sense of belonging, inclusion in online learning environments, learning management system design applications

Sense of Belonging and Well-Being: Voices of Doctoral Students

June 23, 2021

Bio: Christina is a PhD candidate in Educational Technology and Learning Design. As an educator, Christina is greatly interested in and dedicated to education, empowerment, and equalizing power and privilege for historically excluded, and oppressed peoples of all backgrounds and identities, and the lifelong learning that requires. Her research interests include sense of belonging and inclusion in online learning environments, particularly the possibilities of the learning management system as a third space for students to engage and develop in academic socialization and scholarship. Christina is thankful for the identity development, empowerment, and opportunities higher education has brought her, and will continue to work to pay it forward to others.

What sparked your interest in doing research on sense of belonging and community inclusion?

As someone who moved a lot and went to seven schools in five US states from grades 1 to 9, I ended up feeling isolated, as I was always a newcomer. It is hard to build relationships with others when you are moving so much, and to experience support and resources.  

Changing schools and neighbourhoods impacted me academically: both my confidence about my abilities and anxiety about being successful in school.  Different US states had different education standards for curriculum and testing. I fell behind as early as 3rd grade in some subject areas like English and Math. 

I never felt like I really caught up.

When I went to college later in life, I was an older student with much younger peers. As scared as I was to begin this endeavour, the students were welcoming and accepting! I was able to join in group work, study groups, etc. with relative ease.  I learned a lot from the undergraduate students about how to be inclusive and build community cross-generationally. Faculty were approachable and empowering. At a middle stage in life, I was experiencing a learning community and sense of belonging in an academic setting for the first time. It was powerful; the perceived barriers I had carried with me melted away, and I started to experience success—a sense that I was capable.  The learning community operated in a manner that supported students and fostered competitiveness—meaning you compete with yourself to be better, and support others in their growth and development.  I could now identify with the “imposter syndrome” and understand other students had similar doubts and anxieties. I found I belonged, despite differences, and this impacted my ability to learn, my engagement with learning, and eventually my self-efficacy as a successful student.

Photos credit: Freepik,

In graduate school, age is not such a factor. During my graduate studies, I became interested in communities of practice and how to create them in graduate programs.  My professor, another student, and I studied a group of students—all of us in one course together, yet who continued to meet and engage in scholarly activities for two years after the course ended. We were not a “cohort,” so I became intrigued with what drew us to continue meeting and doing conferences amidst other courses, work, and life activities. Through a survey of our experiences, we published a paper on this phenomenon.

Later in my graduate program, I took a technology class and was fascinated with the possibilities of engagement and inclusiveness I saw in technology. I became curious about the use of educational technology through the lens of engagement and the ways students participate in social media. I wondered—what could be learned that could transfer to learning communities? This specific research interest in educational technology and learning design was not defined until I went through my SFU courses and comprehensive exam.

Why did you decide to work on doctoral students, particularly for your research?

Through a review of the literature, I came across “sense of belonging” as a studied phenomenon in higher education. I became keenly interested in how it was studied in higher education. I found many studies on sense of belonging for undergraduate and graduate students, but very little on sense of belonging for doctoral students. In the studies, sense of belonging was linked to both retention and graduation rates. Simultaneously, as a doctoral student myself, I learned that isolation had been identified as an important variable for doctoral students. I discovered that attrition rates for doctoral students nationally and internationally hover about 50–60%.

I wanted to know why doctoral students were not completing their programs and if sense of belonging or isolation were factors. Covid-19 occurred while I was working on my methodology and instruments. As early as March 2020, there were studies on doctoral students, Covid-19, and concerns about mental health.  I incorporated Covid-19 into my study and looked at first-year through fourth-year doctoral students in the Faculty of Education to discover their experiences of sense of belonging and isolation. 

Next, I wondered about the learning management system (Canvas) as a place of connection.  Canvas is definitely an online space, sometimes used more as a repository for our courses, yet I was absorbed with the idea of Canvas as a place between academic and personal, a third space in the digital world, where doctoral students could go for academic socialization and connection.

How has the pandemic impacted doctoral students? Do you have any observations that you can share with us? 

Forty-five doctoral students from SFU’s Faculty of Education participated in a survey entitled Doctoral Students’ Peer Belonging and Isolation Pre and Post Covid 19: Identifying Needs and Experiences. Following are some of the respondents’ comments and themes that have begun to emerge from the survey’s open-ended responses. Please note these findings are preliminary.

The following is an infographic with some of the survey data reported.

IMAGINE: Interviewees were shown a prototype of a Canvas SFU Faculty of Education Doctoral Student Connect site. All interviewees expressed the site has value and they would either use it or contribute to it.

In the survey comments and the interviews, belonging—whether with a supervisor and/or peers—was essential to the doctoral students. In the interviews, students who were struggling with isolation and feeling a lack of connection with other doctoral students expressed loneliness and/or anxiety, and some mentioned depression. Students who had a strong connection with one or two others and/or their supervisor stated those connections were sustaining them in their program and during Covid. Students thought empathetically of other students as they expressed their own sentiments and experiences. Students thought, particularly during Covid, that international students, first-year students, and students living on campus might need peer connection and ways to initiate and foster connection and belonging. This finding matched what some of the students from those groups expressed—showing me as a researcher that other students’ well-being matters and community is an expressed value of students. Sense of belonging is a need for SFU doctoral students, whether to a supervisor, faculty, or peers. 

What is the significance of your research? How will students and institutions benefit from this research?  For faculty and doctoral programs, this research provides insight into students’ voices: expressing their experiences and what they need from instructors, supervisors, and programs, and their desire for social and academic connections. Their desires or needs include deepening connections with others related to scholarly work and discourse, navigating through processes and systems, and feeling belonging within their doctoral experience. Institutions that prioritize and plan for doctoral students’ academic and peer socialization may find that doctoral students thrive in their programs and dissertation work.

Lastly, can you share some of your experience of working on this project?

The stories of doctoral students from across the Faculty of Education have been a gift to hear.  Doctoral students have unrealized needs as well as experiences of having their needs met, and these insights will benefit the educational community. Responsiveness to student needs will create stronger ties between and amongst doctoral students and their programs.

This is just a preliminary snapshot of my findings. It has been a privilege and an honour to continue to mine the data and bring forth the voices of doctoral students’ experiences related to sense of belonging, a basic human need.