There are many things that spring to mind as influencing student success, but did you know that research carried out across 21 UK universities (under the auspicious of the HEA, HEFCE, Action on Access and the Paul Hamyln Foundation) determined that the number one factor is that students need to feel a ‘sense of belonging’.

“In place of the received wisdom of the importance to students of choice and flexibility, is the finding that it is a sense of belonging that is critical to both retention and success. It is the human side of higher education that comes first – finding friends, feeling confident and above all, feeling part of your course of study and the institution – that is the necessary starting point for academic success”[1]

From this report and other literature I have distilled the following key points:

  • A sense of belonging is important not only for retention but also for success (i.e. academic attainment)
  • Students who are fully engaged in the life of the university are more successful
  • Both the social sphere and the academic sphere are important for belonging
  • Students primarily expect to feel a sense of belonging and engagement within their subject community
  • Effective learning involves a social dimension
  • Support is most often sought from friends (and family) followed by academic staff
  • Some demographic groups feel less of a sense of belonging than others
  • International students frequently report that integrating into student communities is difficult

When we stop to think about it, if we don’t feel that we belong, feel that we don’t fit in, that we are alone and ‘different’ to others, or even that we have no right to be somewhere, we are hardly likely to thrive – so it is really not surprising that a ‘sense of belonging’ is so important. However what may be more surprising is that at Reading we have a high proportion of students who may be more susceptible to feeling that they are ‘different’ or don’t belong for one reason or another. International students are an obvious example but there are also several other groups such as: disabled students, students from families or communities with little tradition of HE, non-white and non-Christian students, mature students, part-time students students living at home. Together these group constitute in excess of 60% of our UG population. 

So what can we do to actively foster a ‘sense of belonging’?

Things that you might already do but maybe haven’t particularly thought about as fostering belonging

  • Small group teaching, seminars, group work – students engaging with their peers on a common endeavour can bond as a group
  • School/dept social events – subject based societies for example
  • Relationship building between personal tutor and tutees – a sense of belonging can be fostered by developing relationships with staff
  • Transition mentoring/buddying – help new students navigate the university and let them know they are not the only ones adjusting to life at Uni

The findings of the ‘What works?’ research provides some good strong pointers to how we can actively foster this sense of belonging. I can recommend the ‘What Works? Student Retention and Success Project Report ( It is long, but packed full of excellent initiatives from universities around the country.  

Some general points on the common attributes of effective interventions are that they [2]:

  • are situated in the academic sphere
  • start pre-entry
  • have an emphasis on engagement and an overt academic purpose
  • develop peer networks and friendships
  • create links with academic staff
  • provide key information
  • shape realistic expectations
  • improve academic skills and develop students’ confidence

We can add to this, are:

  • pro-active and developmental
  • Tailored, flexible and relevant

 Specific actions that are known to be effective include:

  • pre-entry engagement – particularly for certain demographic groups
  • Effective induction – engaging all students in both the university community broadly but also the subject community, transition mentoring, activities that allow students to get to know staff as well as their peers. Induction to learning is also part of this, a dialogue about mutual expectations is important to set students off on the right foot.
  • scaffolding the development of academic skills – as opposed to dropping students in the deep end
  • effective personal tutoring – with a focus on developing a coaching relationship (i.e. where students retain responsibility for themselves but personal tutors ask the questions that prompt them to reflect and take action)
  • Peer assisted learning – has tremendous benefits for all involved. It develops deep understanding, independence, confidence, integration etc etc. And it has actually been proven to improve attainment.

and the list goes on …

The observant amongst you will notice that Reading contributed to this influential body of work through a joint project with Oxford Brookes on ‘Comparing and evaluating the impacts on student retention of different approaches to supporting students through study advice and personal development’. Take a look for yourself, but be warned you might find yourself wanting the implement some new initiatives!

This is the first of a series of ‘Hot tips’ postings that aim to bring some insights from recent research right to your screen.


[1] HEFCE/Paul Hamyln Foundation ‘What works: Student Retention and Success Report. July 2012

[2] Building Student Engagement and Belonging in Higher Education at a Time of Change: Final Report from the What Works?: Student retention and success programme July 2012 ((


Paddy Woodman, Director of Student Development and Access


  • I fully believe that a sense of belonging can make or break a students higher education experience. Having lived at one university, then commuted to another, it was only through having friends that lived on campus that I felt truly connected to what was going on. I don’t think I would have even known where the student union was otherwise!
    However I also feel the onus can lie with the students themselves to have the confidence to take on higher education. The feelings of exclusion you mention have, I believe, made the very thought of applying for HE a stumbling block in itself, and so perhaps these potential schemes (such as mentoring and buddying) can reach out to more than just the university population, but also to the schools and colleges. Offering vital insight and deconstructing some of the preconceptions (both the too good to be true and the non existent bad) that some students have.
    But that may be a little way down the line!

    • Paddy

      It is a very good point Peri and actually we are doing this already to seem extent in our university of Reading Scholar’s programme where we work with year 12s from under-represented groups in HE to build up their understanding of HE, as part of this they are mentored by a current student and they even do some shadowing I believe. This is part of the University of Reading’s Outreach and widening participation activity and it is having a very positive impact on those young people involved. However there is much to be done by all universities to extend this work.

      • Peri Wragg

        That sounds like an excellent scheme which I think would work really well in other universities. I currently work for a charity in Surrey and we run a mentoring scheme working with 14-16 year olds (we also run scholars and apprenticeship programmes) and a big part of this is pulling down those walls so many students build through fear, often making themselves believe they do not need or want the university experience when often they discover it is nowhere near as scary as they thought it could be. I very much hope more schemes like this can help support students who are not considering higher education – it’s such a challenge reaching these under represented groups!

  • Thanks for sharing this, Paddy. One thought: you mentioned that effective interventions tend to be situated in the academic sphere. While agreeing that these horizontal connections with others in your discipline are vital, complementing these are the vertical connections that slice across disciplines – like the communities in Halls or student societies. These are the connections that are often missed by many in the demographic groups that you mention above like mature students, students living away from campus, part-time students. RUSU’s Mature Student Officer has done a tremendous amount of work building a community for this group in the last couple of years, focusing on building capacity for peer-to-peer support. One of the successful tools they’ve used has been Facebook, and I wonder whether more virtual communities would be helpful for some of the groups you mention. Perhaps there are things we could learn from the OU?

    • Paddy Woodman

      I agree wholeheartedly that connections outside the discipline are also important in oh so many ways and I’m sure that virtual communities have a significant role to play.

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