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'Sometimes, even small innovations can help students find their space in higher education'

03 Jun 2024 | Professor Lucinda Becker After the latest Fit for the Future: EnvisionED forum on 'Belonging, Mattering and Becoming: Empowering Education through Connection', Professor Lucinda Becker, University of Reading, considers how small-scale classroom interventions can empower students to find their place and space.

I was delighted to have the chance to contribute a short, pre-recorded presentation to the second forum in the series on ‘Belonging, Mattering and Becoming: Empowering Education through Connection’, set up as one of the Advance HE Member Benefit projects. The eight, five-minute presentations, given by members from across the globe, reflected a dedication to ‘getting it right’ for students, to show (rather than tell) them how highly their engagement in their learning is valued. 

What does ‘belonging' even mean nowadays? 

Higher education professionals have come a long way in the last decade, from offering resources to ‘help students fit in’ and ‘become good students’ to equally enthusiastic efforts to ‘enable students to belong’, to the more recent development in this thinking that leads to talk of students ‘finding their place’ within higher education institutions. 

This movement in our thinking allows us to recognise that a university campus is an organic, ever-changing space, which is (and must) morph into something a tiny bit different with every single new student who arrives. We recognise better now that helping students to become ‘good students’ leaves both students and staff in a deficit model. We also know that a sense of belonging is important, but so too is a recognition that authentic ‘student belonging’ takes place only in spaces where students and staff meet openly with a willingness to understand each other. 

How to set up a principled learning space 

Two years ago, I made a small, but still significant, classroom intervention that demonstrated to students that this truly was a shared learning space. I set up six ‘learning principles’ and shared these with different groups of students in my seminars/workshops (from Part 0 to Part 3 of our degree programme): 

  • A non-judgemental environment (checking our privilege and our assumptions)  
  • Respect our differences (even if we do not yet understand them)  
  • Being open to other people’s ideas (even when we do not agree with them)  
  • Being ready to challenge assertively  
  • Actively listening as well as speaking  
  • Being ready to learn: perhaps organised, perhaps prepared, perhaps knowledgeable, but always ready regardless. 

I needed students to share their responses to these suggested principles, and for this to be effective I felt I needed them to share their learning journeys, to explore in that classroom why they might respond in a variety of ways to what I was proposing. To achieve this, I decided to share my story first – something that I had never done before. 

I produced a potted history of my educational, personal and professional life, having given them instructions on how to use a polling set-up to share snippets of their own stories. As I talked, more and more anonymous comments appeared on the board behind me as students joined in – much to my relief. As the conversation continued, students owned their comments and shared more of their views on education and where they were now. 

How students respond to this type of intervention  

As a result of this exercise, I found that our foundation students were more ready to work with me throughout the year, and they commented in formal feedback on how powerfully this had demonstrated to them that they are important members of the university. Our Part 1 students, interestingly, had no great interest in getting involved in the exercise. For Part 2 students, the experience led to a significant number of questions about classroom conventions that surprised me (including one student challenging me with ‘so you are really saying that I can disagree with a point you make in class and that will be OK?’). Part 3 students were concerned to let me know that ‘assertively’ is not a word that fits well with students at our particular university: they preferred to use ‘confidently’. I was gratified to see that they had such a strong sense of what they called ‘Reading-ness’.  

But what about our space for belonging? 

I reminded students of our principles of learning in Week 3 of the term and again in Week 7, and it did have an impact on my classroom, with clearer and more open communication and far more questions throughout our time together. I also shared the practice with colleagues, which brings me back to the discussion at this forum event. As several members of the forum pointed out, staff at HE institutions can only readily be supportive of students finding their place, if they too feel that they have a safe and secure place within their institution, if they too feel valued, secure and supported. This student-facing activity made me feel momentarily vulnerable, as I shared my personal story more openly and fully than ever before, and it made me reassess my professional boundaries, my place within the space the students inhabit. I could do this because I feel that my institution supports and values me. It may be a small intervention, but it felt huge at the time, and surely we all need to feel that our own place is secure and positive if we are to make such interventions with confidence? 


Lucinda Becker is Director of the Foundation Year run in the School of Humanities at the University of Reading.  

Members are invited to continue the conversation – join us for Fit for the Future: EnvisionED 3, 12.30-1.30pm on Monday 17 June 2024


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