Sense of Belonging

Published January 2022

Our curriculum will enable students from all walks of life to thrive intellectually: students from different communities and nations, and with different beliefs, talents, and ways of knowing. We will create space for dialogue in the curriculum, encouraging students to build relationships which develop empathy, valuing provisional ideas and enabling students to operate without all the facts. Our curriculum will build an inclusive environment in which students feel at ease expressing different perspectives and have a sense of belonging in the university community.

A sense of belonging can be thought of as a basic human need (Maslow, 1943). Building strong social networks in higher education is important for student wellbeing and can also have other benefits, for example increasing student motivation and success (Snijders et al, 2020; Thomas, 2012).  Kathleen Quinlan (2016) also argues that building a range of relationships (between students and the subject matter; students with teachers; students with other students; and students with their developing selves) promote not only a sense of belonging, but also sensitivities to others, student confidence, and enthusiasm for their subject:

‘…hoping that students gain confidence, feel passionate about a subject or an issue, develop sensitivities or appreciation, or feel as if they belong to different communities as a result of our classes remain worthy aspirations,’ (Quinlan, 2016, p. 108).

Centring these four key relationships in curriculum design supports a programmatic approach that ensures students can make connections between units and explore the ‘big ideas’ within the discipline. Engaging students with their subject involves creating an environment of curiosity which makes the subject relevant to the students’ lives and experiences.

Student motivations for coming to university will also impact on their sense of belonging, and it is important to acknowledge the diverse range of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations students may hold (Gibbs et al 1984). Moreover, research into concepts of alienation and engagement (Mann, 2001; Case 2007, 2008) suggests that understanding student experiences of entering, fitting in, and staying in the higher education community can have positive outcomes in terms of student wellbeing, progression, and achievement.

Ensuring a sense of belonging (to the university community and to the subject area) means thinking through questions of equality, diversity, and inclusion. It has been well documented that there exists a stark difference in the achievement of ‘good degrees’ by UK-domiciled students from minority ethnic groups (Advanced HE, online) and that inequalities in both participation and attainment based on social class, gender and ethnicity persist in UK higher education (Richardson et al 2020).  Drawing upon the work of Ibram X. Kendi (2016), Rachel Jacobs’ (2020) research on decolonising assessment encourages us to reframe our thinking about the achievement gap and instead view it as an ‘opportunity gap,’ created by a system which places “black, indigenous, and people of colour at the centre of the problem,” (p.2). Decolonial and inclusive pedagogic perspectives question and challenge traditional power structures present within higher education, embracing “a wide range of differences and explore their effects on individual learning,” as Christine Hockings (2010, p.3) suggests. The literature on inclusive learning and teaching holds that for students to achieve a sense of belonging to a programme, university or academic culture, the learning environments they encounter must be student-centred, inclusive, safe spaces in which they see their diversities reflected and understood. It suggests that structural and institutional policies and ways of thinking about equality, diversity and inclusion are designed to promote student participation and encourage teachers to think creatively about ways to meaningfully engage all their students in learning (Hockings, 2010 pp. 46-47).

What this means for curriculum design

Fostering a sense of belonging to the university and the disciplinary community is critical in ensuring that our students succeed. The following seven principles may be helpful when designing curricula:

  1. Include opportunities for authentic teaching and learning activities (Herrington & Herrington 2006) and assessment methods (Ashford-Rowe et al 2013)
  2. Seek diversity in the research, ways of knowing, and the researchers represented (de Sousa Santos et al 2007)
  3. Use a variety of media to enable students to see themselves as members of the disciplinary community
  4. Be consistent in communication and expectations across a programme to aid how relationships are developed between students and teachers
  5. Actively listen to students by providing opportunities for feedback, such as mid unit evaluations, which create a dialogue and involves students in the learning process (Yang & Carless 2012)
  6. Embed group assignments and tasks into a programme which empower students to become self-directed and encourages teamwork (Burke, 2011). These tasks are particularly powerful when they are meaningful and have an element of fun.
  7. Provide opportunities for students to experiment and test their own limits, encourage discussion about the ‘big ideas’ of the discipline and offer space for reflection for students to acknowledge their own development (Quinlan, 2016).

What does this look like in practice?

Sense of Belonging case studies


Advance HE (2021). ‘Degree Attainment Gaps,’ online, available at:

Ashford-Rowe, K., J. Herrington & C. Brown (2013). ‘Establishing the critical elements that determine authentic assessment,’ Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 39 (2), 205-222.

Burke, A. (2011). ‘Group Work: How to use Groups Effectively,’ The Journal of Effective Teaching, 11(2), 87-95.

Case, J. M. (2007). ‘Alienation and engagement: Exploring students’ of studying engineering,’ Teaching in Higher Education, 12(1), 119-133

Case, J.M. (2008). ‘Alienation and Engagement: Development of an Alternative Theoretical Framework for Understanding Student Learning,’ Higher Education, 55(3), 321-332.

de Sousa Santos, B., J.A. Nunes & M.P. Meneses (2007). Opening up the canon of knowledge and recognition of difference, in B. de Sousa Santos (ed.) Another Knowledge is Possible: Beyond Northern Episemologies, London: Verso, vii-xvix.

Gibbs, G., Morgan, A., and Taylor, E. (1984). The world of the learner. In Marton, F., Hounsell, D., and Entwistle, N. (eds.), The Experience of Learning, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, pp. 165-188.

Herrington, A & J. Herrington (2007) Authentic Learning Environments in Higher Education, London: Information Science Publishing.

Jacobs, R. (2020) ‘Decolonising Assessment: Can we ever really assess for justice and equity?’

Kendi, I. X. (2016) ‘Why the academic achievement gap is a racist idea,’ AAIHS, online, available at:

Mann, S. J. (2001). ‘Alternative perspectives on the student experience: Alienation and engagement,’ Studies in Higher Education, 26(1), 7-19

Maslow, A.H. (1943). ‘A theory of human motivation,’ Psychological Review, 50 (4): 370–96.

Quinlan, K. (2016) ‘How emotion matters in four key relationships in teaching and learning in higher education,’ College Teaching, 64:3, 101- 111.

Richardson, J.T.E, J. Mittelmeier & B. Rienties (2020) ‘The role of gender, social class and ethnicity in participation and academic attainment in UK higher education: an update,’ Oxford Review of Education, 46 (3), 346-362

Snijders, I et al. (2020) ‘Building bridges in higher education: student faculty relationship quality, student engagement, and student loyalty,’ International Journal of Educational Research, 100, 1- 14.

Thomas, L. (2012) ‘Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme,’

Yang, M. & D. Carless (2012). ‘The feedback triangle and the enhancement of dialogic feedback processes,’ Teaching in Higher Education, 18(3), 285-297.