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SATURDAY READING: Promoting belonging during challenging times: ‘I felt heard’

  • 25 July 2020
  • By David Woolley & L:es Ebdon

This blog was kindly contributed by David Woolley and Les Ebdon. David is Director of Student and Community Engagement at Nottingham Trent University and Les is a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and Director of Fair Access. Both are involved with the charity Grit, Les is on the Advisory Board and David has recently become a Trustee.

Higher education institutions have successfully increased the number of young students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending. For 2019 entry more than a fifth of 18-year-old entrants were from areas of the country with the lowest rate of participation. But with this success has come some retention and participation challenges. The recent speech by Michelle Donelan criticised HEIs for ‘too much focus on getting students through the door, and not enough focus on how many drop out’.

Evidence suggests that these challenges are addressed by ensuring that students feel they belong and connected. Belonging is important both pastorally and academically and existing challenges in ensuring students from disadvantaged backgrounds belong in both these areas will have been exacerbated by the current health crisis. Having limited social interaction, especially outside of usual groups and not having worked, volunteered, or indeed studied since March will affect confidence. This will be aggravated if you are suddenly part of a larger cohort of more privileged first years who appear to be more rapidly acclimatising to their new surroundings. Furthermore, will this feeling of not belonging be made worse by the inevitably remote nature of much of the future interaction? One would expect so.

What can higher education institutions do to address this? A challenge within this for higher education institutions is to try to understand what it means to not belong. It is hard for those who do belong to have any understanding of what it is like for those who do not belong. This is particularly so for decision-makers who have inevitably constructed the university according to their sense of belonging and so are quite some distance from those who do not belong.

In recognition of this, now more than ten years ago, the University of Bedfordshire began to work with a locally-based international charity, Grit Breakthrough Programmes, then known as ‘Youth at Risk’. Grit works with young people to help them identify and change counter-productive thought processes in order to flourish. The impact of the work on a small pilot group of students was dramatic and long lasting. Other universities have since piloted the Grit methodology and launched the programme with considerable success for their own students who are at risk of not performing to their full potential.

One of these, Nottingham Trent University (NTU), has worked with Grit to develop an innovative version of the intervention programme. It focuses on building a sense of community through belonging, sharing, myth-busting, agency and goal-setting. It is delivered through group participatory workshops facilitated by specially trained staff and student mentors accompanied by a year-long peer mentoring scheme. These activities enhance a students’ sense of belonging through developing helpful characteristics, demonstrating common experiences and beliefs and building confidence which facilitates friendship in this and other setting such as accommodation or through clubs and societies.

The evaluation of this programme shows significant positive effects on self-efficacy and self-confidence and subsequently on engagement and progression, particularly amongst under-represented groups. The programme also revealed some insights to staff (those who do belong) which have impacted positively on other areas of provision.

One of these is the course. At NTU feedback from the Grit intervention programme has reaffirmed previous research about the importance of academic belonging. NTU researchers have shown that the most important place students need to feel they belong is the course. Their research shows that an accessible tutor and a course design which facilitates belonging, is critical. A simple, but sometimes logistically challenging, first step is for the tutor to know all their students’ names. Tutors also need to demonstrate proactively they are accessible and willing to help. Using icebreakers or making team building an explicit outcome for the first term, (or incorporating the Grit methodology into programme design) will help.

The researchers show that academic belonging also arises from becoming a scholar in the discipline – that is making progress academically. This requires both early opportunities for students to understand how they are coping, but also substantial support for those who are struggling.

NTU also has evidence that under-represented students are much more reluctant to seek help. They feel it is an admission of failure. In contrast, students who feel that they belong have fewer problems in doing so. Courses need to encourage all students to believe that seeking help is a strength, a characteristic of most successful people and to ensure that the channels to do so are easy to access.

The sector has some good evidence to address the Government’s concerns, but this encouraging position, so dependent on human interaction and being known, would appear to be threatened by the recent, necessary move online. Can these interventions, which seem to rely so much on human interaction, be delivered in a remote mode?

There are signs that all is not lost: indeed the technology can bring some definite improvements.

For pastoral support, NTU and Grit have now piloted an online version of the programme. The feedback shows that there is actually great power with a virtual model. The Grit methodology enabled participants to quickly build a sense of community from the reassuring surrounds of their own home. High satisfaction rates were near universal and the functions of the software were especially welcomed by the quieter voices. To quote one, ‘I felt heard’. The sessions were more inclusive as the comments they had shared were fed back into the group through one of the facilitators.

Academically, video-conferencing software actually supports tutors’ and students’ ability to learn hundreds of names as everyone is effectively wearing a name badge all the time.

Higher education institutions should also give serious consideration to incorporating more technology into provision through learning analytics or other early warning systems to help identify students at risk. Reaching out to these students will remain a logistical challenge but Georgia Tech’s recent exploration into using Artificial Intelligence (AI) offers potential solutions.

We do not advocate a wholly-digital model. We have not yet proven the efficacy of online versions of other proven activities such as active, collaborative learning modules. But there are signs that if designed well the current blended approach of most institutions may inculcate that critical sense of belonging. It can help show students that they are meant to be here and we are here for them. It can be done, and it must be a high priority to support this generation of students so they do not become secondary victims of Covid-19.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    This all sounds very sensible and reassuring.

    A feeling of belonging makes it easier to participate and a focus on the primary academic activity seems a good starting point.

    Appropriate use of technology should release funds for more live, interactive people communication.

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