Having reached the end of last academic year, which could be described as tumultuous to say the least, the focus of universities up and down the country has since been on the support that students need in preparation for the start of the new academic year.
It is the experience of ‘freshers’ that is often under the spotlight, not least in the media, in the first semester, and there is knowledge out there to guide our approach. Meehan and Howells (2018) evaluated first-year students’ transition into university and found that the values of ‘being, belonging and becoming’ were important. Their work showed that three things matter to students: the academic staff they work with; the nature of their academic study; and the feeling of belonging. These are even more important when we are providing teaching in a blended format, which is why at Portsmouth we have developed a ‘Blended and Connected’ approach, a mix of online – synchronous and asynchronous – and face-to-face learning; but note that all important ‘Connected’ in the name of our approach. Moreover, whilst as a sector we need to consider what new students, many of whom have had a rather disrupted education at school or college in the last year, need, we must also not forget current students. It has been necessary to prepare for our second-year university students too, who need a different level of support for progression and transition than would be required in normal circumstances, as they experienced a first year unlike ever before. Then there are our third-year students who are preparing for a transition to work or further study in a changed world.
So ensuring students feel a sense of belonging and connection makes a difference to their experience of higher education. This was key to our approach to delivering learning and teaching during the pandemic, and it is at the heart of our offer for 2021-22. We have looked at research, but also modelled our own response on an evidence-based, data-driven approach in which the student voice is absolutely central. We have developed an approach which sees the value of students in active collaboration to change the institution. For example, our Student Experience Committee, which includes staff (drawn from academic and professional services teams) and student representation, has been refocused to act as a research group. It is through this committee that our Being, Belonging, Becoming group emerged. This group has worked to ensure that we planned, around students, the learning, teaching and student experience for 2021-22. It has brought together academic and professional services staff and the Students’ Union in a joint endeavour to plan, in an integrated way, the progression, pre-arrival, induction and transitions of our students and applicants.
What sorts of things did we plan: a variety of events, online and face-to-face, over Welcome Month; access to Welcome Ambassadors and peer-support; early access to online modules to provide an introduction to learning in higher education, studying online, resilience and wellbeing, and academic integrity; continued use of a template in our Virtual Learning Environment; and a key role for Personal Tutors – more on that in a moment.
What we have endeavoured to do is to help our students to help themselves: we give them opportunities to develop as students, develop skills and attributes, and provide support to help them make the most of all that we offer. Our students are well and truly placed in the driving seat of their journey.
The Student Experience Committee had also overseen the development of the new Personal Tutoring and Development Framework by a staff-student working group, and, as part of that, the development of an example Personal Tutoring Curriculum.
Given the central role and relationship that personal tutors have with students, they are key to ensuring students feel a sense of Belonging, and they also have a role in developing Being and Becoming. As Thomas (2012) summarises:
“personal tutors can improve student retention and success in the following ways:
- enabling students to develop a relationship with an academic member of staff in their discipline or programme area and feeling more connected
- helping staff get to know students
- providing students with reassurance, guidance and feedback about their academic studies in particular.” (Thomas, 2012, p 43)
The example, spiral, Personal Tutoring Curriculum supports tutors on undergraduate and postgraduate taught courses, in each year and for a variety of session types (individual, group, online or face-to-face) to cover some key themes, several of which support connectedness and student success. For example, at Portsmouth, among the key themes that we outlined and expected students to have exposure to in our Framework, and which are drawn from Lochtie et al (2018, pp 124–127), I would highlight:
- getting to know you;
- getting connected;
- enhancing your future.
One of the changes we made in our Framework and which is supported by our Personal Tutoring Curriculum was to encourage students to see tutoring differently from how it might have been experienced at school or college – to engage with personal tutoring even if they were not having issues. Our approach is more developmental and provides students with the tools to help themselves; which is at the centre of our approach at Portsmouth: ‘My personal tutor has been fantastic and really helped me grow not only academically but personally as well.’ (Student, NSS 2020). We therefore included solution-focused coaching (Lochtie et al, 2018, pp 136–152) as an element of the personal tutoring curriculum when it is appropriate.
So, having highlighted some of the things we have put in place at Portsmouth to develop Being, Belonging, Becoming to support Student Success, it is over to you. How can you support Student Success in your institution? What role does Being, Belonging, Becoming have in your offer; and are they ‘Connected’?
 Catherine Meehan & Kristy Howells (2018) ‘What really matters to freshers?’: evaluation of first year student experience of transition into university, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 42:7, 893-907
 Dunbar-Morris, H. Using a committee as a student staff partnership research group to implement data-driven, research-informed practical applications to benefit the student experience. Journal of Academic Development and Education (accepted for publication).
 Thomas, L (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change: final report from the What works? Student retention & success programme. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
 Lochtie, D, McIntosh, E, Stork, A and Walker, B W (2018) Effective Personal Tutoring in Higher Education. St Albans: Critical Publishing.
Dr Harriet Dunbar-Morris PFHEA @HE_Harriet is Dean of Learning and Teaching and Reader in Higher Education at the University of Portsmouth. In August 2021 she was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship by AdvanceHE.
Q1 Think back to your own start to higher education. What helped you feel a sense of belonging and connection at your institution?
Q2 Think about what else universities and their staff, both academic and professional services, do. What do you understand by developing students’ Being and Becoming (as well as Belonging)?
Q3 What activities has your institution provided for the Covid-impacted student generation to develop their Being, Belonging and Becoming? Think of specific examples related for example to pre-arrival, induction and transition from year to year and to work or further study.
Q4 What is the role of the Personal Tutor in supporting connectedness and student success?
Q5 If your institution were to design a Personal Tutoring Curriculum what themes and/or activities would be central to it?
Q6 How do you enable students to help themselves?
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