Spotlight on: Fostering Belonging and Compassionate Pedagogy

Nicola Tagoe, Projects and Resources Lead, AEM and Attainment team

Welcome to the first in our series of Spotlight On… articles, giving you an insight into each of the three strands lead by the AEM & Attainment team.      

Today we speak to colleagues leading the Fostering Belonging & Compassionate Pedagogy (FBCP) strand, including Vikki Hill, Educational Developer: Attainment (Identity and Cultural Experience), and Liz Bunting, Educational Developer (Academic Enhancement).   

Could you tell us about what you’ve been doing through the FBCP strand?  

Through this strand, we’ve been exploring how belonging relates to learning and teaching. We’ve been considering how it can be fostered through our teaching practice, looking at compassionate pedagogy as a key approach. We’ve been exploring the complexity of belonging, by connecting to a wide range of conceptual ideas within relational and psycho-social dimensions of teaching. There isn’t a ‘one-size fits all’ intervention to create a sense of belonging, so our role has been to collaborate with course teams as they design approaches for their own students within their discipline. 

Since September we have been working closely with the course teams from 13 courses across the 6 UAL Colleges. We have facilitated 23 workshops around the themes of ‘Belonging Online’ and ‘Debiasing’. This term we will be facilitating a self-selected third workshop focussing on ‘Whiteness’, ‘Courageous Conversations’ or ‘Micro-affirmations.’  

What have been the key themes emerging from the discussions?  

We discussed the significant difference that can be made to the student experience following seemingly small changes to teaching practice. This can be something as simple as welcoming every student by name as they enter the class. Listening and empathy were noted as key factors in creating compassionate learning environments. Alongside this were the importance of recognising structural barriers faced by students and how personal and collective agency can be harnessed to initiate change.        

During the workshops, we addressed some of the key myths and assumptions around belonging in higher education. These included:  

  1. Myth 1: Peer relationships are central to foster belonging.  
    Whilst peer relationships are important, the staff-student relationship is most influential in establishing a sense of belonging among students. It provides the human link between the individual and the university.   
  2. Myth 2: Extra-curricular social events are a priority in fostering belonging.   
    Belonging should be primarily nurtured within the curriculum, as opposed to through social or extra-curricular activities. These can actually deepen inequalities and isolation for students not able to engage due to financial, cultural or health reasons.  
  3. Myth 3: Fostering belonging is all about helping students to fit in.  
    A focus on helping students feel accepted and valued for being their authentic selves is more conducive to fostering a sense of belonging than pressure to conform to pre-existing norms.  

Professor Shirley Anne Tate dispels some further myths in this TedxRoyalCentralSchool Talk, “Tackling the ‘BPOC’ Attainment Gap in UK Universities”:

What approaches are course teams taking in their learning contexts?   

Colleagues across UAL have shared their approaches to building a sense of belonging and applying compassionate pedagogies in their learning contexts. Here’s a summary of their hints and tips:  

Listening and understanding  

  • Listen attentively to understand others’ opinions. Facilitate teaching and learning environments where all voices can be heard and valued.  
  • Design spaces and frameworks to encourage students to build compassionate listening skills.  
  • Integrate time for social chat and activities within teaching sessions. This could be general discussions about culture, creative icebreakers such as ‘what’s in my bag’ self-portrait, and activities that check-in on students’ moods. 

Planning curriculum  

  • Examine what assumptions the curriculum is communicating: who is valued and who is not?
  • Facilitate diverse interactions, through group work and digital spaces that encourage the sharing of experiences and collaboration.  
  • Address the topic of imposter syndrome, for example demystify university processes and procedures through light-hearted video explainers.   
  • Flatten power dynamics. Create less formal teaching spaces where learners interact as equals: embed playful projects and co-create a playlist to be played during teaching sessions.    

Assessment and feedback 

  • Support students to bring their heritage, identity and experiences into their creative work.   
  • Be mindful and empathetic towards students’ vulnerabilities when giving feedback 
  • Facilitate peer feedback discussions and exercises in small groups.  
  • Spend time unpacking the terminology of briefs and assessment criteria to avoid alienation.    


  • Use a kind, compassionate tone of voice in emails.  
  • Avoid interactions that are aggressive or disdainful.  
  • Show your own vulnerabilities. Be authentic, share and take risks together with students.   
  • Use student names and learn the correct pronunciation. Creating cohort group photos can be a useful tool to help with this. The Language Centre’s Name Pronunciation training session is available to all UAL staff.

How do you see the work of the FBCP strand developing in future?    

Our conversations around structure and agency have prompted us to think further about how we conceive of compassion and belonging within the whole institution. We began by developing our workshop on compassionate leadership for senior management and we have been increasingly interested in how compassion can inform policy design, implementation and enactment – in particular, those related to assessment. 

Assessment is relational, yet there is little dialogue/activity/work about how assessment can be approached to develop student belonging through meaningful compassionate interactions and practices. At each stage of assessment, how our students experience feelings of belonging is critical to their involvement with their learning processes and their identification as successful HE learners. 

We’ve recently secured funding from the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for a Collaborative Enhancement Project to further explore this work with The Glasgow School of Art and Leeds Arts University. Over the next 18 months we will look at ways that belonging in the creative higher education (HE) can be enhanced through compassionate assessment.  The collaboration will develop important insights and resources that will be published openly for the creative education and wider HE sector.  Read more about this QAA funded national project.

Further Listening

For a deeper insight into the topics discussed within this article, you can listen to the following podcasts created by the AEM & Attainment team:  

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