be central to any strategy that seeks to develop student belonging and that the interrelationship between belonging and mental health should be reflected in student wellbeing and experience strategies.
Structural and cultural issues prevent good practice.
We found very little indication that there is a lack of will among staff to implement practices that could enhance student belonging. What we did find was evidence of staff feeling overworked, overwhelmed, and confused as to where their responsibility and remit as part of this work lies. Staff will need a clear steer on what good practice looks like, why it is important, and genuine support – in terms of training, time, remit, and remuneration – to carry it out. Alongside these factors, staff stressed that a casualised labour force and issues around inclusive culture are barriers to implementing good practices surrounding student belonging and inclusion.
This article is a snapshot of our findings. In the report below, we discuss each foundational area in more detail, pulling out recommendations and sharing the quantitative and qualitative data that informed them. These recommendations are not necessarily radical, their value derives from the richness of insight and the connections made between issues afforded through the lens of belonging.
We hope that the practical way students and staff describe the journey of belonging – all the ways it can be improved or damaged – means that you can see the stage of the journey which your own institution, department, students and staff are on. Through the report, we have shared examples of some of the fantastic initiatives happening across the sector, which are making tangible and, in some cases, life-changing differences to student experiences. We hope these examples spark conversations, helping you evaluate current practices and ideate future initiatives.
Despite the challenges and the size of the task, we are optimistic that change is possible in the foundational areas we’ve discussed. The passion of staff and students is evident, but top-down support and guidance is needed to align expectations and ensure an integrated approach.
Download the report – Building Belonging in full as a pdf here.
You can hear more about the research at our event Belong from the beginning: Building connections, confidence and inclusion at university on Wednesday 19 October 2022.
4 responses to “The four foundations of belonging at university”
Can we get access to the survey you created for this research please?
I am teaching and supervising students who are assessing autonomy and belonging and we are interested in comparing scales/survey used in your study with some of the extant scales they/we are using.
Assistant Professor of Student Motivation and Engagement
Nottingham Trent University
I’ve just emailed you a copy of the survey questions. I hope your students find them useful.
This is a great article. Is it possible to have access to the report please? I am researching and looking into representation and the sense of belonging within arts university I currently work in as a Technician in the workshop and studios facilitating students work.
I’m glad you enjoyed reading the article. The report is linked from the bottom of the article. If there’s anything else you need, please do contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org