Impact of online learning on sense of belonging among first year clinical health students during COVID-19: student and academic perspectives | BMC Medical Education

Online student cross-sectional survey

Demographic characteristics

A total of 179 out of the possible 663 students (27% completion) completed the online survey in June 2020. Median age of students was 19 years (IQR 18–28 years) and there were approximately three times as many females as males (Table 1), reflective of the undergraduate health sciences cohort (70% female). Student numbers were also reflective of the broader enrolment numbers in the programs (i.e., occupational therapy is the largest program). Just over half (53%; n = 94) of students had no prior experience in undertaking a Bachelor degree, and 76% of students had not completed any online courses prior to enrolment.

Table 1 Demographic characteristics

Quantitative results to the sense of belonging questionnaire

In terms of students’ sense of belonging to the university, the majority felt ‘quite’ or ‘extremely’ happy with their choice of university (74%) and felt ‘quite’ or ‘extremely’ welcomed by the university (68%). While most students felt respected by both staff (70%) and students (60%) at the university, students reported less connectiveness (23.5%) to the university. Only 20% of students reported they felt they were understood as an individual, and only 13% felt they ‘quite’ or ‘extremely’ mattered to others at the university (Table 2).

Table 2 Online learning and Sense of Belonging to the University [1]

Table 3 shows how the online learning experiences impacted on students’ perception of the course; 27% of students felt ‘quite’ or ‘extremely’ connected to staff while 16% of students felt ‘quite’ or ‘extremely’ connected to other students. While 49% of students rated 4 and above for the level of respect that they received from other students and their contribution towards the subject, students who had prior higher education felt less respected than students who had no prior higher education (p = 0.03). When asked how the online subject had contributed to understanding, knowledge/skills in their chosen health profession, about half of the students rated the online subject highly (rating 4 and above). Students who had prior higher education indicated higher ratings of understanding and knowledge/skills compared to students without prior higher education (p = 0.07 and p = 0.03 respectively). There was also a significantly higher proportion of students with no prior higher education who identified the online learning experience as either ‘quite’ or ‘extremely’ likely to impact their intention to continue with their current course (p = 0.001).

Table 3 Impact of online profession-specific subject on perception of the course

Qualitative results

Qualitative findings provided insight into experiences of staff and students during the rapid, unplanned transition to online learning. Student questionnaire responses included two open-ended questions expanding on enablers and barriers to sense of belonging. These yielded 145 enablers and 254 barriers to students’ feeling a sense of belonging. Data were subjected to qualitative content analysis by two authors and categories are presented in Additional file 1.

Three focus groups were conducted: two student sessions, each with two students enrolled in Speech Pathology and Paramedicine, and one academic session with five participants. Four full time academics and one casual academic participated from a total population of nine eligible academics. Using the processes described in the methods, focus group analysis was compared with the survey content analysis and the authors identified synergies between them. Findings were then integrated under a global theme, underpinned by organising and basic themes. The following themes reflect triangulation between academic and student focus group data in addition to survey responses.

Global theme—navigating belonging during the COVID-19 crisis: a shared responsibility

“We are in this together…making the best of this”

This theme explores sense of belonging creation during this period as a shared process, where participants perceived they worked together to get through the crisis. Students and academics encountered many challenges as they transitioned to online learning but despite hard times, were able to engage positively. The global theme revealed students and academics were navigating belonging during the COVID-19 crisis, and this journey was a shared responsibility. Both groups were working to achieve positive student engagement that would in turn create a sense of belonging in first-year students. A strong commitment of working hard to make the best out of this was mutually acknowledged.

Students perceived academics had done “a really good job at making sure we belonged…in those first few weeks that we were on campus but even more so probably while we were in Zoom” (Student-Astrid-Focus Group). Academics perceived students were actively engaged in making online learning work and were collegial and collaborative.

The shared experiences about navigating belonging during the COVID-19 crisis, have been captured under four organising themes: dimensions of belonging, individual experiences and challenges, reconceptualising teaching and learning, and relationships are central to belonging. Within each organising theme, basic themes were identified that provide depth to the organising theme (Fig. 1). Additional files 1 and 2 present a summary of the quotes obtained from the open-ended surveys and focus groups respectively, that contribute to the themes in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1

Pictorial representation of the global, organising, and basic themes

Organising theme: dimensions of belonging

This theme outlines that belonging is a multidimensional experience with several facets underpinning participants’ experiences. Students and academics identified several dimensions of belonging in relation to first year students’ experiences, as illustrated by two basic themes that sit under the organising theme: what it means to belong, and layers of belonging.

Basic theme: what it means to belong

This theme explores the idea that belonging at university is underpinned by feeling valued and connected. Academics and students agreed that having a sense of being valued by the university and a desire to have an active connection across all aspects of university life was important for students.

Belonging as a student was gained through a connection with the “vocation” (Student-Claire-Focus Group) or the course and career, and with people who will “be there” (Student-Claire-Focus Group) for them. Furthermore, support of academics was critical to gaining a sense of belonging. It was noted by academics and students, that when students feel they belong at university, they are actively engaged in their learning, and this sense of belonging in turn shapes their overall identity. Students can then “actually sort of relax and become themselves” (Staff-Brooke).

Belonging to their cohort, their course, their future profession, and their university was important for students. One academic noted that the “concept of acceptance” is part of the sense of belonging and goes “both ways” (Staff-Brooke).

Both academics and students agreed that the rapid change to online learning due to COVID-19, meant that developing a sense of belonging was challenged.

Basic theme: layers of belonging

This theme identified layers of belonging reflected in participants’ experiences. Peer, academic and professional layers each contributed to an overall sense of belonging and key examples are provided below.


Belonging to peers was described as “having that connection to someone that’s going through exactly the same thing as what you’re going through” (Student-Astrid-Focus Group). Students were concerned that when learning moved online that this sense of belonging would be jeopardised by less opportunities for in-person interaction.


Being connected to academics was perceived by students as directly impacting learning, with one student commenting: “…when they’re not connecting with the teacher, they’re not connecting with the content, they’re not connecting with the feedback. That’s when you develop this sense of feeling like you just don’t belong” (Student-Emily-Focus Group).

Academics perceived it was also important for students to develop a sense of belonging to the university community.


Belonging to a profession was identified as an important feature of belonging by academics and students. Studying a degree with a clear professional identity facilitated first year students to feel they belonged compared to those undertaking general health science degrees which may have multiple pathways and career options less directly aligned to first year studies.

One academic actively encouraged first year students to belong to their professional association as a way of fostering belonging in first years.

Organising theme—Individual experiences and challenges

This theme outlines that while there are similarities in participants’ experiences, individuals have unique contexts and factors shaping their experiences. Academics and students reflected upon personal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on their teaching or learning and how they responded as individuals to the ensuing challenges. Two basic themes emerged: Challenges of transition and recognising different learning preferences.

—challenges of transition

This theme explored the significant challenges of transitioning to online teaching and learning. For some students, the transition to online learning offered potential benefits of flexibility and reduced travel time. Two of the four students in the focus groups opted for online learning opportunities available in other subjects of study prior to the pandemic to efficiently manage their study and external commitments. Nonetheless, the pandemic brought a raft of personal challenges that diminished these expected benefits. Covid-related changes to family employment, reduced access to childcare support and non-optional home schooling presented new concerns.

Clearly, students missed the opportunity to focus attention on their learning needs when balancing childcare demands and home-schooling during lockdowns.

Unlike a conventional online courses where students choose or plan to be online, the sudden, unexpected, and unplanned move to online study was prefaced by a short period (four weeks) of in-person class time. This initial in-person time was identified as being key to relationship building.

Academics identified positive experiences and challenges during the transition to online learning. The rapid change presented a problem to be solved and individuals could “embrace it and to work effectively…as a team” (Staff-Jane). Quickly strategizing and responding to the demands of online learning required team knowledge, experience, and support. Hence, enhanced team culture was a further positive for academics, being “present for each other” (Staff-Brooke).

recognising different learning preferences

This theme identifies experiences of online learning influenced by personal attributes, individual expectations and learning preferences. Such key factors impacted students’ capacity to maintain focus on academic goals after the rapid change to online learning. Some students reflected that barriers were not solely a feature of online learning environments, reporting that competing priorities, including work commitments and limited contact time with staff as pre-existing challenges to belonging. However, some students directly attributed their limited engagement and reduced motivation to the online learning environment.

Students suggested that active engagement “comes down to personality” (Student-Astrid- Focus Group). If a student was not shy they were comfortable to come forward and participate online. Some students perceived clear links between personal discipline, engagement, commitment, and achievement in online learning environments.

Further, students perceived effective (and ineffective) online group functioning reflected personalities of individual members, with some groups/personalities seen as being able to organise whilst other groups lacked leadership and cohesion.

Students who perceived themselves as active engagers reported being drawn towards other students who demonstrated motivation to interact and learn. Other students perceived their personalities or learning preferences were misaligned with the expectations of belonging in online learning environments and focussed upon tasks rather than connection.

Academics recognised student diversity and a need to reflect and re-evaluate expectations of students in online environments. They accepted that some students may be quietly engaging and learning to belong, but this was harder to observe in online compared to in-person learning environments.

Organising theme—relationships are central to belonging

This theme identified the relationship between all parties as a fundamental aspect of creating a sense of belonging. Two basic themes were influential in shaping perceptions of how relationships and connections contribute to belonging: collaboration with peers is fundamental, and effective and regular communication with staff is necessary.

—collaboration with peers is fundamental

This theme revealed collaboration with student peers was a key element of creating a sense of belonging. The degree of social interaction with student peers and opportunities to create friendships contributed to feelings of belonging. Accordingly, students found it problematic when peers neglected to turn cameras on during classes, making interaction very difficult. Visualisation of peers and use of cameras in online classes impacted students’ opportunities to get to know each other.

Challenges posed by online learning were further highlighted in the student survey through a focus on non-academic aspects of university and campus life. Typically, university campuses offer interactional opportunities through clubs, sport, and shared spaces to learn and socialise. Campus life, students suggested, may facilitate learning and personal development. Absence of this type of interaction was linked to barriers in developing friendships and consequently a lesser sense of belonging as reflected in Additional file 1.

Basic theme—
with academics is necessary

This theme outlined that communicating with academics was a key component of creating a sense of belonging. With less opportunities for peer support, there was stronger reliance on the academic-student connection, although students reported positive and negative interactions with academics during online learning.

Positive interactions and individualised communication with academics enhanced student sense of satisfaction and belonging. Furthermore, students in the focus groups reported a feeling of trust and a bond created by a shared challenge. Survey responses echoed this sentiment, noting that academics were “non-judgmental and supportive” (Student Survey 18) and created a sense of camaraderie. However, when students perceived impersonal communication from academics, they felt less connected or believed that teaching had become a “transaction” (Student-Astrid- Focus Group). Perceived levels of enthusiasm and engagement from academics influenced student’s perceptions of connection and belonging.

Students identified the online environment as a barrier to communication with academics. While systematic and university level communication was perceived as a useful source of information, students prioritised individualised communication from academic staff as key to belonging.

Academics concurred that effective communication was challenged in online environments, missing non-verbal cues and responsivity that characterises a classroom environment. Although the online learning environment provides an opportunity for academics to connect professionally with students, there were students who left their cameras off, with one academic noting they didn’t push this issue because there are many reasons for students choosing this option.

Organising theme: reconceptualising teaching and learning

This theme reveals how academics and students reconceptualised their expectations and modes of teaching and learning, to manage the crisis. It was not easy for academics or students, and many strategies were employed to make it work, with two basic themes emerging: challenges to online teaching and learning, and strategies to engage and connect.

Basic theme:
of online teaching and learning: “how do I make this work?”

This theme outlined many challenges faced by both academics and students during a rapid change to online mode. With the rapid change to online learning, academics asked themselves, ‘How do I make this work?’.

Managing workload

Academics reported their workload increased significantly, and they “found it a juggling act” (Staff-Louise) to meet their teaching requirements. Administrative loads consequently increased when reduced in-person contact with students led to more electronic communication. Academics needed to up-skill in online teaching in a short time frame and perceived this responsibility as all encompassing.

The rapid switch to online learning attracted significant academic workload, implementing and adapting content to see how material “might play out in a Zoom environment…[where]…everything takes longer” (Staff-Natalie).

Some students noticed a temptation to disengage from online learning, which meant balancing their workload and study demands became a challenge as they also faced significant workload and stressors in their personal lives due to COVID-19.

Class dynamics

Academics and students spoke about the change to classroom dynamics. The online environment was noted as being one in which it was difficult to read the room to see how students were progressing with their work. Others tried to use humour to enliven a class, only to have the Zoom frame freeze, killing the mood they were trying to create. Hence, staff felt teaching online was less conversational, flexible and responsive compared to face-to-face. Moreover, academics missed hands-on practical elements; a big shift for some programs.

Technological challenges

Academics learnt new skills quickly, but often these skills would be challenged when technology failed. Some academics reported a sense of vulnerability due to technological ineptitude but acknowledged that making mistakes in front of students could humanise the experience. Academics also acknowledged that some students did not have adequate technological resources to meet changes in their learning requirements when classes were placed online.

Basic theme: strategies to engage and connect

This theme reflected the strategies academics and students employed to remain engaged and connected. Academics worked hard to enhance online learning and hoped to connect with students and engage them in activities. Students too were active and appreciated academics’ efforts to facilitate engagement and connection. Underlying many of the strategies adopted by academics was a deep concern for student welfare during this time. Therefore, many academics aimed to ensure students were engaged and connected with each other and with the academic team. Academics built in small group opportunities during online teaching so students could connect, learn, and socialise.

Staff also spoke about informing students they could contact staff for support. One staff member described crossing the divide and actively discouraging a ‘them and us’ dynamic between students and staff.

A variety of teaching tools were identified by staff to build connection and promote engagement. Such tools included interactive quizzes, ice breakers activities, integrating reflective practices into activities and ‘drop in’ sessions. Staff also encouraged students to establish social media groups or other group experiences outside the classroom. Some staff members arrived early to zoom classes and left late to enable students to connect informally.

Students appreciated staff attempts to provide these activities. Students found these initiatives helpful, recognising staff placed effort into knowing students personally and focussing on student wellbeing and achievement. Students cited examples of provision of extra resources, mini-lectures, additional question and answer sessions, and fast response times to student queries. Students also initiated their own engagement strategies, including using group and personal messaging over platforms such as Facebook messenger.


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