Special issue


This paper seeks to unveil the situated struggle that students experience in comprehending the often tacit rules that govern academic practices in order to engage fully with their academic studies and develop a sense of belonging. I present a critique of the prevailing conception of student belonging, which I suggest does not effectively consider the diversity of contemporary university cohorts due to favouring social groups traditionally dominating the student body. Non-traditional students, especially those from contexts distant from Western higher education, can often struggle with developing confidence and conversance with critical thinking – a central practice of academia – which negatively impacts their experiences of belonging. My research with master’s students in three Scottish universities shows that dialogic active pedagogy can be a means for establishing belonging while also supporting some students' development and demonstration of critical being across multiple domains and to transformatory levels. Such empowering participatory pedagogy, captured in the finding of ‘contexts of difference', can potentially provide the means for students to adapt and establish belonging within the culture, context and subject of their learning while also enabling the development of criticality, to the highest levels, amongst some students.

Practitioner Notes

  1. Adopting an academic literacies lens, practitioners should critically reflect upon which terms, concepts or practices are expected of students in their discipline, yet largely remain implicit. They should ensure these are explicitly discussed and defined with students.
  2. A dialogic approach to pedagogy which promotes interaction and meaningful relationships between students and teachers as partners in learning is most conducive to generating student belonging and facilitating learners’ criticality development.
  3. Embracing ‘contexts of difference’ when teaching, which encapsulate dialogue, differing perspectives and diversity, would help provide meaningful and formative intercultural learning by offering students opportunities to develop criticality through engagement with diverse peers.
  4. Relational pedagogy presents a means through which a dialogic, participatory approach that embraces contexts of difference can help support student belonging and, later, development of critical being.