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Creating a sense of belonging for your students

When students feel a sense of belonging, it can affect their motivation, academic success and well-being. This guide provides some tips to help you improve BAME students sense of belonging at UCL.

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27 April 2020

Goodenow (1993a) defines belonging in educational environments as:

“students’ sense of being accepted, valued, included and encouraged by others (teacher and peers) in the academic classroom setting and of feeling oneself to be an important part of the life and activity of the class. More than simple perceived liking or warmth, it also involves support and respect for personal autonomy and for the student as an individual”. (p.25)

Whilst belonging is defined in a number of ways, many scholars agree that a sense of belonging is critical to students’ academic motivation, success and well-being (Osterman 2000, Newman 1991, Goodenow 1993b).

The Race Equality Charter (REC) Student Survey (2018) found that 83% of BAME students agreed, the ethnic and racial diversity of UCL impacts on their sense of belonging. 

The BAME Awarding Gap Project conducted one-one interviews with students in the 2018-19 academic year. Students were asked what the concept of belonging means to them, responses included:

  • “I think it means, like, being comfortable, feeling like not out of place”
  • “Belonging for me is like identifying with a group…and feeling like I can talk to the group and feeling like it’s natural, like a natural communication rather than a forced communication”
  • "It means being accepting of difference"

See more student views in the Students perspectives section of this page.

Why is creating a sense of belonging important?

It is associated with academic success and motivation 

Research indicates a sense of belonging is positively associated with academic success and motivation (Freeman, Anderman and Jensen 2007). 

Students who feel they belong are more likely to see the value of required work and have higher self-belief in their chances to succeed on their course (Verschelden 2017). 

Becker and Luthar (2002) found this is especially important for the performance of adolescents coming from ethnic minority and lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

It affects students’ well-being

Empirical studies have linked perceptions of school and campus belonging to positive psychological outcomes, including positive emotions, feelings of self-worth and social acceptance (Pittman and Richmond 2007, Wilson et al. 2015). 

More broadly, Maslow (1968) found that proper, adequate and timely satisfaction of the need for belonging leads to physical, emotional, behavioural and mental well-being.

It influences prospective students choice of university

Winter and Chapleo (2017) explored prospective students reasons for choosing one university above another. 

They found a university’s ability to create a sense of a belonging was critical in the decision-making process.

Tips for fostering a sense of belonging

A selection of practical tips are provided to help you improve BAME students sense of belonging at UCL.

Additional guidance, tips and resources are provided in the full PDF guide.

These include:

  1. Expose students to potential role models from BAME backgrounds
  2. Model inclusive behaviour and attitudes
  3. Host inclusive events from the outset
  4. Facilitate the development of positive teacher-student relationships
  5. Facilitate the development of positive peer relationships

1. Expose students to potential role models from BAME backgrounds

Research by Arday (2015) shows that a university environment with few or no BAME professors, senior leaders or academics risks isolating BAME students. 

Research also suggests that increased staff diversity, among both academic and support staff might make BAME students more likely to engage in pastoral and academic support (Dhanda 2009).

Therefore, where possible, ensure some teaching is delivered by BAME academics. If no in-house staff are available, invite guest lecturers from a BAME background.

Example from UCL’s Inclusive Curriculum Health Check: Medical Sciences and Engineering

“Extra-curricular lectures are scheduled in each term and are delivered by external industry experts and a clinician-scientist from a BAME background to provide students with positive role models.”

2. Model inclusive behaviour and attitudes

Ambrose et al. (2010) assert that “modelling inclusiveness can provide a powerful learning experience for all students” (p.183). 

For example, avoid using idioms as these may be unfamiliar to students who do not speak English as their first language. 

Try to use language which acknowledges different lived experiences, for example, you could say ‘for those of you who have studied abroad/read ‘X’ author/seen ‘x’ documentary’. 

3. Host inclusive events from the outset

Thomas et al. (2017) propose that belonging begins at induction, presenting a ‘logic chain’ linking induction activities to student retention and success.

They suggest that induction activities should have “an explicit academic focus” and “enable students to get to know each other and members of the academic team” (p.17).

Avoid only hosting activities which may exclude groups of students; for example, evening events such as networking over drinks maybe alienating to students who do not drink or commute long distances.

4. Facilitate the development of positive teacher-student relationships

Research indicates positive teacher-student relationships contribute to:

  • students’ sense of belonging (Burke et al. 2016);
  • motivation (Zepke and Leach, 2010);
  • achievement and intellectual development (Halawah, 2006); and 
  • commitment (Strauss and Volkwein, 2004). 

Moreover, “the more often students have out-of-classroom interactions (e.g. office visits) with their university teachers, the better the quality of the relationship and the more connected the students to the university” (Hagenauer and Volet, 2014 p.373).

However, research also shows there are differences in how students from different ethnic groups engage with their teachers. 

Stevenson (2012) carried out study exploring the link between attainment and students’ views of their future possible selves.

The study found “White students were the most strategic and purposeful in their academic help-seeking approaches and most likely to draw on all forms of support, including from their lecturers…spending significant time talking to and working with their lecturers” (p.108 -109).

In contrast, BAME students devised strategies for ‘getting by’ without direct contact with lecturers, for example, by trying to cope alone or through peers. 

Appreciate there may be cultural differences in how students perceive and act on seeking help and support. 

Encourage all students to interact with academic staff through establishing positive norms around this behaviour from the outset (i.e. induction). 

Also provide opportunities (in addition to office hours) for students to develop relationships with teaching staff in the faculty i.e. department coffee mornings and encourage student attendance.

5. Facilitate the development of positive peer relationships

The What Works? programme (2012) funded several projects designed to investigate and improve student engagement, belonging, retention and success. 

Findings showed that staff can play an important role in encouraging and facilitating the development of positive peer relationships through ‘integrating social elements into academic programmes’, for example, through:

  • field trips;
  • collaborative teaching and learning; and 
  • opt-out peer mentoring (p.52). 

This is particularly important as some students may not have opportunities to develop friendships in other settings, for example, students who spend less time on campus, like commuter students and/or students with work and family commitments. 

Evidence from What Works? shows that strong peer relationships not only promote students’ sense of belonging, but also their confidence as learners, academic integration and motivation to study and succeed (p.49).

The student perspective

Views from UCL students

“I don’t feel represented at all in this university, in terms of the systems and the people that go to this university.” Challenge Consultancy, focus group

“I wouldn’t apply for a job in academia or for a PhD as I don’t feel I belong in the community.” UCL’s Race Equality Charter (REC) Student Survey 

“Contrary to the LGBT staff, who are visible and hold meetings and events. I personally do not know any BME faculty and that says something.” BAME Awarding Gap Project, focus group

“Myself and fellow minority ethnic students were engaging in a debate on terms of our own lived experiences of belonging to a social minority group and how symbolic representation mattered to us. We found it frustrating that our lecturer seemed to explain away or somewhat disregard the relevance of our perceptions.” REC Student Survey

“Odd cycle from first to third year where there are moments when you do fit in and moments when you don’t and the ones where you don’t are more frequent and isolating.” BAME Awarding Gap Project, focus group

Views from other students in the sector

“My perspective is valued only because I mirror whiteness, in my mannerisms, my spoken voice and choice of words. That’s why people value my perspective. Because of my performance.” BME Attainment Gap Report, Bristol SU

“In terms of feeling at home within LSE, I’m a bit concerned... in the whole department, we all have only one African professor, someone who was born in Africa, someone who understands Africa, someone who has written about Africa.” Understanding the Attainment Gap at LSE

“I did not fully enjoy my 4 years at SOAS, it was very isolating. There seems to be a underlying…race issue that I can’t pinpoint, this feeling that you’ll never belong here.” Degrees of Freedom, SOAS

“Often times I’d modify the words I use or my accent to my ‘white voice’ to make people feel more comfortable. My parents purposefully gave me a white name at birth to give me more opportunities as an adult.” Insider-Outsider, The Role of Race in Shaping the Experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic Students at Goldsmiths

“I have only seen one black lecturer and there are only 5 black people on my course. Sometimes, I feel a bit lost because I do not see people that look like me very often… but if I do see a fellow black student I feel happy for some reason.” BME Attainment Gap Report, Bristol SU

Resources

A full list of resources is available in the full PDF guide.

Resources to help close the awarding gap on the project website also has many more resources and further reading.


This guide has been produced by the BAME Awarding Gap Project for the UCL Arena Centre for Research-based Education toolkits. You are welcome to use this guide if you are from another educational facility, but you must credit the project.