students discussing work

Sense of belonging is one of the most significant factors in students’ success and retention in higher education (Kuh et al 2010). In terms of exploring sense of belonging, it is important to conceptualise it as a meta-construct, not something that can be empirically directly measured. Robertson et al (2019) found sense of belonging to be a key ‘intangible asset’ in higher education—something highly valued but hard to quantify. It is subjective, multi-faceted and changes over time.

Research at Imperial College London, detailed in the links below, explores how students feel part of the community, their course, and comfortable in their identity as a student. In addition to being multi-level, belonging is also multi-relational, across academic and professional staff, peers, friends and one’s surroundings (Richardson 2018).

Local and contextual research aims to identify how to support students’ sense of belonging. This draws on research on student engagement, which identifies that success is responsibility of both students and the institution. Engagement focuses on what students do, which is easier to measure, whilst belonging looks at students’ perceptions rather than actual behaviours. This research aligns with Imperial’s review of the curriculum (see tools on how tools to include ‘sense of belonging’ in evaluations of curriculum reform), as this is the primary way students experience their course, and with the pillars of active learning and diversity and inclusion to support belonging. The digital space has also emerged as a primary vehicle for bringing communities together.

On-going research at Imperial investigates students’ sense of belonging in specific contexts, across student groups, and how an environment of excellence and inclusion is nurtured and supported. A number of projects explore students’ identity, a key component of belonging. Cross-College research explores how we can measure and track students’ sense of belonging to support individual students. Further research draws on learning analytics to see patterns of engagement and belonging on a large-scale, and to link data to understand and support students. Research is on-going in CHERS, in collaboration with departments, professional services and the ICU, in partnership with students through Student Shapers projects and through evaluation of activities and initiatives across the College.




Ahn, M.Y. and Davis, H.H. (2020) Four domains of students’ sense of belonging to university, Studies in Higher Education, 45:3, 622-634, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2018.1564902

Arulampalam, W., R. A. Naylor, and J. P. Smith. 2007. “Dropping Out of Medical School in the UK: Explaining the Changes Over Ten Years.” Medical Education 41 (4): 385–94.

Brooman, S., and S. Darwent . 2014. “Measuring the Beginning: A Quantitative Study of the Transition to Higher Education.” Studies in Higher Education 39 (9): 1523–1541.

Holmegaard, H. T., L. M. Madsen, and L. Ulriksen. 2014. “A Journey of Negotiation and Belonging: Understanding Students’ Transitions to Science and Engineering in Higher Education.” Cultural Studies of Science Education 9 (3): 755–86.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., & Whitt, E. J. (2010). Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. John Wiley & Sons.

Mountford-Zimdars, A., Sabri, D., Moore, J., Sanders, J., Jones, S. and Higham, L. (2015) Causes of Differences in Student Outcomes. Bristol: Higher Education Funding Council for England, HEFCE. Available at:

Richardson, J. 2018. Place and Identity: The Performance of Home. London: Routledge.

Robertson, A., Cleaver, E., & Smart, F. (2019). Beyond the Metrics: Identifying, Evidencing and Enhancing the Less Tangible Assets of Higher Education. QAA Scotland Enhancement Themes.

Thomas, L., Hill, M., O’Mahony, J. and Yorke, M. (2017) Supporting Student Success: strategies for institutional change: What Works? Student Retention and Success programme Final Report. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Available at: