W5 – Thinking Spatially about Belonging, Retention and the First Year Experience

Dance room – TUESDAY 14:15-15:15

Workshop – 30 minutes

Kate Thomas

Birkbeck, University of London UK

Kate Thomas is a researcher at Birkbeck, University of London, UK and a Higher Education Academy Mike Baker Doctoral Programme Award Holder 2012-2015. Her research interests include student retention and progression, ‘non-traditional’ student pathways, widening participation and lifelong learning.  Kate is also a freelance educational consultant/researcher.


This interactive workshop invites participants to explore methods used in case study research with UK universities and to discuss the proposal that ‘thinking spatially’ can uncover institutional power relationships and practices of belonging which impact the experiences of a diverse first year population.


This workshop draws on the methods and emerging findings of a multiple case study investigating part-time, mature undergraduate belonging and retention in English higher education to offer participants opportunities for exploration and discussion.

Students are especially vulnerable to withdrawal in their first year of study.  At a time when the retention of students for the full duration of their programme has become increasingly critical to the institutional bottom line, considerable resources are directed towards encouraging students to engage with the institution and to develop a ‘sense of belonging’.  The latter is frequently referenced in discussions about retention.  A sense of belonging, Thomas argues, is ‘closely aligned with the concepts of academic and social engagement’ (2012:12) and ‘critical to retention and success’ (ibid:10).

These statements draw on Tinto’s (US) model of student departure which ‘explains the longitudinal processes of interaction between the individual and the institution that lead differing individuals to drop out from institutions of higher education’ (1975:90).   Tinto describes how difficulty, incongruence and isolation influence different forms of student departure’ (1987:112), while persistence is a function of the match between an individual’s motivation and academic ability and the institution’s academic and social characteristics.  Tinto’s model has been highly influential on UK HE retention strategy and practice and there are distinct synergies between the stages of separation, transition and incorporation in it, and accepted good practice approaches to the first year.

However, belonging in HE is complex and contested for students labelled ‘non-traditional’ and a linear approach to retention, concerned with measurement of learning within narrow, time-limited parameters is an institution-focused, rather than student-centric term.   It is a blunt instrument in relation to a diverse student population and overlooks the student dimension in which engagement with HE is structured by age and mode of study as well as gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic and educational background.  The ‘complex social process of student-institution negotiation’ (Ozga and Sukhnandan, 1998:316) is a site of tension between measurable outcomes and a lived experience’; between a linear process and a ‘multiplicity of trajectories’ (Massey, 2005:4).

In the workshop participants will be invited to actively explore two research methods: campus dérive and mapping belonging, developed as part of this multiple case study.  Both are concerned with the uses, meaning and experiences of institutional spaces.  These activities will inform our discussion about to what extent thinking ‘spatially’ can uncover institutional power relationships and practices of belonging which impact the experiences of a diverse first year population and may usefully inform institutional practice and development.


Massey, D. (2005) For Space, London, Sage.

Ozga, J. and Sukhnandan, L. (1998) Undergraduate Non-Completion: Developing an Explanatory Model. Higher Education Quarterly, 52:3, 316-333.

Thomas, L. (2012) Engagement and belonging in Higher Education in a time of change: a summary of findings and recommendations from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme. Executive Summary. Bristol: HEFCE.

Tinto, V. (1987) Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tinto, V. (1975) Dropout from higher education: a theoretical synthesis of recent research, Review of Education Research, 45, 89–125

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