Students who develop a sense of belonging at UQ are more likely to enjoy and succeed in their studies (HELF, 2019, Eloff, O’Neil & Kanengoni, 2021, Strayhorn, 2019). Developing this sense of belonging is recognised in many of our plans.

However, through 2020, as we responded to the pandemic and modified our teaching to new modes, many students did not feel as connected to the UQ community as in previous years. This was reflected in our Student Experience Survey data and other feedback from students.

Video: Professor Blake McKimmie, Identity and learning [6m 49s]

Teaching staff are already helping students feel they belong at UQ in many ways, with some of the simplest yet effective approaches including:

  • Being friendly, welcoming and visible in their course materials and interactions
  • Fostering interactivity between students (via formal and informal group work) and with students
  • Displaying encouragement, empathy and support.

Practical tactics are in use in many courses across UQ. They can take different forms across disciplines, course modes and class sizes. Even small actions can make a big difference in a student’s learning experience, enabling them to continue and succeed in their studies.

Practical tactics

1. Use names

In Zoom classes, ask students to use their preferred first names (i.e. what they would like to be called). On-campus you can use scrap paper to ask students to make name plates. Try to use names whenever possible, answering questions, referring to comments and saying thank you. This is about being inclusive. You can also use inclusive language like “us” and “together” to signal to students that you collectively share a purpose with different roles in the course. It can be helpful to think of welcoming students into our professions and disciplines, rather than thinking of them as “customers”.

Examples:

  • Respond to students using names. This takes practice, take note of names in pre-work,  look for names in Zoom or ask students their names in class.
  • Use name plates – ask students to write their preferred name on paper folded into a triangle or update their Zoom display name to be their preferred name.
  • Consider 'Icebreaker' activities (with PadletUQ, discussion boards as a whole class or in small groups – e.g. ask students to share the origins of their names).
  • Dr Tracey Martin coordinates MGTS7612, which has a cohort that is almost entirely international and offshore. Students' major assignment is to work on a recruitment and selection strategy for a job they are interested in. Tracey asks each student to email her with the details of the role in the first two weeks. She responds quickly and warmly using their first name. Tracey finds that this opens up a communication channel with students, who otherwise feel uncomfortable communicating with the "Professor". It also means that Tracey can quickly communicate with individual students if need be.

2. Help students see you as a ‘real person’

Share aspects of your personality and background in ways that are comfortable for you and professionally appropriate. This can range from sharing information about personal interests to sharing your enthusiasm for your discipline or your own experience as a student. People connect to people. Sharing some of what you do beyond teaching in the course can make you more approachable and create connections with your students.

3. Communicate regularly

A weekly email to students explicitly identifying what students need to do and what is happening in the course can help keep students on track. You can use this email to answer common questions and to also let them know how they can best connect with you.

Examples:

4. Consider the timing and mode of office hours

Make some of your office hours Zoom-based so more students can connect easily. Think about when to have these hours. Office hours immediately before and/or after class time can create an informal space for conversation and enable discussions to continue. Alternatively, think about your cohort’s time zones when planning your office hours. You can even provide students with some options in a poll to pick the time(s) that suit them.

Examples:

  • Professor Chris Tisdell shifts office hours just before and/or after classes to create a sense of community (video: YouTube, 1m 48s)
  • Tim Thomas developed Q&A sessions to connect to students on mass and encourage them to ask questions (video: YouTube, 3m 41s)
  • Some staff have found students are more inclined to attend Zoom office hours using the waiting room feature to enable private conversations.
  • Some courses in the School of Biological Sciences have used tutor office hours on Zoom as well to offer more opportunities to connect throughout the week.

5. Create peer learning opportunities

Incorporate activities that enable students to interact and learn with their peers. For example,

  • Try think-pair-share sequences during synchronous learning sessions.
  • Encourage discussion online with tools like Teams or Ed that allow peer engagement asynchronously.
  • Encourage collaboration in class with co-creation tools such as UQWordcloud, PadletUQ or Miro that allow students to collectively come up with ideas or make suggestions.
  • Enable peer feedback with tools such as RiPPLE that engage students in producing and receiving feedback.

6. Ask students how things are going

Not just with the course and their study, but more generally. Encourage them to share their experiences and tips/strategies that are working for them.

You can take time in class, create an asynchronous activity, or set a special Zoom meeting for students in your course.

Example activities:

  • PadletUQ to share images (memes, animated GIFs, etc.) that reflect students’ experiences
  • Short surveys or classroom assessment techniques to ask students to reflect and share their experiences
  • Space for discussion either as a whole class or in groups, this could be guided with prompts such as: 
    • What is your biggest challenge or success this week?
    • What should we stop/start/continue in hybrid learning? or
    • How are you progressing in your assessment, what questions do you have?

You may prefer to connect a range of these approaches. For example, you may wish to have an asynchronous survey with a short in-class activity to discuss the results.

Initiatives across UQ

There are many ongoing and new initiatives across UQ to enhance our students’ sense of belonging, including:

  • Helping students develop autonomy becoming partners in their education and leaders of their learning.
  • Supporting extra-curricular activities and enhancing the connections between curricular and extra-curricular experiences.
  • Looking at ways to enhance mentoring and connections between students and between students and staff.
  • Ensuring staff feel a sense of belonging, so they can model and share these connections with our students.
  • Connecting the work that is happening across UQ in this space.
  • Facilitating social events at each campus and internationally to support students feeling welcomed and connected.
  • Working with students to better understanding ‘belonging’ in our changing contexts.

 

Any suggestions?

Throughout Semester 2, ITaLI will be partnering with academics to share examples of practices in this space and more ideas you can use to help your students belong.

Please feel free to share your own examples of activities that have been useful in your context.