UCL Changemakers


Learning Community & Belonging

What do we mean by learning community?

Learning Communities involve people learning together in groups and socially constructing knowledge. This positions learning as a social process - rather than an individual activity – through which learners must interact, analyse, negotiate, communicate and share with others who may have different views and backgrounds.

Watkins (2005) tells us that a community is a collective with certain hallmarks:

  • Agency: members decide, review.
  • It is where belongingness develops.
  • Cohesion amongst members emerges.
  • Diversity is embraced rather than seen as a difficult.

Learning communities, therefore, are an important part of student learning but also helps develop a sense of connectedness to their cohort/department/faculty/institution, where they feel valued and respected. Thomas (2012) also reminds us that belonging is intrinsically linked to success, offering us this refined definition of what success means:

“It has become increasingly clear that success means helping all students to become more engaged and more effective learners in higher education, thus improving their academic outcomes and their progression opportunities after graduation (or when they exit higher education).” (Thomas, 2012).

Why do we need projects on this theme?

Chrysikos and Catterall (2020) remind us that students don’t automatically feel part of a learning community and that transition to university represents a shift away from the familiar and the safe, to somewhere that can feel very intimidating and socially isolating. We also need to be aware that students may feel a ‘profound sense of both social and academic nonbelonging’ (Barnett & Felton, 2016) if their identity and background is disregarded or felt to be un-valued by their institutions.

After a few years of disruption, there are many aspects of online learning that have been helpful, but as we are a campus-based university we know that the loss of community and opportunities to make connections with peers, with staff and students from other year groups and levels of study has been missing. Therefore, ChangeMakers would like to support the ideas of students and staff in continuing to bring that sense of a learning community back to UCL.

Additionally, the student cohorts are rapidly diversifying and engaging with students from groups who have historically been underrepresented and underserved is crucial to understanding what we need to do to ensure the success of all our students. UCL has made a clear commitment to closing the awarding gap, and it is through initiatives like ChangeMakers that we can empower equity-seeking students to contribute to discussions and take an active role in understanding how we create belonging and support student success through the development of strong learning communities at UCL

Developing learning communities within programmes rather than as extra-curricular events or activities can help to ensure that a more diverse range of students can take part. Commuter students, or students with caring responsibilities for instance can sometimes miss out on events that would help them build a community. Designing activities within the curriculum means that all students will be able to take part and not feel further isolated by not being able to attend an evening event, for example.

Current research from WonkHE and Pearson has found that when they asked respondents in what "space" students are most likely to forge connections with their peers, the majority of respondents selected "on their course during scheduled contact hours." You can read more about this research on WonkHE's website, and the slides can be found on their blog.

Why is this theme a priority for students?

In the NSS results for 2022, 60.8% of students agreed with the statement “I feel a part of a community of staff and students”. This is up from 54.4% from 2021, but it is still below the sector.
Addressed in the Student Priorities for Wellbeing Report 2022 and UCL’s Student Health and Wellbeing Strategy 2019-21, the term ‘wellbeing’ is defined as:

“A state of physical, mental, and emotional health where a student is able to engage meaningfully in learning and contribute to their community. Wellbeing is personal and multifactorial, but typically includes feelings of being socially connected, a sense of direction and belonging, satisfaction with personal achievements, and low levels of anxiety.”

Discussion, interaction and collaboration are key to forming learning communities

These ideally need to happen within programmes, but can then be built on with co- and -extra curricular activities. Start with low-risk activities that build confidence and that help students and staff get to know each other. If you are looking to audit the current provision in your department, we are piloting a Student Quality Reviewer role for this. Please contact sqreviewers@ucl.ac.uk if you would like more information. 

What does this look like in practice?

  • Minimise learning that creates isolation;
  • Small group learning;
  • Students bring in their experiences;
  • Co-produce (do something active together);
  • Quality and quantity of interactions;
  • Aligned with Learning Outcomes so students are motivated to engage.

Ideas based on previous ChangeMakers projects:

Coffee morning and pizza gatherings in Biosciences

Staff and students in Biosciences felt a loss of community as a result of losing shared space on campus for staff and students to mix. It meant staff and students weren't often in the same place and so didn't end up having those 'water cooler' type interactions, and students didn't have any reason to stay around the department after teaching events. A member of staff in the department decided to put in for ChangeMakers funding to see if they could re-introduce those casual, social times where staff and students could just chat.

Through the project, the team:

  • Hosted coffee morning before key lectures and pizza evenings to bring staff and students together. Staff were committed to showing up and being present so students knew this was a good time to get to know staff in department better. 
  • The team additionally explored where students felt their sense of belonging was situated (at module, programme or department level).

This has gone on to have a lasting impact in the department who committed to funding 'Student Integration Ambassadors' to run social events.

Induction 'events'

ChangeMakers has funded a number of projects looking at Induction events as induction is often the first point of contact students have with their dpeartment and peers. We would also encourage you to view induction as not just limited to those events that happen in induction week, but to explore how induction can be extended throughout the first year of university and prepare students for the step-up in year 2.

In previous years, ChangeMakers projects have:

  • Co-created the induction events so that it is student-centred and relevant to the current cohort of students.
  • Co-creating resources and videos to go alongside induction events and presenting information in a more engaging ways.
  • Ensuring induction is inclusive and enables all students to participate and build connections with staff and other students.
  • Established student-led induction events to complement the core departmental offering.
  • Expanding the induction window and building in follow-on activities throughout terms 1 and 2.
  • Extending the transitin mentors scheme.
Meet the Researcher

Meet the Researcher is an adaptable induction exercise that was devised via the Connected Curriculum. It is an activity that provides students a structured way to work together in their first few days at UCL to familiarise themselves with staff in their department, as well as recent research, buildings, labs, equipment (as appropriate). The outputs can include a presentation, a poster, a short video - and talking to research staff in their chosen field gives an opportunity for students to think about future career paths. See how this activity has been implemented in Psychology and Language Sciences, and what Linguistics students have said about it.

Student Research conferences

ChangeMakers has supported a number of research conferences. Students play a really active role in organising and putting on the conference and offer a good opportunity for PGR students to support and mentor UGs in writing abstracts, creating dynamic presentations and engaging research posters.

  • UG research conferences that create an opportunity for students to share their final year research projects with a wider audience, including making connections with other year groups;
  • UG/PG research conferences focusing on a particular aspect of the course;
  • UG conferences that connect different pathways within a programme;
  • Research conferences where both staff and students present their research to foster connections between the different groups.

Some of the benefits of research conferences:

  • Harnessed students’enthusiasm for their subject.
  • Helps students develop their academic skills.
  • Increases student confidence in their own thoughts and perspectives.
  • Provides an authentic opportunity to showcase their work to peers and staff.
  • Nurture connections between students and with staff.

    Further Reading

    • Listening to equity-seeking perspectives: how students’ experiences of pedagogical partnership can inform wider discussions of student success, Alison Cook-Sather (2018).

    • Intersectionality in action: A guide for faculty and campus leaders for creating inclusive classrooms and institutions, Brooke Barnett & Peter Felten (2016).

    • Building student belonging and engagement: insights into higher education students’ experiences of participating and learning together, Rachel Masika & Jennie Jones (2016).

    • Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change, Liz Thomas (2012).

    • Classrooms as Learning Communities, Chris Watkins, (2005).

    • “I don’t think that word means what you think it means”: A proposed framework for defining learning communities, R.E. West & G.S. Williams (2017).