Belonging – what makes it and breaks it?

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The link between belonging and student success is well established. A sense of belonging was strongly associated with both academic and social engagement at university a decade ago as part of the Higher Education Academy’s “What works?” programme. In fact, it was stated as the key variable in whether students persist with their studies and are successful. This “sense of belonging” while at university can make or break students’ overall experience and their success.

Inclusion on the course

We asked about the variety and diversity of voices in relation to course content, and about whether respondents felt their course content and teaching style was inclusive i.e. “help[ing] to create a space in which you feel comfortable and confident to be yourself.”

69% of all respondents agree their course content includes varied, diverse voices. Only 48% of those who do not feel they belong agreed to this question. When we asked about inclusive content and teaching style around half of all respondents in each case agreed that style and content are consistently inclusive across all their modules, and just over a third agreed that content and style are sometimes inclusive but inconsistent across modules. Around one in ten admitted they had not noticed. Crucially only 27% of those who do not feel they belong agree their course content is consistently inclusive, and only 30% agree the style of teaching is consistently inclusive.

As with the rest of the survey findings, we did not see differences on the same scale when we looked at demographics. However, in these questions, as elsewhere, there are gaps between male or female identified students and non-binary students, between non-disabled and disabled students, between cisgendered and trans students, and between heterosexual students and those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or identify as another sexuality.

We’re currently working with some of the students who took the survey to better understand what they understand by ‘inclusive content’ and how that differs across different demographic groups. Given Pearson’s commitment to creating bias-free content, we’re keen to better understand learner perspectives on this. We plan to report more on this when the project concludes in September.

Course delivery

Universities that choose to retain elements of online learning in their delivery approach post–Covid may be reassured to hear that students who had a blended teaching experience reported similarly high levels of belonging as those who were being taught fully face to face. However, those students who had a fully online teaching delivery reported lower levels of belonging.

A full analysis of the results so far can be found here, along with a slide overview (PDF) of the demographics, graphs and charts.

Next steps

Read more about our full research on Student belonging and the four foundations which explores the concept of student belonging in full depth, as well as what it means in terms of connection, inclusion, support, and autonomy. We also recommend ways of how universities can better support student belonging, along with examples coming from experienced educators.

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