As we move into another year of teaching in uncertain times, navigating the challenges associated with teaching during a pandemic, we make choices about how to engage our students both online and in socially distanced ways in the physical classroom.

This year, the students arriving in our classrooms will have been through a tumultuous 2020, whether they are arriving for their first year or continuing their study. So how do we move forward as a compassionate university? How do we create and sustain learning environments that enable all students to feel safe, cared for, connected and respected in these difficult times? 

Exploring student engagement and belonging

This was the topic of our recent First and Further Year Experience (FFYE) forum, ‘Building Belonging and Engagement: Cultivating a Compassionate University’. To introduce this first theme from our 2021 Hot Topics program, we invited academics to share practice and contribute to a growing collection of resources and guidance on student engagement and belonging.

At the Forum itself, we had the privilege of listening to students talk about their experiences of belonging at UTS, workshopped practices that humanise the curriculum and had the pleasure of hosting Associate Professor of Practice, Maha Bali from the American University, Cairo.

Student experiences of belonging 

We started the event focussed firmly on the student experience, inviting four students to share their thoughts and ideas about belonging at UTS. They described the sense of ‘belonging’ in the classroom in different ways, including:

  • Comfort and connection with their teachers and peers, in a classroom that fosters supportive and respectful relationships;
  • Equality between students, where everyone has an opportunity to contribute and diversity is celebrated and valued;
  • Engagement, industry experience and passion from the teacher;
  • Explicit permission to question and contribute, and
  • Shared goals, language and understanding of the subject.  

The mind map below captures some of these students’ comments and experiences, and their recommendations for simple changes to build belonging in class. 

mind map of student panel discussion on belonging (what works, and what we can improve)
Mind map created by Lucy Blakemore

The students’ suggestions for improving a sense of belonging in our classes included: 

  • Humanising the learning environment, by showing up as an authentic, multi-faceted human being, and by including opportunities for community building in classroom activities (see examples in ‘humanising online learning’ below); 
  • Developing strategies that allow all voices to be heard, not just the loudest; making a point of inviting different people to speak (see this example of ‘warm calling’); 
  • As teachers, noticing when we favour some students over others, even accidentally (asking students we know will answer so we can move more quickly through learning material, for example); 
  • Carefully structuring our group activities to enable meaningful interaction between students (using a shareable document to make learning visible, assigning different roles to group members, providing guidance on how to ensure all voices are heard). 

Humanising online learning

Drawing on the collective wisdom of our students and the open educational resources available to us, we then moved into breakout rooms to take a deep dive into some resources to help us think about the simple practices we can use to build a compassionate university, one practice at a time. 

The first of these, ‘How and Why to Humanise Your Online Class‘, is an evidence-based snapshot of eight practices that you can use to humanise your subject, no matter the modality you are teaching in. The resource is underpinned by the empirical and theoretical work of Culturally Responsive Teaching, Social Presence, Validation Theory, and Universal Design for Learning.

The resulting activities, as we discovered during our discussions, are high impact practices that help to build trust, empathy, awareness and presence in learning environments. These activities can help students manage their fears and feelings of ‘not belonging’, and to engage in learning to their full potential.  

Community building activities 

In the final part of the Forum, Associate Professor of Practice, Maha Bali from the American University, Cairo got up early to gently guide us through one of the community building activities from the open educational repository she is curating with an international network of colleagues at OneHE. Foregrounding what Maha refers to as Intentionally Equitable Hospitality, these resources and activities can be used throughout the session and embedded in meaningful learning activities to foster students’ sense of community.

These activities are not a panacea for non-inclusive classrooms, however. Maha is careful to advise that any technique can make a student feel unwelcome if it is not introduced and supported with care. With that in mind, we invite you to join us for a weekly 20-minute social learning meetup where we can use and practice these activities together in a safe space. If you are interested in joining, please contact, or keep an eye out for an announcement on the FFYE Teams site

  • Thanks for this recap Alisa 🙂 The 20-minute social learning meetup sounds great.
    It was great to attend this forum and feel how Maha Bali runs her classes. She got us doodling and being together in a exploratory, gentle way. It was really nice to get away from so much task orientation but actually get deeper into our ideas.
    Thanks for the recap.

Join the discussion