Creating a sense of belonging with new and existing students

In this week's episode of Most Clicked we take a look at the "Students’ perceptions of belonging and inclusion at university" report from Pearson and Wonkhe and how that can impact the digital work institutions carry out moving forward.

A recent study between Wonkhe and Pearson revealed that students starting university during the pandemic had a great deal of “imposter syndrome,” but those who felt they “belonged” suffered less. I think by now we’re innately aware of the power of belonging in higher ed, but this is the deepest study I’ve ever come across on the topic. Alarmingly, only 39% of students surveyed agreed that they had a sense of connection with their university community. With the right approach, marketers can make a difference here. If one of your pillars is creating a sense of belonging then this is my recommended read for the week.

Nathan Monk
Hello, and welcome to this week’s episode of Most Clicked. This week, we are talking about belonging. So as ever, I’m joined by good friends Kyle Campbell and Matt Lees. Kyle over to you what is this week’s story about belonging?

Kyle Campbell
It’s a really nice piece from Wonkhe and Pearson. I actually went to see this at a conference, it was Wonkhe’s conference and I have never been before so I didn’t really know what to expect. So I sort of thought because it’s like HE policy, you might get a little bit on the dry side, but it was absolutely brilliant, really engaging, great audience and high-quality production. And I began to think that wow, this is like the standard in-person event now kind of turn it into more like, you know, big occasion, big show and it was really nice to get out again. So the actual piece that was really cool, it’s actual reports on belonging. And, you know, belonging has been obvious, really a massive emphasis in the sector now for at least the last few years. And there’s been several reports on how it works in the practice of higher education marketing and higher education in general. But this was one that really caught my eye just because of how deep it was, and how it was linking belonging through to, you know, a range of things that are really important to education marketers.

And, you know, one thing that really stood out for me was how it’s looked at this current lot of students who have come through into university during COVID-19. And explores this idea that a lot of them have this really strong sense of imposter syndrome due to a range of factors like grade inflation. But the belonging elements really interesting because when you take those who feel imposter syndrome, if they actually feel that they belong, they are less likely to feel like imposters and that they have earned their place at uni. Whereas people who don’t feel that they’re connected with their university quite as well still feel very much like they don’t deserve to be there, which is really sad, but it begins to open up avenues and opportunities to say, well, wow, you know, belonging clearly has a massive impact. How can we, as marketers, as higher education professionals use that to our advantage and help the students feel like they belong? And there’s another area in this report around well being as well, which is well-trodden ground by this point in He but again, it’s just so compelling to see this in charts and in numbers, and students who feel like they belong, they report a greater sense of mental health than those who feel that they don’t belong, they’re not doing quite as well. And it just really struck me that, wow, it has a lot of substance behind it. And the presenter on the day really summed it up, it says, look, if you’re working in student recruitment, student marketing, wherever you are in your institution, you know, you kind of need to be in the business of helping students make friends. And I thought, wow that’s a really cool way of looking at it. And, yeah, that’s why I shared it because I never really seen it position that way before. And it’s helped me see things slightly differently.

Matt Lees
One of the things that stood out to me, just slightly on from where we saw in the report, there was loneliness, and how I think it’s around 35% of students stated that they felt lonely at university. And one of the quotes in the report said something along the lines of “It’s it’s a lonely University, very little efforts made to help people come together”. And I think that stood out to me because a lot of the work that we do at Smile is around the kind of recruitment of prospective students and the websites and the campaigns that come along with that. But actually, I’ve never really considered what happens once students are in and you touched on it there Kyle about how marketers are there, not only for that upfront piece of recruitment, but they’ve got a job to do once students are in and through the door as well.

Kyle Campbell
Yeah, and it’s so interesting because depending on the size of the institution, it’s that stuff that often determines how much work can be done. You know, I’ve worked at a couple of unis and you know, one was on the kind of mid-size, mid teer and the other was huge. And actually, the huge university had a team dedicated to current student communications and these people would work daily with people like student wellbeing and student services. Whereas the one that’s on the slightly smaller side, it’s one person, you know, how much can they realistically do. But all of this stuff is really important, if a student feels that they belong, their attentions better, and their engagements better. So all these metrics that really matter can be impacted by it. And, you know, actually seeing yourself as like a marketer, in that sense and helping students feel connected is, I don’t know, it’s a useful way to think about it. And I think it gives you that new sort of authority and grounding to, be part of these conversations and just look at the sort of activity that you’re doing slightly differently.

A screenshot of Kyle, Matt and Nathan who are 3 white male's who host the Most Clicked series and this episode talking about belonging

Nathan Monk
And so how do you think Matt, do you think it’s possible to create this sense of belonging? Or do you think there’s any value in creating a sense of belonging, through design, through media, what, what are some ways that people might be able to do that?

Matt Lees
I think I can only really speak from that recruitment perspective, but I think there are the seeds that can be planted up front before students are through the door. One of the things that we’re always talking to universities about when they’re looking to overhaul course pages, and their general websites is about putting tutors on their course pages. It was one of the things for me when I went to university, I turned up on the first day, I didn’t have a clue who was going to be teaching me and you know, why they were there, what their past was, what their history was anything like that. And perhaps there are ways that we can help universities to build connections with students before they enrol before they make that decision.

Kyle Campbell
Yeah, sure. And I think maybe it might not just be a Gen Z centric thing. I wonder if slightly younger millennials would have felt the same way. But I don’t know I’ve sort of noticed that students, expect to make a lot of friends before they arrive at uni now. And I’m kind of an ancient millennial, so I’m towards the top of that, and I didn’t expect to do that. And I think that can blindside you to how that younger generation is now thinking, they expect to be able to connect with people, get a sense of who they’re moving in with or you know that who’s on their course and have that stuff ticked off before they arrive. And that’s surprised me so it might be worth it if you’re in that sort of position where you are looking at recruitment, not onboarding but enrollment. And you need to be looking at these sorts of things and how students can sort of connect with people before they get onto campus and start to build those relationships. It’s kind of expected now.

Matt Lees
The experience is very different as well for different students, isn’t it because I lived at home and I went to university. So the extracurricular side of it, the extra experience, I never had any of that because I kind of literally turned up at university in the morning, did my lectures, maybe sat around with some friends over lunch, and then I went home and carried on with my work so I missed out on part of it. And there’ll be other people like me, who have a very different take and a different experience of it. So it’s, I guess it’s tailoring those messages to those different audiences as well.

Kyle Campbell
Yeah, and some universities are really built on that commuter student aren’t they and do it better than others. I know BCU, they work very hard on creating experiences on campus that once the commuting students have sort of done the lectures for the day, or whatever it is, they do stick around. And the union is very active in the area, and I’m sure it’s the case, across the sector as well. But it’s really interesting that these conversations are happening now. And there’s, there’s recognition, there are different groups of students. And, there’s no such thing as that, you know, ideal or traditional student, there are just so many different varieties now that you really do need to tailor those experiences according to those multifaceted groups.

Nathan Monk
All right, cool. Well, thank you very much. Once again, another week’s worth of great content there. If you have enjoyed today’s show, please consider dropping us a like and maybe even subscribe, but until next week. See you later.

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Elliott Barnicle

Lead Designer