By Pravini Baboeram  (program manager/trainer at ECHO, Expertise Centre for Diversity Policy, and trainer for the #IBelong Team Teacher Reflection) and Halil Karaaslan (affiliated to ECHO)

1. When students engage in a heated discussion on a topic you’re not comfortable with – #blacklivesmatter

What do you do when an issue is being discussed in the classroom between students with different perspectives and experiences? How do you relate to this discussion and what does this mean for your role as a teacher? These as difficult questions to answer, let alone figure out a strategy to constructively manage this situation. What might be helpful is to start with a brief moment of self-reflection:

  • What is my perspective on this issue?
  • To what extent does this affect my views and perception of the students in question?
  • Why does this make me so uncomfortable?

By recognizing your own framework of reference, possible bias and discomfort, you acknowledge how your personal views might interact with your professional role. A follow-up step can be to set your personal views aside and focus on your professional role as an educator. Questions you can pose yourself are:

  • How do I turn this discussion into a teaching moment for all students?
  • How do I ensure different perspectives are being heard, while maintaining a safe space for all students?
  • How can I relate the discussion to course material that is relevant for their context as future professionals?

By turning the discussion into a teaching moment, you require your students to shift from an emotional conversation to a critical reflection in which you are the facilitator of this process.

2. When a student expresses discomfort with a topic you’re comfortable with – #metoo

Some topics are familiar territory for you, but might challenge the world views of your students. What do you do when a student is not at ease with a topic you raise and challenges you based on a world view you find problematic? Because in this case your student is very much engaged, but maybe not in the way you hope, it might be helpful to guide your student in a critical reflection, for instance by:

  • Encouraging the student to reflect on how her/his perspective is related to her/his world view;
  • Encouraging the student to research other perspectives and world views behind it;
  • Challenging the student to think in practical situations, by relating ‘the other’ to people they might know and care for.

By acknowledging your student in their contribution, you keep them engaged, while challenging them to critically reflect on their own framework of reference.

3. When a student challenges you on a topic you’re uncomfortable with #decolonizethecurriculum

Sometimes students are well immersed in topics you are unfamiliar with. What can you do when students challenge you, and perhaps even your authority, because you are not yet educated on these topics? Even though you’re an educator, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are an expert. Of course you have knowledge to transfer, but so do your students. You can use this to engage in a collective learning process, for instance by:

  • Encouraging your students to come up with specific ideas and suggestions you can use in the classroom;
  • Engaging in a conversation with your students on how you can become more educated on these topics;
  • Involving experts on these topics to contribute to your classes.

By acknowledging your own blind spots to your students and making an effort to address and explore those, your students are more inclined to take on a constructive approach in interacting with you, rather than a challenging approach.

4. When hot issues in society enter the classroom #jesuischarlie

Your institution may decide to respond to hot issues in society without giving you the opportunity to properly prepare, for instance by holding one minute of silence after an event considered traumatizing for society. What happens when some students refuse to participate in this gesture and they question why the institution doesn’t hold one minute of silence for other situations they also consider traumatizing for society, but aren’t included in moments of silence?

In a situation like this, it’s important to understand where this resistance is coming from. The questions they raise aren’t necessarily based on a lack of interest for this specific event, but on a frustration with the lack of attention for other events that are of importance to them. Often it helps to acknowledge their point of view, for instance by:

  • Creating space to talk about this event and how it relates to the events they consider important;
  • Allowing your students to express their emotions and share how it relates to their own daily experiences;
  • Offering a follow-up session, in case the time doesn’t allow for an elaborate conversation, in an upcoming class dedicated to this specific conversation.

By allowing room for different perspectives in a situation that focuses on one specific perspective, you keep students engaged who might otherwise feel disconnected.

5. When you experience tensions within your team of colleagues on sensitive issues #implicitbias

Sometimes challenges occur not with your students, but within your team, for instance when a colleague expresses ideas you consider problematic in relation to diversity and inclusion. How do you maintain a good relationship with your colleagues while offering some critical reflections? Rather than giving feedback yourself, a useful approach might be to allow them to critically reflect on themselves, for instance by:

  • Asking clarifying questions to make implicit ideas explicit;
  • Repeating what you heard in your own words and checking if that’s indeed what they meant;
  • Relating it to how they think their students might feel or perform if confronted with these ideas.

By functioning as a mirror your colleague is hopefully encouraged to examine how their ideas and behavior might affect the interaction with other colleagues and students.


Branca Lopes

My name is Branca Lopes, and I’m a student of Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences of the University of Porto since 2018. I’m also volunteer at high schools and I work at a football club twice a week. I am about to start my 3rd year at my Faculty and I couldn’t be happier, but I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t scared at first.

I didn’t know what was it like being at the University because I was the first one in my family having this experience. When I went to enroll to my University I was alone, and saw everyone in the queue behind me with their families. That made me think that I probably shouldn’t have told my mom the day before “No, mom, I’m a grown up! Do you really think that I still need your company? I can do it by myself!”.

Well but in reality I wasn’t all by myself. I had a mentor that helped me during this process. She was amazing and made me feel comfortable. After that she showed me the places I should be familiar with, in order not to get lost. My mentor also talked about the course which made me feel really excited about starting classes. It also helped me reducing my anxiety and doubts which were pretty normal for someone who isn’t familiarized with this reality.

Nowadays I’m also a mentor and I took part in #IBelong Community Mentoring Programme. It’s really gratifying seeing that we can help the new students with activities and meetings, or just talking to them and checking if they are fine throughout the year. Sometimes we have lunch all together – several mentors with their mentees, and then we (mentors) help students who don’t know each other to engage in conversation.  It is so funny!

Being a new student, especially if you are the first generation student, can be hard but #IBelong is a project that helps you so much to feel like belonging to an academia, and not focus only on the studies. I think that we need such opportunity, to help us relax and also to improve some skills such as communication, which is so important for everything in our daily routines. To sum up, I think that all students should have #IBelong type of experience, because it will enrich them as a person and help them feel more comfortable about this new huge experience that is University.



My name is Charlotte Winder. I am first generation student at Edge Hill University, enrolled onto the Primary Education course with Quality Teacher Status (QTS). I have a major specialism in English and a minor specialism in Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). I will be going into my third and final year. Therefore, all going well, I am one year away from my dream job. University has been my favourite experience in education. Edge Hill University really do go above and beyond to make you feel welcome and most importantly supported. I have also been provided with a plethora of enriching opportunities; regional placements, becoming a digital leader and being a Student Academic Mentor to name a few.

Charlotte Winder

Charlotte Winder

When talking about belonging at Edge Hill University I think a great place to start is with University Open Days. Like many students, I had a few choices of universities that I was interested in. I think open days are crucial when making that all important decision of which one you are going to choose. I attended one University Open Day before visiting Edge Hill University. Once I visited Edge Hill, I did not attend any more Open Days as I knew this is where I want to be. Why? It was simply down to friendly faces of both staff and students. Student mentors were available throughout the Open Day and provided a less intimidating more honest option in finding out the answers to my questions. Also, hearing their success stories and their stories of personal growth inspired me. After the first week at Edge Hill I knew I had made the right decision, the first week was all about making them all important connections and forming the basics for relationships with peers and tutors. The first week included a plethora of team building and confidence boosting exercises/activities, helping to prepare you and motivate you for the year ahead. In the first week we were also introduced to our student academic mentors that had been assigned to our university group. All students were fully informed of contact methods/details and the support system that we had around us. Through out the year student academic mentors made frequent visits to our classes and offered informal chats and specific drop-in session if we had any questions or concerns. This leads me to my next point…

Becoming a Student Academic Mentor – Why?


Charlotte presenting EHU Dialogue Days at #IBelong Meet-Up at Osnabruck University

Charlotte presenting EHU Dialogue Days at #IBelong Meet-Up at Osnabruck University

This is a question that was asked when applying to become a Student Academic Mentor (SAM) at Edge Hill University. This is also a question that required no thought when answering. The answer I gave then and the answer I will give now are the same; because it is simply built in! It’s the very nature of why I enrolled onto this course in the first instance to help, educate and support. Also, as mentioned previously my experience at university has been accompanied with many successes alongside enriching opportunities. As a result, I wanted to ensure that other students have the same positive experience that I did and becoming a SAM helped me do just that.

Dialogue Days

I have thoroughly enjoyed being able to contribute to the ‘#IBelong’ project. The topics of belonging and inclusion are pivotal to a university setting and relevant today. I think students can struggle to feel like they belong due to constantly comparing themselves to others and seeing their diversities as a setback.

Following this project, Edge Hill organised Dialogue Days which took place during the first week of the academic year. When reflecting on this, I think this worked well. I also think one of the most successful parts of the Dialogue Day was when tutors and students shared their own personal stories of diversity. This offered a chance for students to relate, but what I also found interesting was that even if a person could not relate to the story itself, it still provided comfort as they did not feel alone in their differences.

I think when planning a Dialogue Day, it is important to be aware of how nervous students will be as this is their first week in a completely new setting. When asking questions relating to anyone’s diversity this can be a nerve-wracking experience to start with. Therefore, an activity that worked well was ‘snowballs’. All students were given a piece of paper and were given sentence starters e.g. you can support me by… This allowed students to put their feelings down whilst providing them with an option for anonymity. Students then scrunched the paper up and threw it down to the front of the lecture hall. Reflecting on this activity, this was effective, however it was time-consuming to analyse the data. Moving forward with this concept, this could be digitalised with the examples of Padlet.

The ‘#IBelong’ project was successful in immersing new students into Edge Hill and helping them feel like they belong in a university setting.

Ben Broadhurst is a student at Edge Hill University, at the Faculty of Education. Ben is about to start his second year in a Primary Education with QTS (Qualified Teacher Status), with specialism in both English and History. Upon completion, Ben will build a career in primary teaching, inspiring and nurturing curious minds of children aged 5-11.

Ben Broadhurst, EHU Student

He started his studies in 2019/20, the same year #IBelong interventions were included in the program at Edge Hill. We met over Zoom in late August 2020 – we were curious to hear how Dialogue Days and mentoring programme influenced his first year as a student.

Ben is first in his family to study at a University. He has two older brothers who after finishing high school went directly to work. His mom left school when she was 16, to join British Airways as an air hostess, and his dad joined the Royal Navy. Even though they had no personal experience of being students, they were very supportive, and that encouragement meant a lot to Ben.

“My parents were amazing in all the support they gave me. They took me to Open Days and they drove me to all the enrolment interviews. They didn’t know much about the actual process of applying to the University, so I did all the paperwork, but they would always inquire how did it go, what was it like… I couldn’t ask more help from them as they were new to the process but they were really amazing. “

Before he started his first year, he had common fears that many students face when they are about to change the environment.

“I feared I would lose contacts with friends that I have back at home. Even though I am not too far away from home, many of my friends moved away. We are a small group of 4 friends, one has moved to Ireland to study, one stayed in Liverpool for studies, another is moving to Paris as an au-pair, so it was a big thing for us – what is going to happen, how are we going to keep in touch. But we all managed to keep in touch”.

Then when academic year at Edge Hill began, I was wondering if people will like my ideas, will peers like me, what will they think of me. But after only a few days at EHU this eradicated.”

And it is #IBelong Dialogue Days that had important role in making Ben feeling accepted and valued.

“First session of Dialogue Days was a week before lectures formally started. It was 3 hour interactive session with 3 lecturers/student mentors from #IBelong programme, but you really didn’t feel these 3 hours. We discussed our expectations and fears, our decisions to enroll to the programme, and we could go in more detail with giving an answer. It was useful, because you don’t feel like you are on your own.

Ben (on the left) with his EHU Classmates

You may think, Oh am I the only one who feels like this, but  in fact half the room feels like you do. At the primary education course it’s 300 of us, and it is really hard to speak with everyone, and Dialogue Days broke down these barriers, and made it all easier for us to communicate and talk to each other. It is such a diverse group – there are students like me, who came directly after school, or people who worked for several years in the industry, you have mature students, people who have 3 kids to look after, and we all have different reasons for joining the course, and Dialogue Days made it easier to talk about this with others.

My high school friends who went to study at different university didn’t have similar interventions, they had small group sessions. This type of IBelong programmes, helps everyone feel as one, that everyone is in the same boat, and makes the barriers between peers a lot easier to break.”

Ben is about to become Student-Academic Mentor. It’s EHU’s peer-mentoring scheme through which second and third years students apply to mentor first year students. EHU’s SAM scheme applies some of the methods developed by #IBelong Community Mentoring Programme. Peer mentoring proves to be vital for students, and Ben explained us in what way peer mentoring supports students’ success.

“Some students don’t feel comfortable around their teachers, to ask for clarifications, and it is different with peer-mentor students – we’ve been there, we have the experience, and first year students might feel more comfortable telling us “I’m not 100% sure what I need to do, what is my task?”.

Science seminar session, students at EHU dissecting owl pellets as part of the practical excercise

It is important to have that balance between student and a lecturer, and that is where SAM comes in. SAMs meet with students every 2 or 3 weeks – we would sit in a group, and discuss if they any problems, see how they are getting on, if they feel as though they have settled in. That is in the beginning, to make sure they feel they are settled. Then throughout the first year, we meet for referencing sessions, how to write academically, sessions on how to deliver academic journals; and before going for on professional practice we have session on how to dress, how to start your teacher standards portfolio and some tips and guidance. These are little sessions throughout the year to help students along. Studying without mentoring support wouldn’t be as easy, especially in the first year: SAMs do have a big role and play a big part in our studies. There are many things that SAMs can do that lecturers might not be able to do – helping perfecting students’ tasks and deliverables. A lot of my friends at other Universities are left on their own devices, without that type of support.

Through its Team Teacher Reflection sessions #IBelong puts great emphasis on the role of the teachers in creating welcoming and inviting atmosphere for students. Ben agrees that teachers’ attitudes can enhance students’ sense of belonging.

“At EHU Open Days everyone was warm and kind, and they always answer your questions quickly. With Open Days you never know if they will really be like that or it is just for appearances, but I could not ask for nicer lecturers.

At Primary Education Course we are all teachers, and we all work with kids, so everyone is very friendly, you walk in the corridors and everyone is like “Hi Ben, nice to see you, how are you, where are you up to?”. Atmosphere is warm, and cosy and nothing is a trouble. We spend a lot of time in the building of Faculty of Education as we have lectures almost every day. Naturally, after that much time you start feeling at as being at home: everyone is warm-hearted, and it makes you feel welcomed.”

Ben on his first day of professional practice placement

Ben already had his first professional practice placements. His’s future plans have been shaped by the feeling of belonging he felt when he joined EHU.

“I am not very academic at all, so I worried when I enrolled, because I was never good at exams. But lecturers tell me “You can do it, believe in yourself” – and indeed, I did pretty well in the first year.

I never dreamed I would get the results I received with my exams in the first year. That all built my confidence and hopes. I never had thoughts five years ago that maybe I would enrol masters degree, before I would think – Oh, degree, no chance, I’m not good for that, but now, I think I am ready for that step.”

This comes as a confirmation that #IBelong interventions are necessary. Students thrive when their learning environment is supportive and encouraging.

We wish Ben success in his journey towards becoming a teacher!

While preparing for the new academic year, you might be looking for inspiring practices to make your learning environments more inclusive and supportive of student engagement. #IBelong team-member, Professor Liz Thomas from Edge Hill University compiled the list with 12 such ideas, that you might find useful. Initially the list was compiled with the intention to support commuter students during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, but these practices and tips are relevant and applicable to any (online) learning environment.

Feel free to add more in the comment section!

  1. Use group and one-to-one activities to introduce students to each other and to staff, and to encourage engagement.  For example, this can be done via online tutor group meetings; we found sharing our own personal stories of overcoming challenges to be successful, and student mentors doing the same, helped new students to feel reassured about stepping into a different learning environment.  We also used an activity where students shared anonymously ‘I want you to know this about me…’ and ‘You can support me to be successful by…’; this helped prompt conversations.

  2. Create safe spaces, with ground rules which enable people to participate, and communicate your commitment to diversity and inclusion.  We shared some ground rules suggested by student volunteers and invited participants to amend or add to them.

  3. Promote the use of social media to allow student to keep in touch with each other beyond the formal institutional channels.  Students will use social media they feel comfortable with, and this will encourage the informal conversations that are difficult to have through the formal online learning environment.

  4. Promote active learning through a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous online activities, offering students flexibility in how they engage.  Videos and slide decks, audio recordings and documents can be used to transmit information; online fora, blogs and real-time sessions can promote discussion and collaboration.  Group activities can be built into the teaching and independent learning.  Make sure there are asynchronous options available.

  5. Review the curriculum and look for ways to diversify and enable students to shape the contents or focus, embed skills.  Good practice in inclusive curricular need to be built into the online curriculum.  Simple steps include reviewing the reading list, including more diverse examples, case studies and problems, inviting external speakers and finding opportunities for student-led contributions relating to their own interests (see Thomas 2015 for some examples).

  6. Provide diverse and flexible assessments to meet learning outcomes.  Traditional modes of assessment have been disrupted, so continue to think creatively about how you assess students.  Use a range of methods across the course, and consider flexibility in how students demonstrate learning outcomes. 

  7. Use feed-forward and feedback to promoting learning and success.  Many students find assessment challenging because they are unsure what is required and don’t know the unwritten rules.  Unpacking assignment briefs (Cureton et al 2017) is a simple way to ensure all students understand what is required – get students to review and discuss the assignment brief in a taught session, then post questions anonymously.  Teaching staff can they provide clarification of the issues raised on the module forum for all students.  

  8. Careful use of language and terminology. Provide explicit guidance in relation to academic and technical terms; avoid colloquial expressions, jargon and cultural metaphors and humour.  Encourage your students to let you know if they don’t understand anything you say or write; you could give an example of when you got it wrong.

  9. Organise one-to-one meetings, which allow students to share challenges. Less time on campus reduces the opportunities for informal interaction, so timetable sessions and other alternatives. Primary Education at Edge Hill have an initiative called ‘Just ask me if I’m OK’ (based on student feedback and an initiative developed by St Mary’s University as part of the What works? Student retention and success change programme).  Each student is emailed personally once a month by their tutor and asked if they’re OK.  Students just have to send by a numerical score 1-9, and those responding with 5 or under are followed up.  It gives a quick way to make contact with students and check up on them.

  10. Have awareness, sensitivity and non-pathologizing view of challenges and offer non-judgemental extensions.  Often students need to justify why they should be allowed an extension, but for all of the reasons identified above commuter students may experience particular challenges.

  11. Additional support services integrated into the curriculum and available 24/7, including pastoral support, academic development, financial support and IT support.  The online learning environment throws up new challenges, and fewer opportunities for informal support from peers and others.  Families often have very little appreciation of the challenges and issues students experience.  Look at ways that you can integrate support opportunities in into the curriculum.

  12. Use this opportunity to review and become more inclusive.  Covid-19 presents many challenges to the delivery of higher education, but it may also provide opportunities to create a more inclusive learning environment.


About the author: Professor Liz Thomas has researched higher education for 20 years, specialising in widening participation, student retention and success, learning and teaching, and institutional approaches to improve student experiences and outcomes.