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Belonging and relationships

In entering higher education (HE) students and staff might experience a sense of comfort and familiarity, an insider status, and a sense of smoothly, easily fitting-in. In contrast, a feeling of unease can alert us that we are in unfamiliar waters, uncertain and unknowing. Experiences of being inside and/or outside might be constant companions, lingering, following and haunting us.

Breeze et al, 2022:1

Why is this important for belonging?

Sense of belonging can be influenced by a range of factors including relationships between staff and students and between students themselves. As students transition to university and progress through their studies they encounter others, and these encounters influence how they see themselves and others. These are often not neutral experiences because each of us takes our own background and experiences with us into these relationships [see also hidden curriculum].  In addition, relationships are not always even playing fields in reality, and can be affected by factors such as perceived power imbalances (linguistic, cultural, social etc) and understanding and acceptance of difference and diversity. Imposter syndrome, which is defined by Breeze et al. (ibid: 5-6) as ‘...combined senses of inadequacy and inauthenticity. A conviction that one’s self is deficient and one’s work is substandard combines with a sense that entrance into and progression within HE were not earned but rather secured by deception, by luck or by mistake on the part of the gatekeepers’, may also affect the development of relationships and whether students decide to engage with others or withdraw.

What can we do?

  • Allow time and space in the curriculum for students and tutors to get to know each other
  • Facilitate activities during induction periods and throughout the semester that support students in developing a better understanding of diversity so that stereotyping is avoided and a greater understanding of each other is developed. This may be particularly important on courses where group work contributes to assessment
  • Create space and time for students to discuss what they want their learning community to be like – how will they work together? What support do they need from each other? How will they treat each other/work together in the classroom?
  • Use pedagogic approaches that allow students to interact and discuss what they are learning
  • Design learning tasks that allow students to bring their own backgrounds and experiences to the table
  • Share your own personal experiences of learning/academic writing/receiving feedback etc with students so they understand that we have all had similar experiences
  • Avoid making assumptions around student silence and consider what might be contributing to this