Mini-series: Belonging in the new biology curriculum

Photo credit: Tim Mossholder, Unsplash CC0

In this Mini-series on ‘Embedding belonging in the classroom’, Professor Patrick Walsh, Professor Heather McQueen and Dr Nadia Tuzi chat to us about what led them to rethink the entire first year Biology curriculum around community, inclusion and belonging…

A student’s sense of belonging, or ‘connectedness’ to other students and staff on their course, and to their discipline, is of immense importance not only with respect to surviving the early stages of university but to overall academic success (Matheson and Sutcliffe 2018). We were therefore unpleasantly surprised to learn from a biology undergraduate student project (Rhianna Queen, 2019) that 43% of first-year students taking Biology courses (but from several different Schools) do not feel like they belong. For this reason, and because belonging (or not) begins at day one (or before) of university, we have been paying special attention to community, inclusion and belonging during the design of our new biology first year curriculum.

Critically aware of the sense of anonymity that many students feel upon arrival at University, cut off from their traditional support groups (e.g. parents and school friends) and lost amongst the larger and more diverse University population (Woosley, 2003), we have scheduled field trips, attended by all students and teaching staff, in the first week of semester 1. The trips are designed to be fun, of interest to students (e.g. collecting real biological data) and tied to low stakes assessment to foster engagement from the outset.

Beyond just lacking opportunities for integration, many students lack the cultural capital vital to belonging (Nora 2004). We also know that deliberate construction of social groups engaged in activities that embrace academic and social dimensions can help to build this cultural capital, so crucial for establishing belonging during the transition period. To this end we plan to actively create and develop learning communities (Tinto 2000) using structured and heavily supported staff-mentored group-work on assessed, reflective and investigative tasks at weekly workshops throughout the semester. Our workshop in week 1 will focus not only on how to collaborate effectively and respectfully within a group, but to recognise and value the diversity within the group. Students will form groups based on interest in broad biological topics and will have the autonomy to establish group rules and marking criteria whilst being guided to consider the value of group work but also the potential pitfalls. As well as our initial field trips and supported group work, we aim to maintain a strong sense of community with further strategically placed activities such as our creative event in week 7, and student poster events. Recognising that returning from an academic break can also be disruptive to support networks and cause low mood, further cohort-wide trips will also take place at the start of the second semester.

Belonging, however, does not grow from a series of events or interventions alone. It is easy to feel alone at the party. Instead students need to develop their own sense of belonging in a relationship of trust with staff (Matheson and Sutcliffe 2018) and fellow students. For this reason, and as part of ongoing structure and support, we are introducing two new strands; our personal and skills development e-portfolio to be used across all seven of our new compulsory first and second year courses and our ‘well-being pathway’ on both of our first year and first semester courses. The portfolio will create time and space for supported reflection and personal development, with engagement essential to pass each course. The well-being pathway will be embedded within the timetabled learning, executed in small familiar groups and will consist of short, twice-weekly activities that aim to build community, resilience and well-being.

Example activities (some of which have been trialled within our existing curriculum) will include simple weekly wellness ranking whereby students track and reflect on their own wellbeing, the ‘stress bucket’ activity where students articulate any stress they face and evaluate the usefulness of their mechanisms to moderate those stresses, relentless (weekly) welcoming, and reflection and discussions of the value of failure. Our intention is that such activities will tackle problems of low mood, anxiety or depression – that can result in students isolating themselves – and help to counter the common ‘imposter syndrome’ felt by students in higher education, particularly amongst our first-in-family, mature, widening participation and minority students. The activities will also allow flagging of the support services available within the university and more broadly re-enforce the value of positive wellbeing. Positive messaging (as provided through the reflective portfolio and the well-being strand) will address the affective domain of learning while active learning in our context enquiry-led practicals, workshops and flipped lectures will address the cognitive domain. A recent study suggests such ‘dual domain pedagogy’ can be effective in closing attainment gaps in BME students (Bauer et al. 2020).

Although we have the noblest of intentions, there are potentially numerous possible ways in which our “best laid schemes… gang aft agley [often go awry]” (Burns 1786), so please do let us know your opinions (while there is still time).


Bauer A.C., Coffield, V.M., Crater, D., Lyda, T., Segarra, V.A., Suh, K.,  Vigueira, C.C. &  Vigueira, P.A. (2020). Fostering Equitable Outcomes in Introductory Biology Courses through Use of a Dual Domain Pedagogy. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 19:1.

Burns, R. (1786). To a mouse. In R. Burns, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Kilmarnock: John Wilson, pp. 138-140.

Matheson, R. & Sutcliffe, M., (2018). Developing Belonging, Community and Creating Professional Identity. In Transition In, Through and Out of Higher Education: International Case Studies and Best Practice. Routledge, pp. 31–45.

Nora, A. (2004). The Role of Habitus and Cultural Capital in Choosing a College, Transitioning from High School to Higher Education, and Persisting in College Among Minority and Nonminority Students. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 3(2), 180–208.

Tinto, V. (2000). Learning Better Together: The Impact of Learning Communities on Student Success. Journal of Institutional Research. 9.

Woosley, S.A. (2003). How Important are the First Few Weeks of College? The Long Term Effects of Initial College Experiences. College Student Journal, 37(2), 201-208.

Patrick Walsh

Patrick Walsh is the Director of Teaching for Student Experience in the School of Biological Sciences. He oversees the School’s PALS programme and initiated student societies related to the School’s degree programmes. His research focuses on animal behaviour and his teaching covers evolution, animal biology and ecology.

Heather McQueen

Heather McQueen is a Professor of Biological Education in the School of Biological Sciences. As well as 20 years of laboratory based research into genome organisation and epigenetics in higher vertebrates, Heather has led a variety of pedagogical and public engagement projects including investigations of online collaborative learning using “Peerwise”, of student attitudes to plagiarism and study use of Facebook, and the “Gene Jury” project for school pupils. Heather was a finalist for the HE UK Bioscience teacher of the year 2014 and received an honourable mention in the 2015 Turnitin Global Innovation awards. Heather has recently completed a secondment to the Institute for Academic Development, conducting a two-year project on flipped learning.

Nadia Tuzi

Nadia Tuzi is a Senior Academic tutor. She studied Biology at Napier in Edinburgh when it was a college. She went on to do her MSc in General Biochemistry at King’s College, University of London and then a PhD in London at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (which became part of Cancer Research UK). Her PhD involved studying type I receptor tyrosine kinases. Upon completing her PhD, she went on to become a post-doctoral, then a senior post-doctoral, research scientist at the Institute for Animal Health in Edinburgh before setting up her lab there. She moved to her current post in 2007 and now has several roles including being the Senior Academic Tutor, a Personal Tutor, the leader of the BTO Student Support Team and the Associate Director of Teaching for Student Experience.

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