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Why is it important to talk about belonging?

'Why is 'belonging' important in higher education?' This article looks at the role of belonging in an inclusive learning community.
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© University of York

Why belonging?

What is belonging and Inclusion within Higher Education?

When considering topics around inclusive learning, it is pertinent to explore the concept of ‘belonging’. According to Cornell University, belonging can be defined as:

‘the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a member of a certain group’.

Increasingly, in places of education and work, recognition of the importance of ‘sense of belonging’ is becoming a topic of conversation. However, can students really achieve a meaningful sense of belonging without inclusivity? Let’s refer back to our initial understanding of inclusive practice:

“Inclusive practice in teaching, learning and assessment is an approach which recognises, reflects and celebrates the diverse backgrounds, experiences and identities of the student body within higher education institutions”

Belonging largely refers to feeling a sense of respect and acceptance when expressing yourself and your identity within a particular environment. As the above definition suggests, inclusive practice is designed to promote exactly that – to recognise and celebrate the diversity of identities that are present within a higher education institution and to create a space of belonging for everyone. When an individual does not feel they are valued, represented and included within the institution or community in which they are part of, how can they achieve a sense of belonging?

Undoubtedly, there is a huge overlap between the barriers that need to be overcome when working to achieve both inclusion and belonging. You can work towards inclusion and belonging at the same time, but you have to consider the extra step it takes to achieve the meaningful outcome of ‘belonging’ for all students. For example, one way of helping work towards inclusion is ensuring that you recognise and encourage the diversity of your student body.

However, to create a sense of belonging you have to make sure that you are actively promoting inclusion and the meaningful contributions of everyone e.g. by adopting group-specific approaches (events, initiatives etc) and thinking about what specific groups of students might need in order to feel a sense of belonging to their department, to student groups, to the University etc.

Why is belonging important?

Not only is a sense of belonging important to help support students’ well-being, but within higher education, research shows that if students feel a sense of belonging and acceptance within their immediate communities and the institution as a whole, they are more likely to feel happy, satisfied and engaged with their higher education experience, which in turn positively influences academic performance and overall well-being. A sense of belonging can boost motivation to learn and embrace different communities, opportunities and spaces within higher education, which can lead to increased engagement and thus personal and academic success.

It is important to recognise, however, that the creation of an inclusive learning environment does not in itself ensure a sense of belonging. As Pathik Pathak summarises in their article ‘Why it’s time to retire Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’:

“It’s important to recognise you can be formally included – whatever that means – without feeling that you belong. Inclusion is a technocratic process. Belonging is an emotion and an outcome.”

It is one thing to ‘include’ different voices and perspectives in learning and teaching, but belonging can only be achieved when those voices are accepted and their value is recognised. This is crucial in spaces of inclusive communities too. Are the steps that the community is taking to ‘include’ peers enough to also foster belonging?

© University of York
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Inclusive Learning for Students: Building inclusive practice into your life during higher education, and beyond

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