Special issue


The special issue aims to explore the possibility of pedagogy and curriculum design for promoting ‘belonging’. Relevant to this aim is the question which we address in this proposed paper: To what extent, and in what ways, do students understand their learning experiences (i.e. of pedagogic and curricular practices) to be relevant factors in contributing to their sense of belonging? This paper draws from a study into students’ sense of belonging that has so far run for two years, in Winter-Spring of 2019-20 and 2020-21. Building on existing research that has systematically sought to understand the dimensions and factors shaping students’ sense of belonging in higher education, our mixed-methods study combines three methods of collecting data from students: a Sense of Belonging Scale, an open-ended questionnaire item, and in-depth semi-structured interviews. The data captures the views and experiences of ~500 students at one research-intensive university in the UK. Our findings have implications for teachers and institutional policy by revealing how particular pedagogic and curricular practices can both enable and undermine students’ sense of belonging, as well as the limits of pedagogy/curricula in influencing belonging. We also explore how these factors interact with students’ biographical characteristics, with some students facing particular challenges with regards to ‘belonging’. We conclude that pedagogy and the curriculum have their main influence not directly, but rather by contributing to a broader ‘academic sphere’, within which students do or do not develop a sense of belonging.

Practitioner Notes

  1. Certain pedagogic and curricular practices and experiences promote sense of belonging
  2. Sense of belonging is 'situated' and 'relational', as emphasised in other recent literature.
  3. Pedagogy and the curriculum have their main influence on students' sense of belonging by contributing to a broader 'academic sphere' that shapes students' holistic experience.
  4. Students' understanding of belonging is grounded in their perceptions of the specific institution that they belong to.
  5. Strategies for promoting belonging should therefore be contextualised, since there is unlikely to be a 'one size fits all' model

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