HOT TIP: What is the number one factor behind student success? By Dr Patricia (Paddy) Woodman

There are many things that spring to mind as influencing student success, but did you know that research carried out across 21 UK universities (under the auspicious of the HEA, HEFCE, Action on Access and the Paul Hamyln Foundation) determined that the number one factor is that students need to feel a ‘sense of belonging’.

“In place of the received wisdom of the importance to students of choice and flexibility, is the finding that it is a sense of belonging that is critical to both retention and success. It is the human side of higher education that comes first – finding friends, feeling confident and above all, feeling part of your course of study and the institution – that is the necessary starting point for academic success”[1]

From this report and other literature I have distilled the following key points:

  • A sense of belonging is important not only for retention but also for success (i.e. academic attainment)
  • Students who are fully engaged in the life of the university are more successful
  • Both the social sphere and the academic sphere are important for belonging
  • Students primarily expect to feel a sense of belonging and engagement within their subject community
  • Effective learning involves a social dimension
  • Support is most often sought from friends (and family) followed by academic staff
  • Some demographic groups feel less of a sense of belonging than others
  • International students frequently report that integrating into student communities is difficult

When we stop to think about it, if we don’t feel that we belong, feel that we don’t fit in, that we are alone and ‘different’ to others, or even that we have no right to be somewhere, we are hardly likely to thrive – so it is really not surprising that a ‘sense of belonging’ is so important. However what may be more surprising is that at Reading we have a high proportion of students who may be more susceptible to feeling that they are ‘different’ or don’t belong for one reason or another. International students are an obvious example but there are also several other groups such as: disabled students, students from families or communities with little tradition of HE, non-white and non-Christian students, mature students, part-time students students living at home. Together these group constitute in excess of 60% of our UG population. 

So what can we do to actively foster a ‘sense of belonging’?

Things that you might already do but maybe haven’t particularly thought about as fostering belonging

  • Small group teaching, seminars, group work – students engaging with their peers on a common endeavour can bond as a group
  • School/dept social events – subject based societies for example
  • Relationship building between personal tutor and tutees – a sense of belonging can be fostered by developing relationships with staff
  • Transition mentoring/buddying – help new students navigate the university and let them know they are not the only ones adjusting to life at Uni

The findings of the ‘What works?’ research provides some good strong pointers to how we can actively foster this sense of belonging. I can recommend the ‘What Works? Student Retention and Success Project Report ( It is long, but packed full of excellent initiatives from universities around the country.  

Some general points on the common attributes of effective interventions are that they [2]:

  • are situated in the academic sphere
  • start pre-entry
  • have an emphasis on engagement and an overt academic purpose
  • develop peer networks and friendships
  • create links with academic staff
  • provide key information
  • shape realistic expectations
  • improve academic skills and develop students’ confidence

We can add to this, are:

  • pro-active and developmental
  • Tailored, flexible and relevant

 Specific actions that are known to be effective include:

  • pre-entry engagement – particularly for certain demographic groups
  • Effective induction – engaging all students in both the university community broadly but also the subject community, transition mentoring, activities that allow students to get to know staff as well as their peers. Induction to learning is also part of this, a dialogue about mutual expectations is important to set students off on the right foot.
  • scaffolding the development of academic skills – as opposed to dropping students in the deep end
  • effective personal tutoring – with a focus on developing a coaching relationship (i.e. where students retain responsibility for themselves but personal tutors ask the questions that prompt them to reflect and take action)
  • Peer assisted learning – has tremendous benefits for all involved. It develops deep understanding, independence, confidence, integration etc etc. And it has actually been proven to improve attainment.

and the list goes on …

The observant amongst you will notice that Reading contributed to this influential body of work through a joint project with Oxford Brookes on ‘Comparing and evaluating the impacts on student retention of different approaches to supporting students through study advice and personal development’. Take a look for yourself, but be warned you might find yourself wanting the implement some new initiatives!

This is the first of a series of ‘Hot tips’ postings that aim to bring some insights from recent research right to your screen.


[1] HEFCE/Paul Hamyln Foundation ‘What works: Student Retention and Success Report. July 2012

[2] Building Student Engagement and Belonging in Higher Education at a Time of Change: Final Report from the What Works?: Student retention and success programme July 2012 ((


Paddy Woodman, Director of Student Development and Access

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