Building a Sense Of Belonging in students: Using a participatory approach with staff to share academic practice

Main Article Content

Susan Smith Ruth Pickford Lyn Edwards Janice Priestley Rebecca Sellers Georgi Sinclair


This paper outlines ongoing work undertaken by a university educational development team to strengthen and share colleagues’ academic practice in relation to inclusive learning and teaching activities interventions. The paper outlines our institutional “Fora” structure (coordinated by The Centre for Learning and Teaching) and, taking one of the three Forum events as a modelled example, shows how consideration of the research literature informed colleagues’ discussion and catalysed the sharing of written and oral best practice through participatory action research (PAR) to ultimately build a resource guide. This paper specifically focuses on exploring the different approaches that colleagues adopted to build their students’ “sense of belonging” (both for the face to face and online experiences). A student’s perceived strong sense of belonging to their university can be a core factor in enhancing student satisfaction, engagement and retention (Pickford, 2016; Thomas, 2014). Critique and consideration of Ahn & Davis’ s (2019) four domains of belonging formed the starting point for the discussion. Digital tools and pedagogic approaches sourced from colleagues who have found them valuable in developing student engagement and belonging during the Covid-19 crisis are also explored.

Article Details

Reflective Analysis Papers
Author Biography

Susan Smith, Leeds Beckett University

I am Head of Curriculum Review & Development, an academic post at Leeds Beckett University. I'm based in the Centre for Learning and Teaching, Leeds Beckett University. I am widely published.


Ahn, Mi-Young & Davis, H. (2019) Four domains of students’ sense of belonging to university, Studies in Higher Education 10.1080/03075079.2018.1564902.
Allen, L. (2016) ‘BAME graduates 2.5 times more likely to be jobless than white peers.' The Guardian. Available at: (Accessed: 7 February 2019).
Baumeister, R. F.; Leary, M. R. (1995). "The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation". Psychological Bulletin. 117 (3): 497–529.
Cicogani, E., Menezes, T, Nata, G. (2011) University students sense of belonging to their home town: the role of residential mobility. Social Indicators Research, 104 (1): 3345. [Accessed 3rd January 2020]
Chambers, R. (2008) "PRA, PLA and Pluralism: Practice and Theory", in The Sage Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice. Reason, P. and H. Bradbury (eds). Sage, pp. 297–318
Chevalier, J.M. and Buckles, D.J. (2013) Participatory Action Research: Theory and Methods for Engaged Inquiry, Routledge UK. ISBN 978-0415540315.
Creswell, J. W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches (2nd ed.). Sage Publications, Inc.
Currant, N. (2015). Strategies of Belonging: Counter stories of Black Students at a Predominately White University. Brookes E Journal of Learning and Teaching, 7(2). Retrieved from
Denscombe, M. (2010) The Good Research Guide for Small-Scale Social Research Projects. Maidenhead, England: McGraw-Hill/Open University Press.
Gibson, D. M., & Myers, J. E. (2006). Perceived Stress, Wellness, and Mattering: A Profile of First-Year Citadel Cadets. Journal of College Student Development, 47(6), 647–660.
Gruttner, M. (2019) Belonging as a Resource of Resilience: Psychological Wellbeing of International and Refugee Students in Study Preparation at German Higher Education Institutions, [Special Issue], Psychological Wellbeing and Distress in Higher Education, Vol 10 No 3.
Hausmann, L. R. M., Schofield, J. W., & Woods, R. L. (2007). Sense of belonging as a predictor of intentions to persist among African American and white first-year college students. Research in Higher Education.
Johnson, J. Bauman, C. Pociask, S. (2019) Teaching the Whole Student: Integrating Wellness Education into the Academic Classroom, [Special Issue], Psychological Wellbeing and Distress in Higher Education, Vol 10, No 3.
Kahn, W.A. (1990) Psychological condition of personal engagement and disengagement at work, Academy of Management Journal, 33, 1990 692-724.
Maymon, R. Hall, C.H. Harley, J.M. (2019) Supporting First-Year Students During the Transition to Higher Education: The Importance of Quality and Source of Received Support for Student Well-Being. [Special Issue:], Psychological Wellbeing and Distress in Higher Education, Vol 10 No 3.
Miles, M. & Huberman, M. (1994) An Expanded Sourcebook Qualitative Data Analysis (2nd edition). London: Sage.
Morgan, M (2019) Fostering engagement in higher education of all stakeholders in the delivery of a high quality student experience, Thesis. Bournemouth University
O’Keefe, P (2013), ‘A sense of belonging: improving student retention’, College Student Journal, vol.47, no.4, pp.605-613.
Pickford, R (2016) Student Engagement: Body, Mind and Heart; A Proposal for an Embedded Multi-Dimensional Student Engagement Framework, Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 4
Pickford, R. (2016), Student Engagement: Body, Mind and Heart – A Proposal for an Embedded Multi-Dimensional Student Engagement Framework, Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 4 (2). ISSN 2051-9788.
Pickford, R (2018) A Blueprint for Teaching Excellence, Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 6,1
Rayle AD, Chung K-Y. (2007) Revisiting First-Year College Students’ Mattering: Social Support, Academic Stress, and the Mattering Experience. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice. 2007;9(1):21-37. doi:10.2190/X126-5606-4G36-8132
Richardson, J. (2008a). Degree attainment, ethnicity and gender: A literature review. York.
Richardson, J. T. E. (2008b). The attainment of ethnic minority students in UK higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 33(1), 33-48.
doi:, A.M. (2006) ‘Antecedents and consequences of employee engagement’, Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol 21, No 6, pp 600-619.
Scott, H. Takarangi, K.T. (2019) Measuring PhD Student’s Psychological Well-being: Are we seeing the whole picture? [Special Issue], Psychological Wellbeing and Distress in Higher Education, vol,10,3, 14-24.
Schlossberg, N. K. (1989). Marginality and mattering: Key issues in building community. New Directions for Student Services, 48, 5-15. doi: 10.1002/ss.37119894803.
Schwartz, H. L.& Holloway, E.L (2014). “‘I Become a Part of the Learning Process’: Mentoring Episodes and Individualized Attention in Graduate Education.” Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning 22 (1): 38–55. doi:10.1080/13611267.2014.882604.
Smith, S. (2017) ‘Exploring the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Student Attainment Gap: What Did It Tell Us? Actions to Address Home BME Undergraduate Students’ Degree Attainment.’ Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 5(1), 49-57.
Smith, S (2018) The experience of BAME commuting students. The Journal of Education, Innovation, Partnership and Change, vol 4 (1)
Stebleton, M., Soria, K., Huesman, R., Torres, V. (2014) Recent immigrant students at research universities: The relationship between campus climate and sense of belonging. Journal of College Student Development 55(2): 196–202.
Strauss, A. & Corbin, J. (1994) Grounded theory and methodology. In N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln (Eds) Handbook for Qualitative Research. London: Sage, pp. 273-285.
Strayhorn, T. (2008) Fittin’ in: Do diverse interactions with peers affect sense of belonging for black men at predominantly white institutions? Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 45(4): 953–979.
Thomas, L. (2012) Building Student Engagement and Belonging in Higher Education at a Time of Change. Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
Thomas, L. and Jones, R. (2017) Student engagement in the context of commuter students. London: The Student Engagement Partnership.
Thomas, L. (2002) Student Retention in Higher Education: The role of institutional habitus. Journal of Education Policy. 17 (4), pp. 423–432.
Thomas L., Herbert, J. & Teras, M. (2014). A sense of belonging to enhance participation, success and retention in online programs. The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 5 (2), 69-80.
Tinto, V. (1988). Stages of student departure: Reflections on the longitudinal character of student leaving. Journal of Higher Education, 59(4), 438-455.
Tinto, V. (1997) Classrooms as communities. Exploring the educational character of student persistence. The Journal of Higher Education. 68 (6), pp. 599–622.
Tinto, V. (2000) Reconstructing the first year of college. In: Student Support Services Model Retention Strategies for Two-year Colleges. Washington DC: Council for Opportunity in Education.
Tinto, V. (2006) Research and practice of student retention: what next? College Student Retention. 8 (1), pp. 1–19.
Tinto, V. (2017). Through the Eyes of Students. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 19(3), 254–269.
Tovar, E., Simon, M. A., & Lee, H. B. (2009). Development and Validation of the College Mattering Inventory With Diverse Urban College Students. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, 42(3), 154–178.
Trowler, V. (2010) Student Engagement Literature Review. York, Higher Education Academy.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice, learning, meaning and identity. Pp-208-9 Cambridge University Press
Wilcox, P., Wynne, S. & Fyvie- Gauld, M. (2005) It was nothing to do with the university, it was just the people’: the role of social support in the first‐year experience of higher education, Studies in Higher Education, 30,6, 707- 722