Fostering a sense of belonging in students through the VLE

By Dr Pubudu Gunawardhana (Learning Technologist, Curriculum Development)

Starting a new position as a learning technologist at the University of Derby provided me with an opportunity to reflect on the importance of feeling connected to the institution and the team that you are working with. Whilst I was supported extremely well during this transition period it set me thinking about the importance of the sense of belonging for students in Higher education (HE).

Why is it important?

Transitioning to HE could be a difficult hurdle to overcome for most students. According to Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in the period between 2014 -2020 about 5 percent of first-year students did not continue into the second year (1). Also, the JISC Digital Experience Insights Survey 2021/22 revealed that, within the sector, only 28% of students agreed that their experience when learning online made them feel part of a community, indicating that there is considerable room for enhancement (2).  Improving the sense of belonging in students can help us as a higher education institute with civic responsibilities to elevate our student continuation, pass and progress rates. The sense of belonging can be broadly defined as the sense of being connected, valued and supported in an educational environment. This is extremely important since it provides an opportunity for students to be and feel like they are part of a community. It provides a fulfilling experience in both psychological and sociological aspects leading to increased self-efficacy and student motivation. This will cause a reduction of psychological distress in students and consequently would improve the academic performance of our students.

How can you be involved in?

The humanistic learning theory developed by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers in the early 1900s suggests that students are inherently good and will make good decisions when their basic needs are met (Figure 1) (3).

This pyramid illustrates the hierarchy of human needs as proposed by Maslow in 1943. It consists of the following elements from bottom to top: Physiological needs, Safety needs, social belonging, esteem, and self-actualisation.
Fig. 1: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

During your course design and session delivery think of different ways where you can scaffold different tasks into your module to fulfil these fundamental requirements. This is highly important for those students who cannot be engaged in extracurricular activities due to other commitments such as caring or employment-related commitments. Through in-built activities, you can help students to overcome commonly encountered barriers including workload and time management to develop as autonomous individuals. This will positively influence the sense of belonging of our students.  Let us look at some examples below.

Group Work:

When planned with purpose, group work provides an invaluable opportunity for your students to interact with their peers. Students often appreciate working with driven and skilled colleagues and this has a positive effect on learning. Students receive hands-on experience of participation as well as collaborative and organisational skills. You can introduce your students to a platform such as Padlet which enables them to collaborate on co-creating a workpiece.

Discussion boards:

This is a great asynchronous activity that you can embed into your module. For example, you can post supplementary practice problems or ask probing questions that help students to reflect and clarify their understanding. When organised in threads it can be used to improve student engagement.  It will provide an excellent opportunity for your students to dialogue with their peers and they can master their effective communicational skills. As an academic, you can provide frequent feedback on content comprehension.

Online interactions:

Every email or VLE message that you send to your students can be useful in elevating their sense of belonging. Students have shown themselves to be more engaged with personal, tailored, and timely communications from academic staff members. You can use these platforms to guide and support your students through the learning material as well as summative and formative assessments. If you are an academic leader, you can set expectations on how and when to respond to student queries.


Get your students involved with the course and assessment design where possible. You can set up focus groups or program committees to get useful insights into existing issues of your program. It is important for students to know their opinions are valued by their academic staff.


Constructive feedback which is well explained can be highly beneficial for students. Make sure that you are providing achievable goals to your students. When given personalized and manageable feedback, students will be empowered to devise their development plans. It will help them develop as autonomous learners.

Inquiry-based learning:

Specific titles can be provided to match student interests and personal and professional goals. To increase student engagement and understanding of complex topics you can encourage students to create and present an infographic or poster presentation.  This cognitive learning activity ensures that students research the topic and that they develop as self-directed learners.

We are interested in knowing the techniques that you use to improve the sense of belonging in your modules. Please email to


    1) HESA data for non continuation following a year of entry

    2) Student digital experience insights survey 2021/22

    3) Petty, G., 2016. Teaching today: A practical guide. Oxford University Press.