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Building student 'Belonging'

27 Sep 2022 | Dr Helen Webster Belonging is a holistic way to frame and address issues such as student wellbeing, engagement, and success, but it’s a complex matter to address in practice. Dr Helen Webster considers the challenges in implementing student belonging initiatives at course level.

At the heart of the student experience is a sense that each student belongs and matters. A strong sense of belonging correlates to greater retention, engagement, confidence and mental health. The opposite: disconnection, exclusion, alienation, disengagement, and poor wellbeing – cannot help but influence student outcomes. And the impact is both more likely and worse for marginalised or less advantaged students. Recent research has helped inform higher education institutions’ strategy to foster belonging, but what might implementation look like in practice?

What belongs under ‘Belonging’?

Belonging is a multi-faceted concept, encompassing a number of issues which were present prior to the pandemic, but were thrown into much starker relief by Covid-19 and the move to remote learning, as highlighted by the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission interim report. Many institutions are prioritising belonging as a way to frame and consolidate initiatives such as mental health (in the wake of UUK’s Step Change agenda and Student Minds University Mental Health charter), inclusive pedagogies and address calls to broaden curricula, and to improve engagement, progression and success as part of access and participation regulatory goals as well as student satisfaction.

Rethinking Belonging for the future

Recent work by WONKHE and Pearson has offered a snapshot of student belonging post-pandemic, and it’s clear that there is much work to do. The hollowing out of the campus experience and sense of isolation and disconnect that many students experienced during emergency remote learning had a lasting impact on current and future cohorts, including on their academic confidence, friendships and, most clearly, their wellbeing. Belonging will be a priority in building back a high quality experience post-pandemic, and ensuring that our students succeed. However, future challenges will include not just long Covid, but also the cost of living crisis which will impact on students’ ability to engage fully in campus life.  New teaching models such as flexible learning, micro credentials and block teaching will also mean we have to rethink traditional approaches to belonging.

Where does Belonging belong?

There have of course been many initiatives and good practice examples of supporting student belonging, but work so far has often been small-scale, fragmented pockets of good practice. It is clear that a whole-institution, consistent strategic approach is needed. However, it is often at the level of the course or programme that students’ sense of belonging is most localised, and, unlike extracurricular activities, one in which we can assume that all students will engage. It is therefore at course level that a holistic approach to belonging can be best embedded. This is the focus of a new collaborative project by Advance HE, Building Belonging, which will explore how course teams can integrate and consolidate the various strands which support student belonging into their curriculum and across the whole student journey.

What does Belonging mean to you?

There is no quick fix to improve student belonging. To begin with, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Belonging will mean something different depending on the type of institution and its particular culture and values, the specific context of the discipline, and of course the diverse experiences within each student cohort. Certainly the first step is getting to know your students and creating ways for them to make their voices and their stories heard, as well as exploring what belonging means in the context of a particular programme and institution.

Students build their own Belonging

Just telling students that they belong is unlikely to be effective. Building belonging is not a marketing exercise with mascots or slogans to identify with. What it means to them is something that each student will need to create for themselves. To be successful and get the most out of their learning and wider university experience, students need to feel that they fit in and are accepted and valued as they are. Perhaps the focus should be on creating an empowering space for this to happen, taking a partnership approach to examining pedagogies and curriculum content to ensure that they are inclusive. 

Belonging, wellbeing and community

Learning is an affective and social process as well as an intellectual one, and community plays a powerful role in study success. The recent WONKHE research highlighted that loneliness and poor wellbeing is prevalent among students, particularly minoritised students, and that they would welcome greater opportunities to make connections with their coursemates. This has been particularly difficult during emergency remote teaching, but if institutions are to capitalise on the benefits of online, flexible and blended learning, then we need to explore further what belonging and community would mean in a virtual spaces as well as on campus.

Belonging is everyone’s business

Building belonging at programme or school level is still a whole-institution endeavour, bringing together teams from across an institution and involving staff at every level, from peer mentors, graduate teaching assistants and professional services to personal tutors, module leaders, programme directors, and Heads of School. And from a student perspective, the administrative and campus staff they encounter can play just as important a role – and staff belonging is of course directly related to how students relate to their institution. How can we take a bottom-up approach to building belonging for all?

This new collaborative project offers an opportunity for teams at school or programme level to develop an understanding of what belonging might mean in their context, develop and share practice on how it might be proactively fostered from induction onwards, building an evidence base and good practice case studies of implementation in the process. 


Dr Helen Webster is Senior Adviser (Student Success) at Advance HE. She is a National Teaching Fellow and a highly experienced Learning Developer. She has led teams and projects in Student Services in universities and professional organisations for over 15 years and is known for her holistic, student-centred approach.

Building Belonging Collaborative Project

Belonging is a key part of the student experience, contributing to student retention, attainment and wellbeing. Belonging is a multi-faceted concept, encompassing inclusion and diversity, community, academic confidence and feeling that you matter and are valued. This collaborative project offers an opportunity for teams at school or programme levels to develop an understanding of what belonging might mean in their context and new approaches to proactively foster belonging from induction onwards. Find out more about the project here.


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