Mini-series: Reflections on belonging and looking forward

Photo credit: Yves Alarie, Unsplash CC0

In the final post of the Embedding Belonging into the Classroom mini-series, Professor Tina Harrison reflects on the contributions to the mini-series and provides a round-up of what belonging means in the classroom and what we can do to help develop a sense of belonging among our students…

Belonging is important. It’s long been acknowledged to be a basic human need and motivation (Maslow, 1962).

Sense of belonging is a term with many meanings. It can be a sense of feeling accepted, valued, included, connected and feeling that one matters. Regardless of the specific meaning, belonging is an individual’s psychological experiences and their subjective evaluation of how they feel in a given context. This is important to remember, because our efforts to create the conditions for a sense of belonging to flourish need to mirror this. What I mean by this is that belonging can’t be achieved by structures, processes, events, information alone, but how we all use these to develop and sustain meaningful relationships between staff and students and among our students.

So how can we create the conditions for a sense of belonging in the classroom? Reflecting on the posts in this mini-series, several key themes are evident.

Start at the beginning

(Prospective) students develop a sense of belonging from the first interactions we have with them. My youngest son has been applying to universities this year and it’s been so interesting to watch his reaction to the way universities have been communicating with him. One university in particular, which has become his top choice, has interacted with him in such a way that he said to me: “I feel like they really want me to be there.” The seeds of belonging have been sown. He’s already developed an emotional connection with the University before even setting foot on campus.

We have a mechanism for sewing these seeds of belonging with our own students. In her post, Start as we mean to go on, Kirsty Stewart highlights how, through the Making Transitions Personal (MTP) Framework, we can engage with students before they arrive on campus and ease their transition into university. I would also urge all course organisers to consider ways in which a sense of belonging can be fostered with students before or at the start of each new course they take.

(make an effort to) Learn students’ names

Belonging is about mattering. Evidence from the literature tells us that making an effort to learn students’ names is really powerful in making students feel that they matter (e.g. Cooper et al 2017). I tried out the use of ‘name tents’ at the start of my honours course last semester as a means of learning students’ names. I had a relatively small group of students (34), so could have learnt their names by looking them up in the student record system. This would have missed the point, though. By using name tents students see that I am making an effort to know who they are and my wanting to know their names makes them feel that they matter to me. It also made it easier for students to get to know one another. Students reflected back to me in the CEQ that they felt I “cared” that I was “interested” in them and “wanted them to do well”.

Build positive peer relationships

Peer interaction can help or hinder a sense a belonging. Emma Sharland highlights in her post, Included from day one, how ‘medical families’ help to foster a sense of belonging, where students support other students academically and socially. She also notes how small group teaching, with regularly changing groups, supports greater integration and cohesion. It is our role as educators to encourage positive interactions among students that help bring about a sense of belonging, helping students feel accepted and included.

Empower students to be agents of their own learning

Lorna Quickfall, in her post Empowering students matters, outlines a holistic approach to empowering students as confident learners using a combination of group activities and individual coaching. In their post, Belonging in the new Biology curriculum, Professors Patrick Walsh and Heather McQueen discuss plans for embedding belonging through actively creating and developing learning communities. Ire-Oluwa Adegoke’s post, Maximising postgraduate experience with student-led initiatives, talks about how belonging can be improved through student-led initiatives, but suggests that these need to be supported from programme leads to ensure ongoing sustainability.

According to Strayhorn: “Sense of belonging is a feeling, it’s about groups or community, and it’s a shared faith” (2019:14). In building a sense of belonging students need to have faith in us that we care about them and they matter to us. Let me leave you with a few questions to ponder:

  • What have you said or done that shapes students’ faith in you and their belief that you’re here to help them succeed and get the most out their educational experience?
  • What can you to today to increase your students’ sense of belonging?


Cooper, K. M., Haney, B., Krieg, A. and Brownell, S. E. (2017). What’s in a Name? The Importance of Students Perceiving that an Instructor Knows Their Names in a High-Enrollment Biology Classroom. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 16: 1–13.

Maslow, A. H. (1962). Toward a Psychology of Being, New York, NY: von Nostrand Reinhold.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2019). College Students’ Sense of Belonging, New York, NY: Routledge.

Tina Harrison

Tina is Assistant Principal Academic Standards and Quality Assurance and Professor of Financial Services Marketing and Consumption. Tina joined the University in 1993 and continues to maintain an active academic role in the Business School. She has had overall responsibility for the University’s quality assurance framework as Assistant Principal since 2009. She plays a key role in the Scottish HE quality landscape as a member of QAA Scotland’s Advisory Board, chair of the sparqs University Advisory Group, and member of the Quality Arrangements for Scottish Higher Education (QASHE) group.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *