SEC 2022: Belonging, Community and Inclusive Teaching

Jenny Brady, Project Lead for Inclusive Learning and Teaching, Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence, reflects on the standout messages from this year’s Student Education Conference at the University of Leeds  

Belonging means being seen 

In many ways, this years’ Student Education Conference (SEC) felt like a much deeper dive into the student experience than any of the previous conferences. It gave me an opportunity to think about what belonging really means to me, the factors that have affected it, and how my sense of belonging to a place or a group has affected how much of me I’ve been able to bring. I’ve realised that belonging is not just about levelling the playing field, it’s about creating the conditions where we get the absolute best out of each other and our students, where we feel brave enough to put our crazy ideas forward and ask the stupid questions that are niggling in our minds without fear of judgement. 

This conference was about feeling as much as it was about researching, knowing and innovating, and our Vice Chancellor Simone Buitendijk set the tone beautifully in her welcome talk by explaining the importance of belonging to our purpose as a University. Understanding how we make each other feel is a key factor in how we collaborate with the global community to help reduce inequality, and combining this with research will put ourselves and our students in the best position. Of course, our values as a community are built into our vision and our strategy, and somewhere along the line, this should translate into real tangible actions that we can all take to manifest our values of inclusiveness. But saying and doing are not the same thing, and this is not easy work. For me, I’m interested in what we can do in learning and teaching to engender that sense of belonging through how we design and deliver student education. 

The student panel threw us right into the emotional deep-end, and perfectly illustrated the purpose of the whole conference. It hit us all right in the heart to hear from 5 very different students about what belonging at Leeds means to them. More than that, it showed how we as a University and the wider community gain exponentially by enabling students from diverse and marginalised backgrounds to thrive. Feeling at home amongst their peers and on their courses inspired each of them to champion causes that help voices like theirs be heard, and to use their experiences to help develop strategy. We heard from Natalja Nassonova, whose positive experience of being part of a community of international students led her to joining the University’s international students panel, and Esta-Rose Nyeko-Lacek whose sense of belonging came from seeing her identity reflected in the women of colour who taught her. Through this, she realised that she could make a valued contribution too. Hunayda Abdulmula talked about how her identity as a minoritised student had enabled her to contribute to LITE research around faith and student success, and that she was able to bring her Access to Leeds background to working with the local community.  

Razwana Sajid  and Mike Kerr’s stories wonderfully exemplified human resilience and the transformative power of being seen and supported to achieve your goals. As a working parent juggling study with a complex home life, Raz told us about how meeting other like-minded students and staff through the Lifelong Learning Centre has given her the courage to say what she feels without being judged. The knowledge and confidence she’s gained through her studies is empowering her and giving her clarity and direction, influencing those around her through her social and charitable work. Mike’s experiences as a care-leaver who experienced homelessness before coming to university were a stark reminder that circumstance and privilege play a huge role in who gets a foot in the door, and that even when you’re here, systemic barriers such as financial difficulties, health inequality and food poverty can also affect student success.  

These human stories had a palpable effect on the SEC audience, and we were truly, truly grateful to have had the opportunity to listen and become changed by them.  

Helping our students feel seen 

The students in the panel are fortunate because they have been seen for who they are and what they bring. They feel connected to the University, but that’s certainly not the case for all students. So what are some of the small things we can do to help our students feel seen and bring their full self to every aspect of their University experience? Mike Kerr from the student panel made an excellent point that it’s not only students with particular characteristics or from certain backgrounds who might feel they don’t belong. He reminded us of the importance of avoiding assumptions, e.g about students’ digital literacy, whenever we introduce new ways of doing things. This is because whenever our students feel that their needs and identities have been overlooked in designing and planning student education, we risk ostracizing them. This was a sentiment strongly reinforced through Richard de Blaquiere-Clarkson’s parallel session on Baking Modules with Minerva, where he reported that the focus for Lifelong Learning Centre modules is for consistent and inclusive online spaces, in recognition of the variety of starting points the students have and familiarity with digital environments. During my many years of working directly with disabled students, I witnessed countless students blaming themselves and their own perceived shortcomings when they couldn’t find key information or locate learning resources. This would compound their sense of being somehow unexpected or un-planned for, because they thought they should be able to handle the lack of clarity; that it was somehow supposed to be that way in HE. It was great to see their response when I explained that in many situations we could try to change the environment rather than “fixing” the student themselves. 

The thing about inclusive teaching is that it’s just good teaching, that is designed to take account of all learners in a cohort. I was struck by one of the findings of a piece of action research undertaken by Masoud Behman (How do 4th Year Dental Students Stay Focused During Synchronous Online Sessions? As part of Enhancing your student education practice through practitioner research, on Day 2). Aside from a number of very useful recommendations for colleagues, Masoud also spoke about a surprising finding: that having sessions recorded actually promoted and enhanced engagement, with one student commenting:  “that way, even if I do not understand something, I am assured I can always play it back and understand it.”  (student participant) 

This, my friends, is a little nugget of inclusive practice gold! Right there. Because the lecturer has considered the need for flexibility and different approaches to learning, the students feel seen and they know they don’t need to panic if they found the pace too fast or they were not feeling great that day. 

Louise Banahene’s presentation on Belonging and Student Success was a reminder of the small changes to day to day actions that can make a massive difference to making our students feel included. Seeking opportunities to listen to the lived experiences of our students, and facilitating real connections between both students and staff can have really powerful impacts. These things don’t seem like rocket science, but without the opportunity to bring their full selves, students are only partially participating and we’re certainly not helping them to get the best out of their opportunity at Leeds. The Belonging at Leeds resources are full of useful tips and strategies such as these, and to me these things now seem like foundational steps that our educational practices need to build upon. Louise also asked us to consider how voices of minoritised students are heard, as it’s sometimes only the loudest voices that we hear. Real change comes through difficult conversations and us acknowledging where our blind spots are, and Louise invited us to work through that discomfort as we’ll all reap the rewards in the long run.  

Are ‘talking’ and ‘connecting’ really the same thing? 

The experiences of the student panel demonstrated the power of staff bringing their whole authentic selves to their roles in student education, to help students understand that we all have our own stories that have brought us here. But we all need to feel safe and secure to say what we truly think and feel. Helen Morley’s parallel session on Intentional Community Building asked participants to speak honestly to each other in breakout groups and reflect on the experience. For myself, I realised that I wasn’t truly honest or authentic because I didn’t feel at ease; I felt slightly anxious. How often might our students feel like that when we put them into online breakout groups? And if we, or our students, anticipate this lack of real, authentic connection when we ask them to collaborate online, how do we change this to get the best out of them. I’m hoping Gillian Proctor’s research on The psychology of online belonging that she presented on day 2 of the conference will help us to understand more about the psychological factors involved in online relating (no pressure there GIllian!) 

Knowing the secret rules of the club 

Participation in seminars was the key theme for Simon Webster and Holly Steel from the School of Media and Communication in their session Promoting inclusion in seminar settings. Early findings of their research suggest that participation in seminar sessions is affected by students’ understanding of what’s expected of them within these type of sessions…and it was clear from the chat that even conference participants had different understanding of what a seminar is and how it might be different to, say, a workshop or a tutorial, so a shared understanding of this would be a good place to start! Failing to define and explain our commonly used terms and vocabulary is a key contributor to our students’ feelings of exclusion, so it was great to hear from Pam Birtill, Richard Harris and Madeleine Pownall about a project they’ve undertaken to produce a Student Guide to the Hidden Curriculum which has been published by the Quality Assurance Agency. The work is ongoing, and students have requested definitions of types of teaching sessions, which comes as no surprise! 

Fostering purposeful learning communities 

Through Eric Mazur’s keynote session, we got to reflect on how traditional didactic teaching methods may not help students to own and internalise new knowledge in a way that becomes part of who they are and how they think. Students also have more time to think when they read outside of the classroom than when they listen to a lecturer, and this thinking space in between the words may need to be shorter or longer depending on our students as individuals. As conference participants we enjoyed the immersive experience of learning then trying to explain to each other about thermodynamics (!!), the key take-away being the value of active approaches and peer learning. This idea of fostering purposeful connection between students as a learning community was a great example of the power we have as educators to help students get the best out of one another. He reminded us that, as educators, it can be very challenging to remember how it felt to not know something, so students who’ve just learned or got something might actually be better placed to help their peers.  

Transformative power of connection 

On a personal note, I feel changed by this year’s SEC, and heartened that the commitment to inclusivity at the University of Leeds is abundantly clear through the passions, interest and hard work of colleagues, and the way this is being reflected back to us in the student experience.

We still have a mountain to climb, but the amount of work going on in this space is building real momentum. I learnt that to be truly valued and reach your potential, you need to feel seen as an individual so that you can bring your lived experiences to everything you do. Real, genuine human connection is what helps us feel seen, and having spent 2 years working alone in a box room, I am ready for some serious connection in 2022! For our students, we know that simply getting a place at the University does not necessarily mean they feel welcome and valued for who they are and what they bring, so we owe it to them to create the conditions where they don’t just arrive, but they also thrive.