Fostering a sense of belonging

Learner Engagement toolkit briefing

A higher education is fundamentally a social experience. Understanding how belonging can be fostered in and across this experience is one of the keys to developing student satisfaction and addressing retention.

This paper looks at what belonging means, how it relates to learning, teaching and student engagement, and how it can be fostered through the curriculum. It provides high-level introductions to some ideas with links so you can explore them further.

What do we mean by belonging?

Student belonging refers to the sense that a student feels that they are part of their course and that their presence and involvement matter. Here, we consider a student’s sense of belonging as a reflection of their satisfaction with the teaching on their course, the extent to which they identify with their discipline, and the belief they have that they can succeed academically and in life. Belonging, of course, is also affected by the wider experiences they have while at university.

Why is belonging important for me to think about?

As an academic, you are responsible for the student’s learning environment. The way you design and deliver your students’ experience of learning directly affects their satisfaction. The support you give and the professional values you demonstrate all impact on the student’s sense of belonging. You are a key agent for fostering a student’s sense of belonging, their confidence and self-efficacy, which together inform their success (Dacre Pool & Sewell, 2007).

Student success can be understood variously, as,

  • completion of the course or retention;
  • a student’s academic achievement in the form of the grades they attain, especially in relation to the expectation they have of themselves;
  • self-awareness and self-identity;
  • a student’s life aspirations and employability.

Research tells us that if we do not actively foster a sense of belonging students can read, interpret or experience university as alienating (Mann, 2001) or see themselves as ‘other’ or as disenfranchised (Read, Archer & Leathwood, 2003).

What can I do to foster student belonging?

Belonging is fostered in the curriculum by adopting a student-centred teaching philosophy. It relates to self-theories, independent and autonomous learning, social learning, inclusivity and alienation, and learning as a community of practice. These topics are introduced here and explored in more depth in this Learner Engagement toolkit.

The first step for any academic is to ensure that a culture of belonging is made explicit (Thomas, 2012).

Group learning

Large group learning

Large group learning encompasses lectures as well as active learning methods including enquiry and problem-based learning. All reflect a shift away from classic information giving mono-directional teaching. The idea of the common conundrum and the situating of knowledge (Brown et al., 1989) is perhaps most useful for understanding active and interactive teaching can foster belonging. Conundrums describe intellectual challenges that are easily pitched to support the common exploration of ideas, while situation helps us to focus on the learning context. Each can be made explicit or brought out in teaching e.g. through the use of scenarios and cases (see Large group teaching).

Small group learning

Small group learning generally either describes working as groups in class or learning through coursework assignments such as projects. Projects, problems, case studies, and work-related learning create situations in which each learner is committed to others, necessitating the development and use of their knowledge, skills and attributes for the benefit of the group. Learning in this way necessitates, and can lead to, communal commitment or belonging (see Small group learning).

Peer review, or peer assessment, is an example of peer learning that, “naturally builds [a] …self-evaluative capability, as students cannot avoid comparing their own work to that of their peers and reflecting on how their own work might be improved” (Nicol 2015, p. 216). (see Peer Learning and Peer Assessment)

A growth of enquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, flipped pedagogies, fluency in group work, informal peer learning and other student-centred approaches signal how we can develop co-operative and active learning environments, each of which help to foster commonality and belonging. (see the Active Learning toolkit – coming online in 2017-18)


Establishing a strong sense of belonging and developing a learning ethos are key to positioning students for success as they come onto their course and transition through it. For example, the following list indicates opportunities to foster belonging:

Learning environment

Spatially, belonging comes from what students and staff do on campus and virtually, across the formal and non-formal spaces we use.

The physical, digital, formal and informal, personal and communal learning environment needs to be developed holistically and purposefully so that it reflects and engenders disciplinary ways of being. Belonging can be fostered by setting clear expectations and developing good habits for learning together, in and out of class. For example, you can,

  • Identify spaces beyond the classroom (physical or digital) to meet casually or to do group work;
  • Mount course related events in which the students take over informal space, e.g. exhibitions of work, performances, or learning walks;
  • Agree on ‘learning hubs’, spaces dedicated to informal learning and where friends learn alongside each other.

See more in the Spaces for Learning toolkit on ‘Zoning’:

Peer co-operation

Learning is socially situated: we come into university to learn with our peers. Learning together helps us to develop and share our insight as we learn and, in doing so, reduces anxiety, generates ideas, and clarifies aspirations as one. This communal and co-operative context distinguishes universities from other ways of learning.

Promoting learning co-operation and friendships, and ensuring diverse students are integrated socially in academic activities (Inclusive Practice) will help to foster belonging. Tinto says, “Students who are actively involved in learning, that is who spend more time on task especially with others, are more likely to learn, and in turn, more likely to stay.” (2006, p.3).

Peer mentoring

Various models of peer learning can give our students the opportunity to build knowledge, confidence and develop self-esteem together. Peer assisted learning models offer open, informal, co-operative environments in which students are able to set the agenda and raise their concerns amongst more experienced peers (Capstick, 2004). Peer mentoring schemes foster belonging by supporting transition or assisting peers learning (Jones, 2015). Being part of a peer learning community fosters challenge and belonging in equal measure (Wenger et al., 2002).


Belonging is related to and promotes inclusivity, a strategic priority for the University and a professional value for academics (UKPSF).

As academics, we need to consider belonging in relation to our diverse student body by being learner-centred in our thinking. For example, we need to understand what it means to be a student when each of our students has a different history, different circumstances and different aspirations. We need to understand how to reach ‘the hard to reach’, those who perceive themselves to be ‘other’ or who otherwise feel alienated. Mann’s (2001) research into student alienation resulted in the following framework which helps us to reflect on ways in which each of us can promote belonging and engagement:

  • Solidarity – ask, “How can we share mutual understandings?”
  • Hospitality – ask, “How can we welcome new members to the community?”
  • Safety – ask, “How can we find or make spaces where our students are accepted and respected and their ‘voice’ is listened to?”
  • Sharing of power – ask, “How can we develop the student voice and learner autonomy? How can we increase negotiation so that learning experience is more self-directed?”
  • Criticality – ask, “How can we foster and inspire reflexivity in students and develop their awareness of their environment?”

However, Mann cautions that community is not always desirable as it can result in either unequal power relationships or homogeneity. (Inclusive Practice)

Belonging in the digital age

Belonging is evident in the idea of Connectivist learning (Siemens, 2005), for example, which proposes that learning and knowledge are found in a diversity of opinions, are distributed, grow continuously, cross-pollinate, and are current and situated. Belonging is characteristic of learning in and across formal, non-formal and hybrid learning spaces too (Weinstein & Park, 2014). The development of social media habits has changed our attitudes to, and knowledge of, what can be achieved in online and blended space. This experience and understanding of the digital space has grown around belonging and alienation through our societal adoption of social networking spaces.

A consequence of the adoption of social networking is the boundary-crossing behaviours between home, learning and work. This loss of demarcation brings benefits and challenges that need to be understood and managed (Jisc, 2017); however, it is now both easier to connect and belong to, or feel estranged and alienated from, one’s learning network. Giving attention to course belonging is more important than ever.

With this appreciation of social networks, comes a move away from learning hierarchies to more networked patterns of learning, in and out of the classroom, on and offline. Equally online, open learning can foster belonging by being bi- or multi-directional: its global situation provides learning context, while its learning purpose and community can generate knowledge and opportunities at a global scale.

Our modelling of professional identity and academic belonging

The presence of the academic within communities of learning is a central facet of course belonging and a student-centred learning philosophy. This is found in the idea of tutors modelling their professional identity, methods and habits through in the ways they engage their students. Academics can foster belonging in the classroom through,

  • the use of professional language;
  • the sources of information they cite;
  • the selection of case studies, examples, anecdotes and literature;
  • the professional attitudes, protocols and values they adopt;
  • the humour they share;
  • their common ‘ways of being’.

To reflect on how you foster belonging, ask yourself how you model the ideas in the above list.


Developing academic practices that foster student belonging can be achieved simply, often by thinking about and giving emphasis to the student’s experience of learning. While many enhancements can be made by individual practitioners, the design of belonging strategies becomes most powerful when they are approached at course level.

Further information

Learner Engagement toolkit. Online at:

UKPSF website. Online at:


Brown, J.S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.

Capstick, S. (2004). Benefits and shortcomings of peer assisted learning (PAL) in higher education: an appraisal by students. Available online at: AL3.pdf

Dacre Pool, L. & Sewell, P. (2007). The key to employability: Developing a practical model of graduate employability. University of Lancashire. Online at:

Jisc (2017). Building digital capability: Building capability for new digital leadership, pedagogy and efficiency. Online at:

Jones, R. (2015) Compendium of effective practice in directed independent learning. York: Higher Education Academy and the Quality Assurance Agency.

Mann, S. J. (2001). Alternative perspectives on student learning: Alienation and engagement. Studies in Higher Education, 26(1), 7–19.

Mann, S. (2005). Alienation in the learning environment: A failure of community? Studies in Higher Education, 30(1), 43–55.

Nicol, D. (2015). ‘Guiding principles for peer review: Unlocking students evaluative skills’, in: Carolin Kreber, Charles Anderson, Noel Entwistle & Jan McArthur, eds. “Advances and innovations in university assessment and feedback,” Edinburgh University Press, 197-222.

Read, B., Archer, L. & Leathwood, C. (2003). Challenging cultures? Student conceptions of ‘belonging’ and ‘isolation’ at a post 1992 university. Studies in Higher Education, 28(3), pp. 261-277.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: a learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1). Retrieved from

TESTA (website). Transforming the Experience of Students through Assessment. Online at:

Thomas, L. (2012). What works? – Student retention and success. Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change. York: Higher Education Academy. Online at:

Tinto, V. (2006). Taking student retention seriously. Online at:

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., and Snyder, W.M. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge, Harvard Business School Press.

Weinstein, D.J. & Park, G. (2014). Helping students connect: Architecting learning spaces for experiential and transactional reflection.  Journal of Pedagogic Development, 4(3),  14—23.