Belonging & Learning: How important is belonging to our students?

In Australia, and internationally, universities are dealing with student belonging – which has been impacted by the global pandemic and other crises. Central to belonging are notions of the student experience within the broader contexts of their lives (social, personal, professional). By grounding our understandings in these broader contexts, we are able to ask more fundamental questions, such as where do our students experience a sense of belonging and what is our (educators, universities etc.) role in that?

Work. Live. Play. Learn (WLPL): learning modes – getting it done & getting together.

At the University of Sydney Business School, WLPL collects qualitative data focussed on the contemporary student experience attendant to their work, lives, learning and play (recreation). Led by Business Co-Design, WLPL commenced in 2018; and has collected over 320 qualitative insights from both undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Consistent with the name, the questions and data seek to contextual higher education experiences (learning) around the broader factors (life, work, play) of students’ lives. The first post-COVID dataset revealed interesting notions around ideal learning spaces – in which often contradictory ideas of ‘ideal’ learning were advanced by student participants (Menner et al., 2022). Across a spectrum of ideal learning, two broader typologies appeared:

Getting it done – this involved streamlined learning experiences and flexible, online learning. Students wanted self-paced, high-trust & autonomous learning – however, this was often temporally located, in which students discussed their preference for this study based on their current lives/working situations (e.g., I am now working full-time) or at a particular time in the semester (I have a lot of assessment coming up).

“I’m choosing this schedule to leave myself open for work”

“I think the most important for me is like I can study at my own pace because here everything is like recorded so we can watch it again and learn again by watching the lectures.”

Anonymous student quote, Menner et al. (2022)

Getting together – students articulated important social dimensions to their learning experiences. They wanted interactive, on-campus and discussion-based learning. Students discussed how high levels of socialisation increased sporadic and unstructured learning.

“I’m working with other students I think is really important as well. Like I said, I’m very motivated by other people. So I think when I’m engaging in talking to other people, we’re able to kind of share our interests and our and like really like share our ideas. So I’m really exposed to other people’s ideas as well.”

Anonymous student quote, Menner et al. (2022)

These two broad typologies appear at first contradictory, getting it done advances a transactional and precise mode of learning, whereby getting together involves high-touch and fluid notions of learning. In relation to belonging getting together would enable belonging and getting it done would inhibit it. However, these typologies have more complex consequences for the notion of belonging.

Contesting belonging

Recent work by Gravett & Ajjawi (2022), contests the centrality of belonging as an inherently positive aspect of higher education – they contend that current mainstream notions of belonging

“adopt the assumption that belonging can be achieved, that it is a fixed state of being, and centre on the human as agentic individuals”

Gravett & Ajjawi (2022, p. 1389)

Central to their critique is the conceptualisation of belonging as a relation and situated practice that acknowledges the complex and nuanced negation that is perpetually at play. A negotiation exists between a wide set of actants: human and non-human.

“Belongingness becomes not a bounded or achievable state, located in stable or neutral places and spaces, but a nomadic process…”

Gravett & Ajjawi (2022, p. 1391)

Multiple versions of belonging

Revisiting our broad typologies, the isolated imaginings of online and modular learning now seem renewed with rich and nuanced information; the vibrant classrooms are reconstituted as inaccessible spaces of prestige and judgment. By this simple reconceptualization, we arrive at the fundamental question: how is belonging continuously(re)enacted in students’ lives?

As advanced by Gravett & Ajjawi (2022), the timescapes of online learning allow us to ask critical questions that give us “multiple versions of imagined belonging” informed by “social, relational, political, diverse and unfixed” views of space.

The WLPL research found students are dynamic in their preferences between learning modes and environments – at times they are wanting to “get it done”; other times, they want to “get together”. Accepting and engaging this nuance is central to understanding belonging, and the WLPL model is primed to engage with broader notions of belonging, as suggested by Gravett & Ajjawi (2022):

“We do not know how non-institutional spaces are experienced and how these foster belonging”

Gravett & Ajjawi (2022, p. 1393)

‘Student’ Belonging – revisited.

Considering these multiple versions of belonging we call on educators & students to consider what belonging means to them.

For students:

  • How would you describe ‘belonging’?
  • How does belonging fit into your learning/studying practices? Is it important?
  • Are there physical, social and/or digital experiences that you feel enable/hinder belonging?

For educators:

  • How would you describe ‘belonging’?
  • How do you see students experiencing belonging (including, not belonging) in your interactions with them?
  • What is the relationship between belonging and learning?

In WLPL 2023, we will be revisiting belonging with a more critical eye – bringing forward some of the suggested questions. If you are interested in being involved, reach out to Ryan Menner.


Gravett, K. & Ajjawi, R. (2022) Belonging as a situated practice. Studies in Higher Education 47 (7) 1386-1396.

Menner, R., Bryant, P., Hu, Q. & Wali, A. (2022) Work. Live. Play. Learn 2022 Project Report, University of Sydney.


One thought on “Belonging & Learning: How important is belonging to our students?

  1. As an international student I felt an outsider at times. But as an Australian studying at a Canadian university, the cultural differences were relatively small. A bigger issue was being a male in a mostly female class, and being from the hard sciences, studying social science (education). As someone who tends to boast about their achievements, I consciously tried to appear modest to fit in, which was a constant strain. But I felt I belonged, as a teacher among teachers.

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