External study – we all belong

08 Mar 2021

We should never underestimate the importance of belonging and needing others to help us learn. Vygotsky, a trail blazer in psychology suggested that learning takes place through social interaction and in social environments. If this is true and learning is a social activity, then it is easy to see why online learners face significant barriers to success in their educational endeavours and why there is such a high attrition rate within this cohort.

A sense of belonging comes in third in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, he suggests that the need to belong is driven by evolutionary factors. A sense of belonging is the feeling that a person or group of persons are connected to and matter to others within an organisation. Promoting a sense of belonging can help to reduce attrition levels and improve student experiences and satisfaction and is considered to be fundamental to education.

Wider research found that there are many ways a student can feel isolated:

  • geographically – located in regional, rural and remote areas
  • time – the inability to communicate synchronously with tutors and peers
  • socially – difficulty creating rapport and community via technology
  • academically – feeling out of their depth or lack confidence in their academic skills and
  • technologically – poor quality of technology and connectivity and/or a lack of skills

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Students with a firm sense of belonging are more likely to complete their degree and have an increased sense of satisfaction. The positive outcomes of obtaining a sense of belonging to a community have been made apparent in a multitude of circumstances and include increases in student skill development, increased confidence in one’s abilities, motivation, commitment, participation, resilience and academic success.

Individuals need a sense of belonging at all times, but particularly during times of stress, change and/or transition, examples of which can be found in students in transition from high school or workplace to tertiary learning as well as the unfamiliar environment of online learning. When an online course does not build a community between its students and tutor, this negatively affects the students ability to develop a sense of belonging which can impact a students’ aspiration to continue with learning in an online context.

Tips to improve sense of belonging in online learning:

  1. Reach out; it is scary taking the first step, but you will find that other people in your course are very much in the same boat.
  2. Don’t be a lurker; sometimes its easy to just be in the background of all your studies but active engagement in activities will help you to gain a deeper understanding and will help you to connect with your peers.
  3. Engage with other CUC students; they may not be studying the same degree as you but they are definitely dealing with the same stressors as you and you will be surprised by how much you have in common.

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