Currently reading: JUTLP special issue on belonging in an anxious world (articles 1-7)

In response to my blog post about belonging, I was made aware of the current issue of the Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice (JUTLP) on “Pedagogies of belonging in an anxious world“. So now I am determined to actually read that whole issue! My short summaries of the first 7 articles below.

In a nutshell: There is a lot of thought-provoking stuff in there!

What is belonging, and what can we do about it?

Press, N., Andrew, M. B., Percy, A., & Pollard, V. A. (2022). Pedagogies of belonging in an anxious world: A collaborative autoethnography of four practitioners. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 19(4).

In the editorial, the editors of this issue outline the importance of belonging always, but especially during the turbulent, anxious, uncertain times of a pandemic, where the relationship between university and students, and with that between teachers and students, and students and students, radically changed. They make it very clear that “belonging” can mean very different things in different contexts, and that the meaning can also change over time, by sharing their own perspectives on belonging, including a very-new-to-me indigenous perspective, and what the special issue should be about: belonging being “tested, re-invoked, re-discovered, re-imagined, and most importantly, put to work in service of life”. In this sense, pedagogy is understood as a focus on the social aspects of learning, and as bridging the dichotomy of face-to-face and asynchronous online learning. Belonging is contrasted with un-belonging, both of which students can experience simultaneously, and which we as teachers need to help them navigate. But we need to pay attention in how we do this: If it becomes too transactional, can it still further an inherently social goal?

Maybe being unsettled is a good thing as it creates conditions to change who we are

Barnett, R. (2022). The homeless student – and recovering a sense of belonging. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 19(4).

Maybe due to me still being fairly new in a new country and new job, this commentary resonated a lot with me, even though I had never thought about it in these terms before and I am not sure I agree completely. In the commentary, loneliness and anxiety when starting out at university (when for many students everything is changing: Starting out this new phase in their lives where everything is unfamiliar: moving to a new city, making new friends, taking up new topics, encountering new ways of teaching and learning, being in completely foreign environments most of the time) are framed as something that isn’t inherently bad, but leading to a state of destabilization, which is is necessary for learning, and which can ultimately lead to students developing “a will to unlearn”, a state of willing epistemical unsettlement, that is actually very desirable for continued learning, a necessary condition for personal change and growth, for transforming lives. And I agree that it is the teacher’s responsibility to provide both the continued challenge and the safety net, as well as it is the university’s responsibility to provide both the epestemical unsettlement as well as a place that students feel they can belong to.

Scaffolding complexity of belonging by starting with a small unit and widening over time

Wilson, R., & Morieson, L. (2022). Belonging as a responsive strategy in times of supercomplexity and change. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 19(4). 03

This article reports on an institutional strategy for belonging, here in the sense of “feeling at home”, that embeds an “ethos of belonging” into all student experiences, both formal and informal. The efforts follow a “narrative model of student engagement” in which the three year undergraduate students go through the phases of first connecting with their diverse, but disciplinary environment, then their interdisciplinary environment at the school, and then the global intercultural environment, which I find a very interesting and promising idea.

The authors indentify “5 drivers of belonging”: learning experiences, social networks, physical and digital spaces, extra-curricular activities, and student services. They present some methods they found useful and that were used in “just in time” interactive sessions for teachers on topics related to belonging. For example,

  • the teacher making themselves available for conversation by arriving early and staying late gives students the chance to connect more informally.
  • Anonymous note-taking online opens up a backchannel for conversations that might otherwise not have happened.
  • The “fishbowl strategy” helps tackle the black zoom screens: regularly rotating through the students, four students are required to have their camera on at any time.
  • Weekly camera-on check-ins are recommended, centering around personal, wellbeing, and interests, to help students connect with each others and the teachers.

As the authors point out: Most strategies to foster a sense of belonging are pretty much just good teaching practice!

Assimilating students into a dominant culture in order for them to feel that they belong?

Graham, C. W., & Moir, Z. (2022). Belonging to the university or being in the world: From belonging to relational being. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 19(4). vol19/iss4/04

This article is very critical of the whole “belonging” debate, because when the focus is on students “fitting in”, it is a slippery slope towards forcing them into taking on the dominant culture (ideals, behaviours, values) without questioning it. Also what about students that cannot, or don’t WANT to, belong, for whatever reasons? And what does it meant to belong, how, where and to whom? And how is the world going to change if everybody is socialized into how things historically have been? “There is no such thing as culturally neutral teaching”!

Instead of on belonging, we should focus on valuing students as diverse individuals and focus on building good relationships. The goal should also be to “engag[e] students in changing their world so as they may belong in the world authentically” — working towards shared responsibility and co-creation, “where students and teachers are “equals negotiating the educational space together”“. I find this a very relevant perspective, and would support the conclusions that educators “critically consider their adoption of a relational pedagogical approach that embraces open communication, interaction, and care for and valuing of students as complex, situated, knowledgeable beings in their own right.”

Relating to students via stories the teacher of the past

Larsen, A., & James, T. (2022). A sense of belonging in Australian higher education: the significance of self-efficacy and the student-educator relationship. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 19(4).

Marginalized students are concerned about building relationships with teachers in remote teaching situations. Teachers often go out of their way to make themselves available on their own time, which is not sustainable. How can relationship building and all the related benefits be done more efficiently?

Instilling a sense of belonging in marginalised students (who lack “cultural capital”, tacit and explicit knowledge of the rules of the game), improve retention and success, ultimately widen participation in higher ed by addressing their agency and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy can be increased via four sources: based on earlier experiences of succeeding at similar tasks (mastery experiences), positive persuasive feedback (verbal persuasion), positive emotions (emotional and physiological states), and observing “similar” (in terms of “age, race, gender, ability, interests, clothing, social circles, and achievement levels“) others performing a “similar” task (vicarious experiences).

The last one, vicarious experiences, work best when the teacher allows students to connect with “the educator of the past” that was more similar to the students, and with a smaller power differential, through storytelling. We need to consider what personal experiences will help students make connections and build relationships with us? And we need to become vulnerable by sharing ourselves, this helps students identify with us and thus create a sense of belonging. Being visible as a “real person” helps students connect, even though they might not have a personal connection, for example in recorded online lectures; so keep them somewhat informal and not perfectly edited.

I have thought about vicarious experiences in learning before, but especially the point of connecting with “the educator of the past” to lower the threshold I find really helpful to consider going forward!

What students report as contributing to their sense of belonging

Cohen, E., & Viola, J. (2022). The role of pedagogy and the curriculum in university students’ sense of belonging. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 19(4). iss4/06

This article answers the question “to what extent, and in what ways, do students understand their learning experience to be relevant factors in contributing to their sense of belonging?

Students’ sense of belonging depends on context and relationships, and the “academic sphere”, the broad experience of being at a university. It is influenced by what we as teachers do, and a sense of belonging can be promoted in several ways:

  • Staff-student relationships: It is important that students feel a connection, that they matter, that they are welcome to ask questions and follow-up questions
  • Curricular contents and relevant opportunities: It is not enough that courses are generally relevant and interesting, they also need to resonate and align with students’ (future) selves
  • Learning and teaching: Should be organised in interactive or group formats to help students form a community
  • Assessment and feedback: Form and intensity matter to students! And it’s important to be aware that access to opportunities to prepare for assessment and receive feedback can depend on seemingly random factors, like membership in sports clubs, and not just on what happens “in class”.
  • Personal tutors: Those are most helpful when they focus on personal relationships, not on “solving math problems”
  • Peer relations and cohort identity: Familiarity builds in extracurricular activities (student news paper, social media) and this is very important to students. But there are also tensions where students feel alienated from their peers, due to being different, but also due to the competition they experience.
  • Space/place: Physical spaces can foster a sense of belonging by being familiar spaces with which students identify and where they know they will run into peers and experience a sense of community, for example the library or café.

It is interesting to get this student perspective on what they feel contributes to their perception of belonging!

Cultural distance hindering student sense of belonging

Graham, C. (2022). From belonging to being: Engaging with ‘contexts of difference’. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 19(4).

There is a lot of cultural capital and associated habitus that helps succeed in academia, and this is not available to all students equally, but rather favours historically privileged groups. For example, there is tacit knowledge related to writing and everything that supports it (active listening, note-taking, …) that is seldomly made explicit or taught, and thus not easily available to anyone who isn’t already skilled in these areas. When students know “the rules of the game”, they know what is expected of them and thus do better.

Additional concerns and difficulties, e.g. around language for non-native speakers, make this even more challenging for some students. Students point out that they are told to “think critically”, yet nobody ever explains what that means. This might be just because the terminology is unfamiliar, or that the concept itself is unknown (possibly due to different cultural backgrounds).

In interviews, students expressed that they preferred interactive teaching methods over lectures, because they provided opportunities for discussion with their peers, and for the diverse views on topics that came from that. They also liked the opportunity to practice and test their understanding while in the presence of teachers for feedback.

Going forward, teachers need to reflect on what prior knowledge and skills they assume students have, and make that explicit and/or teach it.

These are just my notes on the quick reading of seven very different articles, and now my brain needs a rest before I tackle more of them. Would you take away different things from reading them? What did I miss?

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