What is sense of belonging?

Sense of belonging is the sense that students are important and respected members of their universities (Anderman & Freeman, 2004). Most of the research in this area focuses on schools, but the concept is gaining wider traction and understanding in what it means for students in higher education (Alkan, 2016).

Students’ sense of belonging is linked to positive academic outcomes (Osterman, 2000), including higher grades, higher student engagement (Furrer & Skinner, 2003), self-confidence (Pittman & Richmond, 2007), and acceptance (Freeman, Anderman, & Jensen, 2007). Students with a stronger sense of belonging, and connectedness to their school community, tend to have better academic and wellbeing outcomes than their peers with a less strong sense of belonging (Hagerty, Williams, Coyne, & Early, 1996).

Why might we want to evaluate it?

At Imperial, we care very much about student wellbeing and sense of belonging in the Imperial community. One way that we can understand student wellbeing is by getting a sense of whether students feel like they are a part of the community.

The 2018 National Student Survey (NSS) results indicate that while 88 per cent of student surveyed say they have had “the right opportunities to work with other students” as a part of their course, only 64 per cent of Imperial students “feel a part of a community of staff and students” (Office for Students, 2018). This is 8 points below the national average. We would expect that with the opportunity to collaborate, students would feel more a part of Imperial College London than they actually do.

In evaluating sense of belonging, we can ask more targeted questions to better understand the student experience, and analyse the data alongside the results from the NSS to provide a clearer picture of what it means to belong at Imperial College London.

How can we assess sense of belonging?

There is no universal instrument to measure student’s sense of belonging, and while it is common for researchers to look to the Psychological Sense of School Membership (PSSM) scale developed by Goodenow (1993) and base their own measures upon this (Anderman E. , 2002; McNeely, Nonnemaker, & Blum, 2009), we recommend the scales shared below, which have undergone a rigorous, research-based development process to enhance reliability (Gehlbach & Brinkworth, 2011).

The instruments we recommend here were developed in accordance with the evidence-based best practices we have highlighted on the Best practices in questionnaire design page in the Evaluation toolkit [link]. You can also learn more about developing your own items and questionnaire scales [link]. Further guidance on developing validated scales and questionnaires is available via the links given at the bottom of that page.

There are also some qualitative instruments that you could employ to gather rich, descriptive data. These qualitative methods include an adaptation of Ahn’s (2017) 10 Words Question, which is an open-ended questionnaire, as well as a suggested interview protocol, if you wish to gain a deeper, more nuanced, and holistic understanding of the student experience of sense of belonging here at Imperial College London.

Tools you might want to use to measure your students' sense of belonging


These scales (groups of survey questions that capture different aspects of the same underlying theme) were designed though a rigorous and reliable research-based process. We have adapted the Harvard-Panorama Student Perception Survey scale on Sense of Belonging (Gehlbach, 2015) and Yorke’s (2016) sense of belonging in higher education scale according to best practices in questionnaire design.

If you wish, you can adapt the questionnaire to focus on your specific department or course. Before you adapt this questionnaire further, please consult the FAQs and guidance on questionnaires page.

Open-ended questionnaires

This instrument uses an open-ended question to engage students by writing down up to 10 words when they consider their sense of belonging to Imperial College London. This allows students to actively describe their thoughts related to their sense of belonging at Imperial, and the simple wording of the question keeps the mind free from prejudice, stereotypes, and preconceptions.

Collecting qualitative data in this way allows for rich and deep data to be collected and analysed more simply and easily than say, analysing full transcripts of interviews. (Interviews are another method that you can use for evaluation – please see below to learn more about interviewing).


If you are looking for more in-depth information about how students experience a sense of belonging, interviews can be very helpful.

Individual interviews are especially practical when the research investigates topics that focus on individal experiences (Beitin, 2012), like sense of belonging. These types of interviews can offer a more holistic view of the person being interviewed (Goode, 2010). And, as Atkinson (2012) highlights, sometimes the best way to learn about a person’s own experience is through an exchange: “How else can we come to know the... interactional nature of a lived experience that the personal narrative expresses but through a relational exchange?” (p. 123)


Ahn, M. Y. (2017). Sense of Belonging as an Indicator for Social Capital: A Mixed Methods Analysis of Students’Sense ofBelonging to University. Prifysgol Bangor University.

Alkan, N. (2016). Psychological Sense of University Membership: An Adaptation Study of the PSSM Scale for Turkish University Students. The Journal of Psychology, 150(4), 431-449.

Anderman, E. (2002). School effects on psychological outcomes during adolescence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(4), 795-809.

Anderman, L. H., & Freeman, T. M. (2004). Students' sense of belonging in school. Advances in Motivation and Achievement, 13, 27-63.

Atkinson, R. (2012). The Life Story Interview as a Mutually Equitable Relationship. In J. F. Gubrium, J. A. Holstein, A. B. Marvasti, & K. D. McKinney (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Interview Research (2nd ed., pp. 115-128). London, U.K.: SAGE.

Bandura, A. (2006). Guide for constructing self-efficacy scales. In F. Pajares, & T. Urdan (Eds.), Self-Efficacy Beliefs of Adolescents (pp. 307-337). Greenwich, Connecticut: Information Age Publishing.

Beitin, B. K. (2012). Interview and Sampling: How Many and Whom. In J. F. Gubrium, J. A. Holstein, A. B. Marvasti, & K. D. McKinney (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Interview Research (2nd ed., pp. 243-253). London, U.K.: SAGE.

Freeman, T. M., Anderman, L. H., & Jensen, J. M. (2007). Sense of belonging in college freshmen at the classroom and campus levels. The Journal of Experimental Education, 75(3), 203.

Furrer, C., & Skinner, E. (2003). Sense of relatedness as a factor in children’s academic engagement and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(1), 148-162.

Gehlbach, H. (2015). User Guide: Panorama Student Survey. Boston: Panorama Education. Retrieved from https://www.panoramaed.com/panorama-student-survey

Gehlbach, H., & Brinkworth, M. E. (2011). Measure twice, cut down error: A process for enhancing the validity of survey scales. Review of General Psychology, 15(4), 380-387. Retrieved from https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/8138346/Gehlbach%20-%20Measure%20twice%208-31-11.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Goode, J. (2010). The digital identity divide: how technology knowledge impacts college students. New Media & Society, 12(3), 497-513.

Goodenow, C. (1993). The psychological sense of school membership among adolescents: Scale development and educational correlates. Psychology in the Schools, 30(1), 79-90.

Hagerty, B. M., Williams, R. A., Coyne, J. C., & Early, M. R. (1996). Sense of belonging and indicators of social and psychological functioning. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 10(4), 235-244.

McNeely, C. A., Nonnemaker, J. M., & Blum, R. W. (2009). Promoting school connectedness: Evidence from the Naitonal Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Journal of School Health, 72(4), 138-146.

Office for Students. (2018). National Student Survey 2018. Retrieved 2019, from https://www.imperial.ac.uk/admin-services/strategic-planning/statistics/nss/nss2018/

Osterman, K. F. (2000). Students’ need for belonging in the school community. Review of Educational Research, 70(3), 323-367.

Pittman, L. D., & Richmond, A. (2007). Academic and psychological functioning in late adolescence: The importance of school belonging. The Journal of Experimental Education, 75(4), 270-290.

Rapley, T. (2011). Some pragmatics of data analysis. In D. Silverman (Ed.), Qualitative Research Practice (pp. 273-290). London, England: SAGE.

Yorke, M. (2016). The development and initial use of a survey of student 'belongingness,' engagement and self-confidence in UK higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(1), 154-166.