Building identity and belonging among students

Proactively building students’ sense of identity and belonging is vital for positive learning outcomes, explains Blake McKimmie. In this video, he gives advice on how it can be achieved

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27 Oct 2021
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Key Details

This video will cover:

01:07 Identity as a thread that connects many issues raised during the pandemic and why it is important to learning

02:25 Why university teachers need to purposefully build a sense of identity and belonging among students

03:39 How to build students’ disciplinary identities and sense of belonging


I’m Blake McKimmie from the University of Queensland, Australia.

I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners and their custodianship of the lands from which I’m speaking today, and pay my respect to their ancestors and their descendants.

As we’re all too well aware, a lot happened in 2020, and we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic that has fundamentally changed the way that we teach and learn.

We’ve seen a whole range of issues as a result. Students told us they were thinking more about leaving, and they were less satisfied in some courses. Students told us they missed their social connections on campus.

Course coordinators told us that it was difficult to get students to engage online, and we saw increased withdrawals from courses where students had not attempted the assessment.

Students also told us they were more stressed, and course coordinators told us they had to provide more mental health support.

There was a significant increase in academic integrity cases, too, and assessment was submitted later, sometimes of lower quality, and students told us their workload was higher.

Now there’s something connecting all of these issues, and that is social identity. This comes from the social groups that we belong to, like our professional identity, discipline identity, cohort identity, course identity and even cultural identity.

Identity is important for positive attitudes about study. It increases commitment and reduces attrition. Identity increases satisfaction. It’s why we aspire to commence study and helps us finish our study. This is because social identity is what allows norms and attitudes to influence our behaviour.

Identity is also important for engagement. It increases our willingness to work for the group, minimises social loafing and helps groups function. Identity is important for mental health as it satisfies fundamental psychological needs.

It lowers stress and enables social support to work. Identity is important for academic integrity because it allows us to learn the attitudes and behaviours that promote integrity.

A shared social identity increases motivation to learn. It improves communication within a group and improves encoding of information and deeper processing of that information.

And finally belonging. Belonging is a part of a shared social identity. Identity is essential for a sense of belonging. Identity should be at the centre of everything we do. I think that is the big lesson of 2020 – not the debate about whether the lecture is dead or whether nothing works online.

I think that comparison is somewhat distracting. That’s the form of our teaching, not the purpose of our teaching. Instead, we should focus on the people involved in the learning.

Now, this might not actually be that new of an idea. There’s already a body of research about the importance of belonging in the classroom, and people have been building identity in their classes for some time.

This is my dad. He used to teach illustration at the College of Art. About 35 years ago, I used to go and sit in on his classes. He’d run these sessions in the studio critiquing the student assessment pieces. The whole class would contribute to the feedback and problem-solve. They also regularly work together throughout the year. They were a very tight-knit group with a strong sense of “us” as a group.

Even to this day, many of them still keep in touch. So, while a focus on building a sense of identity might not be new, I think we used to often do that accidentally or incidentally.

Given the events of the last year that interrupted these incidental opportunities to build identity, perhaps we need to start doing that purposefully.

So, how do we build a sense of identity? Does this mean we have to help students make friends?

While friendships can be important for building social connections and a sense of belonging, it’s more than that.

We should start with students’ disciplinary identities where possible. This is what they’re telling us is important to them because they are invested in these identities through their enrolment in their programmes.

When we do bring people together for class contact or social events, we can help build identity by creating a context where people have common goals, where they’re of equal status, and where they have to cooperate. Group assessment tasks are one way that we can do all of these things.

When we’re teaching, we can also help students to see themselves in the discipline by making sure that we talk about positive exemplars of people from different backgrounds, whether they’re researchers in the discipline or professionals who practise.

Learning about the disciplines’ expectations and norms is also an important way to build identity.

We need to be explicit about this with students, for example talking about professional codes of conduct or standards as a way of helping to define what it means to be a person in this discipline.

We can also do this at university by talking about expectations around academic integrity and what that means for how students and academics work.

We can further reinforce what it means to belong by also making it clear how one discipline is positive and distinct from other disciplines. By making the boundaries between groups clearer, we more clearly define the group that we’re in.

You could do this in multidisciplinary health settings, for example, by being explicit about how each different discipline contributes to positive outcomes for patients.

Ceremonies can also help to build a sense of belonging. This is because we’re publicly welcoming people to the discipline or group.

One great example of this is an event that my colleagues in pharmacy run with their incoming students. They have a ceremony where new students receive their white pharmacy coat in front of academics, people from the profession, their peers and family. This represents a public commitment to that identity by students that’s recognised by others who are important to the students.

Finally, language matters. For a while there was a move to refer to and think about students as customers. Unfortunately, this undermines our ability to build a sense of belonging, as it sets up an “us” and “them” relationship.

In reality, when students enrol in university study, we should be welcoming them into the group as new members of our disciplines. In doing so, we should be using “us” to refer to students as well.

Blake McKimmie is a professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland, Australia.

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