ERASMUS+ European project involving 4 partners:
- Project Lead: FHOOE (University of Applied Sciences, Upper Austria)
- ESU (European Students Union)
- BCU (Birmingham City University)
- UDE (University of Duisberg-Essen, Germany)
- Louise Wheatcroft (HELS)
- Professor Nick Morton (CEBE)
There is robust empirical evidence that students lacking a “sense of belonging” within higher education is one of the main reasons students drop out/students decide to break off their educational experience.
- In education settings, belonging is described as the students’ connectedness to the institution, staff and other students (Thomas, 2012).
- Students are less likely to leave if they have positive relationships with their peers and educators, particularly with tutors (Thomas, 2012).
- Academic staff play a key role in how they can help or break the fragile sense of self and capability that many students have as they begin university (Burke et al., 2016).
The aim of this project is to support first year students from diverse backgrounds to transition to university through a course delivered during the transition period that enables students to make friends and connections with people they don’t know and to get to know their institution through researching an aspect of their university. There is a strong emphasis on developing a sense of community and belonging – with their peers, their tutors and with the institution to which they belong. The use of an app for communicating information to students as/when needed and to provide students with tailored support during key moments of their transition has been developed and trialled. The second key element is that of developing staff awareness of the diverse needs of their student population and how to provide an inclusive and supportive environment. An online moodle staff training course is being developed and there will be a face-to-face version leading to a blended learning course. Indication of modules: belonging and mattering theoretical framing; learning and teaching: empathetic teaching, inclusive teaching, personal tutoring; wellbeing - student wellbeing, staff wellbeing; communication.
The wellbeing of students and staff is paramount. Along with a sense of belonging comes a feeling that you matter and feeling that you matter leads to greater wellbeing and academic outcomes and retention.
The project aims to increase a sense of belonging of under-represented groups while at the same time avoiding the triggering of “Othering” effects or stereotype threat through the following 4 intellectual outputs:
- IO1: Europe-wide student survey among first-semester students gauging their sense of belonging and possible difficulties in adapting to academic life
- IO2: Student experience platform – BCU University Assistant App
- IO3: Community building course for first year students
- IO4: Staff training – for administrative and academic staff
Method of Research
A Europe-wide survey of 3995 first year students from 34 countries on their experiences during their first semester at university was conducted as the first phase of the project.
The survey results showed that:
- Social interaction among students is important for creating a sense of community
- Relationships with teachers and admin staff are also important for creating a sense of belonging
- Financial difficulties can impact upon engagement and a sense of belonging
The data was used to inform the subsequent phases of the project:
- Further development and evaluation of the Birmingham City University Assistant App.
- Creation and trial of a community building course.
- Creation of staff training materials
Project outputs include:
- Student’s needs assessment - The outputs will be informed by an initial needs assessment in the form of an Europe-wide student survey among first-semester students gauging their sense of belonging and possible difficulties in adapting to academic life.
- Student experience platform - The anonymously available content of the web-based platform will offer interactive content with a strong focus on sharing and relating experiences of other students (via podcasts, video material, etc.). Further, it will also bundle relevant information on belonging issues – which is currently not available – in one site. Students participating in in the community building course will be exposed to the platform which is intended to function as a natural companion through student life.
- Community building course - A programme for an obligatory community building course for first-semester students which will be carried out at all three participating higher education institutions. The course aims at initiating and encouraging exchange among new students, establishing tighter relationships by didactically focusing on changing group formations, but also by empowering students to act as experts in their own right. Further, by making the own institution a subject of inquiry it is hoped to achieve a stronger identification with the institution.
- Staff training - To establish and maintain a sense of belonging it is vital that students are met with staff sensitised to their needs. In two formats, one for teaching staff, the other for administrative staff, issues of unconscious bias and the importance of belonging will be addressed, ultimately enabling staff to recognise and deal with problems arising out of a lacking integration into the higher education institutions.
In the longer run and with a view to sustainability, the project results (i.e. the course-programme, the content on the platform, the training formats) are highly transferable. The outputs, or modular parts thereof, can be adopted easily by other higher education institutions or rolled out to a larger group of students at a later point.
Application of Research
The project’s outputs (i.e. the community building course programme, the content on the platform, the training formats) are highly transferable and can be adapted by other higher education institutions.