What makes students feel like they belong at university?

The pandemic and the move to more online teaching certainly had an impact on belonging.

By Joseph Crawford

Belonging is about feeling accepted, included and valued.

If students feel like they belong at their university, research shows it plays a crucial role in their overall wellbeing, self-esteem, and motivation to study.

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As the Universities Accord interim report says, universities have an “obligation to students to foster belonging”. The draft report also notes “too few” Australians are completing university degrees, with completions of a first bachelor degree “at their lowest since 2014”.

Beyond ensuring campuses are safe and inclusive places to study, our new research looks at what factors can predict a sense of belonging for students.

What is happening to student belonging?

The annual Student Experience Survey tracks Australian students’ sense of belonging to their institution.

In 2022, only 46.5% of undergraduate students said they experienced a sense of belonging at university, and while this is slightly higher than 2021 (42.1%), it remains significantly lower than most other areas of student experience. For example, Australian students rated their overall university experience at 75.9%.

The pandemic and the move to more online teaching certainly had an impact on belonging. But this issue pre-dates 2020 and is not unique to Australia.

It is important to reverse this trend. Feeling like they belong can help students overcome challenges and hardships and guard against not completing their degrees.

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Our study

Our research uses data from the Student Experience Survey between 2013 and 2019. We looked at more than 1.1 million undergraduate and postgraduate students during this time.

We used machine learning – a form of artificial intelligence that uses data and algorithms to progressively improve its quality (just like Netflix’s ability to recommend movies based on previous viewing) – to ask what actually predicts student belonging?

Analysis of multiple variables from the national student experience survey suggested several causes and connections.

Students want help to settle in

Students want to know they are welcome at their university from the very start. Our research found support for settling in was an important predictor for belonging.

This can mean inductions, orientations and structured opportunities to meet people. This could look like peer mentoring programs and for international students, mobilising the help of ethnic and religious community organisations.

It is also important for universities to have places on campus for students to interact, as well as clubs and events. On top of this, university teaching staff can complete training in how to facilitate social connections between students.

Our study found ease and helpfulness of enrolment and administration systems were not as important to belonging when compared to human connections.

Students need meaningful connections

Our research also showed students wanted to interact with their peers.

But we found interactions outside of class were much more important than interaction in class. This might be because student connection opportunities in class may be poor, or they see on-campus socialising as easier without academic pressure.

The study found it was important for all students – domestic or international – to have interactions with local students.

Local students already know the important places, events and sub-cultures of an area. This may be as simple as where to get the best coffee or cheapest takeaway, but helps students feel like they belong in the community.

Group work and belonging

We found some interactions in class are important: our study suggests learning teamwork in class helped students feel like they belonged as it meant students were working together and interacting with their peers.

However, other skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, subject matter knowledge, and work readiness were far less important when it came to belonging.

Demographic indifference?

Research says a student’s personal identity is an important precursor to belonging. That is, we might belong more easily with those who share characteristics with us.

In our study we looked at students’ age, gender and enrolment type.

But we found these were less significant when it came to belonging. It mattered more if students were able to interact with other students.

Why this matters

While skills development and subject matter expertise are very important for academic outcomes, our research shows when it comes to belonging, students need authentic opportunities to settle into university life and make friends.

In its interim report, the Universities Accord does not look at the commencement or orientation process for students.

It’s final report in December should not miss the opportunity to boost belonging – and thus retention – by focusing on how campuses can include and involve students from the start of their studies. If they do, our research suggests this will have long-term benefits.

Joseph Crawford, Senior Lecturer, Management, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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