Reflecting on belonging at Leeds

University of Leeds

I’m the Deputy Programme Manager on the Learning and Teaching programme in the Lifelong Learning Centre. Our undergraduate students are predominately mature aged; they are all studying part-time and typically also have work commitments and/or caring responsibilities. As such, being a mature part-time student can be challenging but more so during this current pandemic. Additionally, a large number of our students meet the Widening Participation criteria and being underrepresented in the wider university can have self-doubt about their academic abilities and question their place in our community (due to a sense of otherness).

Being at the end of our first month of teaching (October 2020)I felt it was appropriate to reflect on where we currently are. Regardless of being a new or returning student, each person will start the new academic year with their own anxieties and concerns. Drawing upon the humanism teaching paradigm (see Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow) our practice is student-centred and acknowledges the need to go beyond the dominant cognitive, to place a similar level of importance on the affective dimensions of learning. In doing so, we place a strong emphasis in creating a learning environment that encourages our students to feel psychologically safe (e.g. bringing their authentic selves to our sessions). This is achieved by teaching staff and personal tutors being approachable and available in order to provide effective support and in doing so, help reduce such hidden psychological barriers.

We have weekly group tutorial spaces for students to stop and reflect together, to seek clarity on academic work, talk about their well-being and share any other concerns relating to their student experience. Due to the content of discussions in these informal social spaces it is evident that there is a learning community of trust and belonging. Furthermore, staff reveal their own challenges in academic pursuits (e.g. academic writing) and insecurities (e.g. public speaking) as well as, when appropriate, sharing our own past and present identities (e.g. working-class heritage; first generation).

How can we expect our students to reveal their own challenges and place themselves in a position of vulnerability if we do not model this ourselves?

In addition to this, we also acknowledge how sharing student and staff identities and life stories can further benefit us all. We have created space within our programme to share our perspectives and, having a diverse cohort, this facilitates a wide range of fascinating topical discussions (supporting theory and practice).

The University of Leeds is a place of excellence, however, what is often missing are the displays of the hidden messiness in such academic work, the frustrations and difficulties that staff and students alike have in common. Such changes in practice to support our students do not need to be drastic, nor do they need to be time intensive. Just taking a few extra minutes to stop and think about what affective dimension you can bring to the student experience to further support their sense of belonging within our community can make a huge difference.

This blog is written by Dr Nadine Cavigioli, Deputy Programme Manager, Lifelong Learning Centre at the University of Leeds.

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