Our students’ sense of relatedness & belonging – whose responsibility is it?


Happy UNSW students in class

By Prof. Jacky Cranney, Prof. Nalini Pather, Prof. Gary Velan, Dr Leesa Sidhu 

Published 2 August 2022

In this blog article, we highlight the need to build 'relatedness' and 'belonging' for students and how course leaders can address the issue in their classroom.

What is the issue?

One aspect of our experience of ‘living with the pandemic’ is our renewed appreciation of our need to feel connected with and cared for by others. Feeling connected with and cared for by others is one definition of ‘relatedness’, one of the three basic psychological needs identified in Self-determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The satisfaction of these needs leads to an increased sense of wellbeing including self-efficacy, which drives further engagement with goal-striving behaviour (e.g., toward learning goals).

At the higher education institutional level, this need relates to the concept of ‘belonging’, and is often associated with extracurricular activities that are supported by our student associations (especially, Arc) and by our PVCESE Pillars (especially, Wellbeing). Students can have unique and memorable experiences through engaging meaningfully with like-minded fellow students via various extracurricular engagement opportunities.

Nevertheless, the common ground for connection is within the classroom and, for students with demanding employment or family commitments, this is the critical ‘place’ for opportunities to connect.

Within the curriculum context, we see 'relatedness' for students as having 3 (overlapping) aspects:

  • student-to-student (peer) relatedness,
  • student-to-instructor/tutor/course-convenor relatedness, and
  • student-program relatedness.

Although the concept of ‘belonging’ is usually most strongly tied to the latter category, all three aspects of relatedness contribute to students’ sense of belonging to the university community, and to their identity as a successful student and a developing professional. A complementary theoretical framework emphasizing engagement has been proffered by Redman et al. (2018), and this, along with work on (a) identity formation (Reid et al., 2019; Sheldon & Houser-Marko, 2001) and (b) increasing both educator and student awareness of the university-wide graduate capabilities (e.g., professionalism and global citizenship), should be emphasized when considering the concept of belonging. More recent conceptualisations of belonging emphasize a sense of ‘mattering’ and student-staff partnerships (Felten, 2022), which tap into all 3 psychological needs (relatedness, autonomy, competence) of self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Student-program relatedness can be expanded to School, Faculty, University ‘belongingness’, but within the curriculum design and delivery context, it is most about the degree program, with course and program convenors thus being most responsible for fostering such relatedness within the curricular environment.

Peer and instructor forms of relatedness (a) are very important to a student’s academic success in their term-by-term progress, and (b) contribute to a student's sense of belonging 'in the moment'. Extra effort is required at the program level to achieve a stronger sense of belonging. That is, the student needs to feel a part of the program learning community, because successfully completing their chosen degree program is the conduit to their future chosen career. Thus it is not ‘just’ the program-related knowledge, skills and professional attitudes that students acquire, but also the lasting memories of the nature of meaningful relationships with teaching staff and peers, that they will carry forward and emulate in their professional careers. Moreover, as successful graduates, they are likely to ‘give back’ to the program, for example by engaging in alumni-led educational activities. 


So how can program and course leaders, in partnership with students and alumni, build relatedness and belonging?

As just one of several possible strategies, the UNSW Healthy Universities Initiative has constructed a ‘Building Relatedness & Belonging - Practical Examples at Course and Program Levels’. There, program and course convenors will find short videos from other course and program convenors across the university, explaining how they have successfully built relatedness and belonging in their classrooms. We hope to have more ‘student voice’ videos, as well as program-level videos, in the future – contact us if you would like to suggest a contribution.

The resources on this new page are divided into three categories, starting with Great Start: Relatedness/Belonging in the First Weeks of Uni, which most agree is an essential ingredient to student success. The second category (Building Relatedness and Belonging toward Positive Identities) is self-explanatory, and we hope will soon include more program-wide examples. The third category (Assessable Team-work) recognizes the role of curriculum-based assessable team-work in building a sense of relatedness and belonging. Note that there is considerable overlap amongst these categories; for example, the team-work resources can be highly relevant to making a great start.

Please have a look, and feel free to make suggestions to improve the sharing of our practice in supporting students’ sense of relatedness and belonging at UNSW.

So, the bottom line is: Building students’ sense of relatedness and belonging is the entire UNSW community’s responsibility, but program and course convenors, in partnership with students and alumni, play a critical leadership role.

Note that (a) the HUI Team are willing to engage with program and course leaders to discuss how they can better support students’ sense of relatedness and belonging, and (b) future blogs will cover ‘related’ topics.

More information on how to build relatedness and belonging


This article was written by Prof. Jacky Cranney, Prof. Nalini Pather, Prof. Gary Velan, Dr. Leesa Sidhu (SEA fellows and co-leaders of the Healthy Universities Initiative)


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