Sense of Belonging

The journal article was called ‘An Exploration into the Importance of a Sense of Belonging for Online Learners’. The article considers the importance of sense of belonging for postgraduates’ online education by exploring their lived experience through a small-scale qualitative study.  Through the research, three significant themes emerge that are important for promoting a sense of belonging and ensuring meaningful opportunities for peer interactions: interaction/engagement, the culture of the learning, and support.  The paper also discusses the social aspects of engagement, and the role of academics and peers.

The group welcomed literature supporting students’ sense of belonging; even though it was well established the importance of this for attainment, satisfaction and retention.  The group reflected on the possible changes to findings as the paper was written pre-pandemic and discussed the implications for teaching online out of necessity and the lack of engagement online.

There was a discussion surrounding the benefits and drawbacks of anonymous versus non-anonymous discussion boards. Anonymity can make students more likely to ask questions as there is less embarrassment and fear; however, non-anonymous discussion boards foster deeper relationships as well as providing opportunities for assessment and more closely resemble face-to-face teaching (where students cannot remain anonymous).  It was noted that in all situations, tutors should create ‘safe to fail’ environments.

The use of technologies, such as VoiceThread were suggested to foster a sense of belonging which allows people to ask and answer questions verbally through an online platform like Blackboard (it was noted that the University now have a premium licence which generates live captioning immediately so it is fully accessible to students). Drawing students from broader networks and linking their experiences is discussed more fully by Gourlay and Oliver (2018).

The role of academic staff in creating informal spaces for student interactions was discussed as a way of facilitating a sense of belonging amongst peers.  One suggestion was to have space at the end of a lecture so that students who wished to create their own informal space could do so more easily (virtually, the tutor could transfer hosting privileges to a student and leave the teaching session early).  Different applications were discussed such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Messenger as well as applications that protected privacy such as Signal and Telegram – students opting to use these methods of communication ensured compliance with GDPR.  Academic staff were encouraged to make students aware of Report and Support mechanisms to ensure there was a zero tolerance to bullying and harassment in unmonitored spaces.  The SALC netiquette guide was highlighted as good practice to include in student induction sessions or as part of mandatory training.

Finally, the group discussed the use of LinkedIn as a mechanism for building professional networks across multiple year groups, for example the Psychology at Manchester Alumni community in LinkedIn.

The take home messages from the participants of the journal club at the end of the session were as follows:

  • The importance of academic participation in fostering a sense of belonging and creating a positive culture for students.
  • Taking 10 minutes out of a lecture to create the opportunity for students to develop their own informal peer support group.
  • Using LinkedIn to build professional networks and facilitating informal groups using Teams as an initial platform for students to go on and create their own space, for example, through WhatsApp.
  • Being mindful of the impact on students in group discussions and ensuring they feel supported.
  • Building a professional identity and good patterns of behaviour: the values of the workplace and environment students are moving into.
  • The value of involving colleagues and joining students in the conversations around their sense of belonging; having all stakeholders as part of the conversation.
  • The dichotomy between allowing a safe space to be independent and critical of the course, whilst also having the ability to protect students from harassment and hate crime.

Continue the conversation through our Yammer Pedagogy Journal Club.

Gourlay, L. and M. Oliver (2018). Student Engagement in the Digital University: Sociomaterial Assemblages. New York and London, Routledge