It’s possible to support wellbeing AND learning for university students through the curriculum! The curriculum refers to learning, teaching, and assessment.
I am a research associate and teaching fellow in the Psychology Department at King’s College London. Throughout my PhD (in Diabetes and Health Psychology), I was a graduate teaching assistant for the Psychology department. It became apparent to me that students’ wellbeing had a real impact on their overall university experience (and vice versa!). Following my PhD, I became interested in research exploring how to support student wellbeing in the curriculum at university.
Student mental health crisis
Through personal tutoring, teaching, and project supervision, I have had many conversations with students, from first to final year. Many things impact a student’s wellbeing and their journey at university. For example, students face many pressures such as newfound independence, a new home (and flatmates!), a completely new learning environment and approach to learning as well as assessment, navigating new relationships with peers and staff, financial pressures, managing family expectations, major life events (illness, breakups, death, war) and discovering career goals.
Mental health problems in university students are on the rise. Student support services are at capacity; and therefore, broader ways to support student wellbeing are necessary to help students thrive.
Supporting wellbeing through the curriculum
The University Mental Health charter developed by the student mental health charity, Student Minds, outlines the ‘Whole-University Approach’ to supporting student wellbeing at university that does not solely rely on university support services.
The four domains of this approach are: ‘Learn’ (learning, teaching, assessment); ‘Support’ (support services); ‘Work’ (staff wellbeing and staff development); and ‘Live’ (residential accommodation, social belonging, and physical environment). My work focuses on the ‘Learn’ aspect of this approach.
The curriculum is at the heart of university life and is the guaranteed contact point between students and the university. So, we must think about how to design and deliver curriculum and assessment to enhance wellbeing and learning simultaneously. Often this equates to good teaching practices.
Education for Mental Health Project
I joined the Education for Mental Health project team in January 2020. The project was funded by Office for Students, a collaboration between the University of Derby, King’s College London, Aston University, Student Minds, and Advance HE. We aimed to develop an online toolkit for university teaching staff to outline the best ways to support student wellbeing within the curriculum (i.e., through teaching, learning and assessment).
Wariness about supporting wellbeing through the curriculum
Some universities are wary of supporting student wellbeing within the curriculum as they believe this equates to making the curriculum easier to reduce stress and anxiety. However, this is not true, and the evidence does not support this is necessary.
Challenge and stretch are good for wellbeing as it enhances personal development. It is not the learning that needs to be easier or the academic challenge that needs to be reduced; it is the way we think about teaching and how students engage with their learning that is key!
Wellbeing and learning
Research says that learning and wellbeing exist in a transactional relationship. Poor wellbeing is associated with poor academic performance. Also, how students engage with learning can influence wellbeing (positively or negatively). Therefore, our toolkit’s suggestions point toward improving wellbeing and learning.
Some helpful examples from the Education for Mental Health toolkit
I want to take you through a few main points covered in the Education for Mental Health toolkit that stand out for me.
Social belonging was important in our discussions with students for the project. Students said that if they feared embarrassment in the classroom, this was a real barrier to learning and, in some cases, led to dropping out of classes.
Social belonging within the classroom is about creating a sense of psychological safety. Students feel comfortable making mistakes and asking those dreaded ‘stupid questions’. Therefore, it is crucial to create a classroom space where everyone learns better in a safe and supportive environment that allows engagement in an academic challenge.
The crucial thing in a learning-focused curriculum is: WHAT is hard & WHY is it hard? If we set our students a helpful academic challenge, students will:
· Know what is required of them, and understand how to approach the work;
· Be given opportunities to practice;
· Already have the skills OR know they will develop the skills through this piece of work.
WHEREAS a stress-inducing task, the student:
· Does not know what is required of them;
· Does not know how to develop the skills;
· Assumptions might have been made about their skills level.
SO, we need appropriate classroom activities and assessments to help students benefit from academic challenges, improving wellbeing and learning!
A scaffolded design helps us achieve this and think about how to prepare students. It is important here to remove barriers to students accessing study skills support.
For example, students who need help the most might not be able to access extracurricular content (during induction week or during term time) if they have responsibilities outside of university or must commute to campus. So, essential study skills should be taught through the subject and not all crammed into induction week!
Let us teach students HOW to be students! We need to build them up to learning outcomes through assessment and classroom activities in a way that is helpful overall.
So, how do we develop learners?
Learner development is not just about delivering good content. Learning is not like a computer; we cannot just input information into students’ brains!
Many things interact with learning and how we can support it — for example, self-managing emotions in the classroom, e.g., nerves and anxiety. Exam anxiety can result in avoidance behaviour, poor revision techniques, surface-level learning, and underperformance. This is a vicious cycle. But if we can intervene at the study skills level and teach students how to revise effectively, this will increase their confidence, lower their anxiety, and lead to better performance. A much healthier cycle!
Overall, a helpful academic challenge is essential for good wellbeing and learning. This can be supported in several ways within the curriculum, including social belonging, scaffolded design, and promoting learner development.
I only touch on a few points from the toolkit here, but please do review our toolkit, staff resources, and case studies for further information and references.