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What have we learnt about student belonging and inclusion?

  • 23 May 2022
  • By Anna Jackson
  • On Thursday, 9 June 2022, HEPI will host its Annual Conference in central London. Titled ‘Challenges for the future?’, the day will include the launch of the Advance HE / HEPI 2022 Student Academic Experience SurveyRegister here.

This blog was written by Anna Jackson, Head of Customer Insights at Pearson Higher Education.

The link between belonging and student success is well established. A sense of belonging was strongly associated with both academic and social engagement at university a decade ago as part of the Higher Education Academy’s What works? Student Retention and Success Programme. In fact, it was stated as the key variable in whether or not students persist with their studies and are successful. This ‘sense of belonging’ while at university can make or break students’ overall experience and success

The isolating experience of studying throughout COVID-19 has pushed ‘belonging’ back to the forefront for universities, supported by the work of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission that has highlighted the importance of helping students regain their sense of ‘belonging’ at their university. 

To better understand which areas impact students’ sense of belonging, and support the sector in its efforts to ‘build back’ student experience, Pearson and Wonkhe are undertaking a year-long study of belonging and inclusion. 

During November 2021, in partnership with 15 students’ unions – 13 in England, one in Scotland and one in Wales – we distributed a student survey on belonging and inclusion, and received 5,233 responses with a good demographic spread.

The survey explored a range of possible dimensions of the experience of belonging – feeling ‘settled in’, personal priorities and academic confidence, the way the course is run, sense of connection and inclusion on the course, connections outside the course (extracurricular activities), inclusion in the university, sense of safety, being valued and empowered, feelings of happiness and loneliness. The results showed clear associations between sense of belonging and all these different factors.

 Our overarching findings from the survey include:

  • 69 per cent of respondents agree they belong at their university. Just under one in 10 (nine per cent) disagree they belong – and it’s this group we report as ‘students who do not feel they belong’. One in five (22 per cent) neither agree nor disagree.
  • The state of students’ self-assessed mental health was most consistently and dramatically associated with their sense of belonging across all the different areas we explored. However, we cannot say for sure whether belonging influences mental health or whether it is the other way around. 
  • Demographic differences (factors like prior education, ethnicity, or gender) did not have a significant impact on students’ sense of belonging in most groupings.
  • Mental health, academic confidence or ‘deserving to be at university’, inclusion and feeling connected were clearly associated with a sense of belonging. 
  • Students with disabilities had lower levels of belonging and generally scored lower for every area we asked about. 
  • Overwhelmingly, students think that developing closer and more friendships will help them feel a greater sense of belonging.

The key themes we need to explore more include:

Mental health

Perhaps it isn’t a huge surprise to find that students with lower levels of self-assessed mental health are less likely to feel a sense of belonging than students with average and above levels of mental health.

60 per cent of students scored themselves six or more out of 10 for mental health and the other 40 per cent scored themselves five or lower (referred to below as those with ‘below average mental health’). Half of students (52 per cent) with below average mental health scores say they feel they belong, compared with 80 per cent of those with average and above mental health. 

However, we weren’t expecting to see low mental health linked to more negative responses to questions across every aspect of university life, whether it was about connections at course or university level, confidence, how inclusive they found course content or whether they felt they could speak freely at university. It’s worth noting that mental health is not ‘fixed’ to the same extent as some of the other categories and that students may experience the onset or worsening of a mental health condition at any time. Significant proportions of students who report average or better mental health and / or agree they belong at university also report feelings of loneliness, self-doubt and exclusion.

The dramatic impact of low mental health on all aspects of the university experience backs up the investment and focus that many universities are placing on this area and highlights the importance of preventative measures as well as remedial ones. These findings speak to the value of weaving mental health and wellbeing support and inclusive practice into every stage of the student lifecycle, including courses and extracurricular activities. 

Confidence and imposter syndrome

We asked students about academic confidence and ‘imposter syndrome’. The results suggest a strong link between how confident a student feels and whether they feel a sense of belonging. Of the students who do not feel they belong at university, only 34 per cent say they are confident in their academic ability. Overall, 39 per cent agree that they experience imposter syndrome (which we defined in the survey as ‘feeling like you doubt your abilities and whether you deserve to be at university’). Again, we see that 68 per cent of those who do not feel they belong admit to feeling imposter syndrome compared to 32 per cent of those who feel they do belong. This chart shows the percentage of students who agreed or strongly agreed with the statements:

There is surprisingly little difference between levels of academic confidence and imposter syndrome between first and final year students. However, given the final year students who took part in this survey had spent most of their university life under COVID restrictions, it’s hard to know how much this has negatively impacted their confidence levels. 

Confidence is certainly an area where universities can and do proactively support students. Research indicates that helping students to see their progress by offering constructive feedback or having regular low stakes quizzes, can help to build confidence. Similarly, by encouraging students to identify and address skill gaps, and then nudging them to remediate these gaps, we can help them see progression and to build self-awareness. 

Community and connection

We looked at students’ connectedness at both course and university level and found low numbers for both. Only 39 per cent of all respondents agreed they feel a sense of connection to their university community. And while numbers are higher at course level, only 55 per cent of all respondents agreed they feel a sense of community with others on their course and 60 per cent agreed there are adequate opportunities to interact with other students on their course. Of the students who do not feel they belong, only 18 per cent feel a sense of community with others on their course. This chart shows the percentage of students who agreed or strongly agreed with the statements:

Historically, there has been a lot of emphasis on the role of university clubs and societies in creating communities. Our research suggests that although these groups still have a key role to play, they are not as influential when it comes to belonging as other areas. Fifty-six per cent of those who feel they belong have taken part in extracurricular activities, compared with 46 per cent of those who do not feel they belong.

Inclusion on the course

We asked about the variety and diversity of voices in relation to course content, and about whether respondents felt their course content and teaching style was inclusive i.e. ‘help[ing] to create a space in which you feel comfortable and confident to be yourself’.

Sixty-nine per cent of all respondents agree their course content includes varied, diverse voices. Only 48 per cent of those who do not feel they belong agreed to this question. When we asked about inclusive content and teaching style, around half of all respondents in each case agreed that style and content are consistently inclusive across all their modules, and just over a third agreed that content and style are sometimes inclusive but inconsistent across modules. Around one in 10 admitted they had not noticed. Crucially, only 27 per cent of those who do not feel they belong agree their course content is consistently inclusive, and only 30 per cent agree the style of teaching is consistently inclusive.

As with the rest of the survey findings, we did not see differences on the same scale when we looked at demographics. However, in these questions, as elsewhere, there are gaps between male and female identified students and non-binary students, between non-disabled and disabled students, between cisgendered and trans students, and between heterosexual students and those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or identify as another sexuality.

We’re currently working with some of the students who took the survey to better understand what they understand by ‘inclusive content’ and how that differs across different demographic groups. Given Pearson’s commitment to creating bias-free content, we’re keen to better understand learner perspectives on this. 

Course delivery

Universities that choose to retain elements of online learning in their delivery approach post–COVID may be reassured to hear that students who had a blended teaching experience reported similarly high levels of belonging as those who were being taught fully face-to-face. However, those students who had a fully online teaching delivery reported lower levels of belonging (it’s worth noting that the students who responded to this survey are likely to have applied to a face-to-face course, and the online delivery of their course has been the result of the pandemic and not a choice on their part). 

Next steps

During the next two months, we will be conducting more qualitative research with students to explore the key themes of academic confidence, inclusive courses and peer connections. We will also be consulting with academics and students unions to better understand where responsibility currently lies for tackling these challenges and learn more about current initiatives that are already working. 

A full overview of the survey results can be found here.

Register here for HEPI’s annual conference on Thursday 9 June 2022.

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