Relationships are not enough: What it takes for students to belong

Photo by Andrew Moca on Unsplash

For a long time, I’ve been waxing lyrical about the importance of relationships in higher education, particularly the relationships that teachers form with students, and that students form with peers. Works like Peter Felten and Leo Lambert’s Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College and the voices of our students have repeatedly affirmed my obsession with relationships. You’ll imagine my surprise and slight discomfort when an article came out recently in the Student Success Journal that said, “The findings suggest framing belonging merely as about relationships limits understanding of this important construct.”

In that article Ella Kahu, Nicole Ashley, and Catherine Picton write about how there are three key elements that contribute to how students may perceive belonging at university, which is often portrayed as mainly about relationships. They followed students through their first year at an Australian university, and regularly checked in with them throughout the year. Through this, three elements of belonging surfaced: familiarity, interpersonal belonging, and academic belonging.

But what do these mean and, importantly, how do we promote these in our teaching?


Just as it can be bewildering to be teaching for the first time, students struggled to build familiarity with “the place, the practices, and the people”. A large part of feeling like they belonged at university revolved around getting used to university life – its surroundings, its machinations, its procedures, and its local environment. Part of this is the ‘hidden curriculum‘, the unspoken rules and ways of operating that are often inaccessible or invisible to new students, particularly those who are the first in their families to attend university – and which present a significant impediment to success.

This early stage of belonging is integral for negotiating the negative emotions, such as fear or anxiety, that often come with a profound shift in life such as starting university.

We are getting better at helping students build familiarity. There are resources such as the Get Prepared Canvas site for students (and their supporters) and the new student life, wellbeing, and support page that aim to reveal the hidden curriculum and develop familiarity. Within our own units and teaching, we can help by explaining how various elements of university work and how students can best engage with them; there’s lovely examples from the GCST1602 Open Site that explain what ‘lectures’ and ‘tutorials’ are, what students can expect, what to bring, and where to go. The University has also recently enabled MazeMaps, which helps students to find rooms, buildings, and facilities such as food outlets, accessible bathrooms, bike repair stations, vending machines, and more.

Interpersonal belonging

The second key element was students’ deeper connections they formed with staff and other students. This included finding peers with similar academic interests and goals, and connecting with other students socially. As expected, different students had different needs from peer relationships. Being known by their teachers (or not) was a key factor in student-staff relationships.

Building positive relationships with others plays a key role in reducing anxiety, which is elevated in university students after the pandemic. One approach may be to build positive academic peer relationships through well-designed collaborative exercises – colleagues at Sydney have designed a Canvas resource site to support this. Making time in class for students to share personal experiences that are related to unit content may also help students to find others with similar interests; check out some tips from colleagues about building a supportive class community, using icebreakers effectively ahead of groupwork, or helping students to form a web of connections. Outside the classroom, the University has a wide array of student life offerings, including a vibrant collection of clubs and societies that students can join.

… students need ongoing opportunities to connect with students and staff with similar disciplinary interests and career goals

Building positive teacher-student relationships is also vital. This can help with fostering academic belonging (see below), support student mental health, and grow motivation. Ways to do this start from before the first week: from an informal and friendly welcome video to approachable welcome announcements, personalised messages, and using student names, there are a number of low-workload approaches to foster these important relationships and help us connect with students at a human level.

Academic belonging

The authors note that interpersonal belonging and familiarity both gradually increased for students but the third element, academic belonging, was more prone to fluctuation. Students in the study spoke about this as feeling like they were “meant to be” at university, in their course. However, this feeling wavered due to a number of factors such as their academic success, their self-efficacy (a feeling of being able to control an outcome), interest in the discipline, career identity, and engagement in classes. Students may start to doubt whether they ‘fit in’ if, for example, they do not perform at their expected level, or if they feel like their participation in class is not valued.

Findings in the current study highlight the importance of linking learning to students’ future selves

Various parts of the University have been working to grow academic belonging for a number of years. Consider running a values affirmation activity with students or an activity which helps students to discover their sense of professional purpose – these help to reconnect students with why they are at university and develop a stronger sense of belonging. Framing interventions are also useful to run, especially around assessment time, because they help normalise challenge and encourage students to see feedback as an opportunity for growth. The University has a Canvas site dedicated to these evidence-based activities that grow academic belonging – definitely worth checking out. As educators, we can share our own journeys through higher education to normalise feelings of impostorship, and also teach in ways that help students feel more competent and autonomous in their learning.

Above all else, the findings highlight that many first-year students question their decision to come to university and/or their choice of discipline.

This recent paper by Kahu, Ashley, and Picton provides evidence towards an insightful framework that draws together parallel threads that support student belonging, and reinforces key principles guiding education at Sydney. The good news is that despite the many challenges that students face in higher education in times of COVID, there are practical, concrete, and achievable things we can do in the next few days, weeks, and months that will help our students fit in and succeed.

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