Mini-Series: Can we stay on campus for lessons in belonging?

Photo Credit: Vasily Koloda, Unsplash CC0

In this Mini-Series on Embedding Belonging in the Classroom, Tom Wileman, third year History and Economics student, talks to us about the best practice already happening within The University of Edinburgh in creating learning communities that students feel a part of…

University can be a lonely place sometimes. I’ve had days go by where I felt I was in the music video for Bitter Sweet Symphony , not my uni campus. 46% of UK students admit to loneliness during their time at university. Nearly half of all students experiencing some form of loneliness, even at such a large institution as a university, is disappointing, but as a student, not surprising; it is easy to become somewhat ‘socially paralytic’ by the scale of the university, and the avenues open to you, especially during your first weeks at university. Once in this state, it feels increasingly hard to claw your way back from the periphery of the university experience. Naturally, there is no one ‘student experience’, but a multiplicity of experiences, as a large part of feeling a sense of belonging at university comes from outside the lecture theatre and seminar room of course, but the classroom is the common nucleus of all of our time here.

The University of Edinburgh is avidly trying to enhance student experience. Strategy 2030 states: “We will encourage and take care of one another. We will provide support in times of difficulty and celebrate every success” (page 13). Last summer, I undertook a project analysing some of the comments from Edinburgh students responding to the National Student Survey (NSS), and the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES). It was a really great job over the summer, even after I had stopped feeling like Kim Philby, or some other double agent. Each student has a unique background, perspective and experience, and it is antithetical to our strategy if we don’t reflect on students’ experiences. These insights are an invaluably rich resource in student feedback. Personally, I gained a wider recognition of the breadth of the University, and recognised there is so much to be learnt about the learning community.

The good news is we don’t need to travel very far for our lesson; whilst just 58% of students agreed they felt ‘part of a community of staff and students” at Edinburgh, five schools achieved a satisfaction rating of 75% or over. These schools were the Royal Dick Veterinary School (91%), Medical School (89%), Moray House School of Education and Sport (81%), Health (77%), and Geosciences (75%). We should look towards these schools to teach and inspire us about fostering belonging in the classroom.

Firstly, offering a range of learning methods is a prevalent theme. Whilst the degree programmes in the aforementioned schools have more naturally varied teaching methods – field trips, practical laboratory sessions and placement work – these schools are also finding ways to revamp learning in the classroom. I found an article entitled ‘Learning With Lego’ to be a fantastic example of this. Dr Dan Swanton is a senior lecturer in the School of Geosciences, and I would love practices like this to spread throughout the university. I think students would engage with these methods: the abstraction really aids thinking about topics differently, and it breaks some of the staleness of conventional learning methods. It might sound elementary, but it is also much more likely to get students to socialise and ‘show themselves’ a little more.

Secondly, there is a recurring theme that emerges from undergraduates of all disciplines: honours years feel more like a community than pre-honours years. Again, this seems slightly natural: as time goes on and class sizes get smaller, bonds are likely to be stronger. However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t actively try to bridge this gap at the start of the university experience. One of my most memorable tutorials came in a first-year course on the 2008 financial crisis. Each of us had to place ourselves somewhere in the room, based on how we felt about certain statements on the crisis. As the exercise went on, I began to think more holistically about my worldview, who stood close by and who was furthest away. Exercises like this helped me see the wood for the trees when we studied and discussed more specific aspects, such as the culture of lobbying.

Online students are also very eager to enhance their student experience. Discord servers, and chances to discuss topics intently with their fellow students and lecturers, helps them to feel part of something bigger than their online programme. The Open University runs online societies and clubs, and organises meet-ups for online students.

Of course, it is a two-way street. I know how awkward and frustrating tutorials can get, when conversations stagnate and students feel strangely suspicious about exploring their opinions. Students have to be open to these methods and give them the energy and enthusiasm they require, and if we do, I feel a sort of ‘positive feedback loop’ can be created wherein students feel invigorated in the classroom, and contribute to a more fluid, creative space.

Tom Wileman

Tom Wileman is an Economic History undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh. Tom has been working part time at the University’s Analytics, Insights and Modelling Team, working on various projects, such as the National Student Survey. With an interest in sport and economics, Tom has written for multiple student publications around Edinburgh, as well as acting as Sports Editor for The Student newspaper.

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