Wellbeing—as a topic, as a need, and as a call to action—has increasingly been part of the conversation in higher education. The far-reaching impacts of COVID19 have only made the role of wellbeing in learning more obvious. Instructors have increasingly become primary contacts for students experiencing crisis, burnout, or challenges that interfere with their academic success.
But as the Association for College and University Educators notes in Creating a Culture of Caring, “We must not lose sight of faculty member’s primary responsibility to students: effective teaching that leads to meaningful learning. Faculty are experts in their disciplines and, for most, mental health is not their field. Although faculty cannot (and should not) be expected to replace the role of mental health professionals, they can take actions as helpers, not clinicians, to support struggling students” (Active Minds, 2020).
What do we mean when we talk about “wellbeing,” and what are those actions faculty and GE can take “as helpers, not clinicians” that may also be compatible with their own wellbeing?
This toolkit strives to address these questions by briefly synthesizing national data about what wellbeing is and why it matters, and by offering a range of strategies, pre-made tools, and draft language to support student wellbeing in the context of your courses.
In the book Well-Being and Higher Education, philosopher Donald Harward (2016) asks “If [wellbeing] is to be more than a frequent and easy figure of speech, what does well-being mean?” He notes that “…there is no specific, single designation or referent for wellbeing. Rather, there is a weave of meaning” and that wellbeing is a construct made of multiple dimensions. The dimensions might be measurable descriptions of feelings (such as experiencing loneliness or life satisfaction) or they might be relational, pointing to how we engage with learning (such as ability uncertainty, or social support).
Impacts of Wellbeing on Learning
While instructors are not clinicians, student wellbeing impacts learning, and it supports our goal as educators to design with it in mind. As we consider students who score unfavorably on constructs of wellbeing, we want to be explicit that this is not due to a lack in individual students or in students who are members of particular groups but a complex interplay between individuals and the society, communities, and institutions that we are impacted by and part of.
There are many ways in which dimensions of wellbeing impact academic success in the learning spaces we’ve created. Some of these documented impacts include*:
Impact of Depression on Academic Performance
Students with depression have lower GPAs and are at higher risk of dropping out compared to peers who are not depressed (Eisenberg et. all, 2009). Research demonstrating correlation between depression and poorer academic outcomes appears particularly robust.
A recent longitudinal study of behavioral and emotional health for university students noted that “socioemotional difficulties with adjustment to university life are known to predict attrition as well as academic performance.” Their research focuses on risk factors for attrition, and they find that two consistent predictors–regardless of when in their college experience students drop out–include depressive symptoms and exposure to stressful life events (Thomas et. al., 2021).
Impact of other mental health challenges, such as anxiety, on academic performance
Research in the Journal of Affective Disorders describes how “a wide range of emotional problems–not just depression – have a significant association with lower academic functioning, even after adjusting for a broad set of confounders” (Bruffaerts et all, 2018). Data they examine (and definitions of “mental disorders” they use) come from the WHO World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Project.
Impact of food insecurity on mental health and academic performance
A recent longitudinal study in Public Health Nutrition of undergraduates found that “food insecurity was associated (standardized β, se) with poorer psychosocial health (0·22, 0·03, P<0·0001) and poorer psychosocial health was associated with a lower GPA (-0·21, 0·03, P<0·0001). The indirect effect of food security status on GPA, as mediated by psychosocial health, was significant.”
Challenges to wellbeing and academic performance for neurodivergent students
A systematic review of the literature around neurodiversity and higher education summarizes this succinctly: “the literature suggests that the conditions imposed by academia can challenge neurodiverse students. Emphasis on written assessments and focus on grammar, spelling and punctuation can penalize dyslexic students (12; 20). Students with ASD struggle with traditional teaching and assessment methods (23). Students with ASD and ADHD find coping with academic demands, such as timed homework and quizzes, in-class notes and overall course load testing stressful (25; 30), despite being realistic in expecting to be challenged (27). In general, neurodiverse students report poor treatment, lack of support, inflexibility from lecturers (1; 13; 17; 25; 31) and perceptions of discrimination and judgmental attitudes when they disclose their learning difficulties (15; 25; 38). Such negative teacher attitudes are detrimental to the self-efficacy beliefs of these students (20) in need of institutional advocacy (15; 38)” (Clouder et. al, 2020).
Some of the context summarized above may show up in retention rates and GPAs for neurodiverse students. For example, in “Academic Trajectories of College Students with and without ADHD: Predictors of Four-Year Outcomes,” researchers found that of the several hundred undergraduates studied, students with ADHD had both lower GPAs and lower persistence that peers who did not have ADHD (DuPaul et. al, 2021)
“Academic performance” occurs within a learning environment we individually and collectively design, and which we could design more effectively for neurodiversity. There is no default, “neutral” learning environment.
Impact of stereotype threat on test-taking and retention
Stereotype threat refers to “the feeling of being at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group” and disproportionately affects Black, Asian, International students and women (Clark, 2021). Numerous studies (such as “Problems in the pipeline: Stereotype threat and women’s achievement in high-level math courses”) demonstrate the impact of stereotype threat on academic performance (Good et. al, 2008).
Many studies referencing the mental health part of wellbeing approach mental health from a medical model of disability, as opposed to a social model (see Vanderbuilt’s Center for Teaching’s excellent overview of the distinctions here). Such studies are included here to illustrate examples of impacts on learning, but we do not share the medical model of disability analysis. As we consider students who score lowest on constructs of wellbeing, we want to be explicit that this is not due to an inherent lack in individual students or in students who are members of particular groups.
How Can Faculty Impact Student Wellbeing?
If our goal is to support student learning, and therefore to support student wellbeing so that learning can more effectively occur, what actions can we take that will fit our teaching practices? In the publication Creating a Culture of Care, the mental health nonprofit Active Minds (2020) makes four general recommendations:
- Normalize the need for help
- Actively listen with “Validate, Appreciate, and Refer” (V-A-R)
- Embed courses with wellbeing practices and
- Practice your own self-care and seek resources when needed
We believe that each of the above recommendations are necessary and possible to practice within each class, regardless of the class content or context.
Below you will find strategies and resources that include templated language, example practices, and even ready-made modules to support these recommendations. We invite you to explore the strategies and resources with your own needs and constraints in mind and to select both those you can implement with ease and perhaps one or two additional practices you’d like to try. We also invite you to continue asking the question “whose wellbeing?” as different practices may be more/less helpful for different students.
Normalize the need for help
For many students (and instructors) identifying a need for help and accessing it doesn’t feel like a sign of strength. We must unequivocally assert that it is, and signal respect for our and our students’ humanity in seeking the care they (and we) may need. Students who access formal and informal support to care for their physical, academic, emotional, or social health generally find these interventions effective.
Highlighting the importance of knowing when we need support and where to access it is also a foundational part of learning. Normalizing this across classes can be powerful and protective for all of us.
Share ready-made content with students easily
- Share information about the services available on campus:
- Inviting students to reflect in a discussion post about resources or supportive spaces they’ve most appreciated on campus
Include language in your syllabus and verbally about mental health and wellness and the benefit of seeking services
We can help normalize getting care and help students know where they can access it by using the language Counseling Services recommends placing in your syllabus:
“Mental Health and Wellness
Life at college can be very complicated. Students often feel overwhelmed or stressed, experience anxiety or depression, struggle with relationships, or just need help navigating challenges in their life. If you’re facing such challenges, you don’t need to handle them on your own–there’s help and support on campus.
As your instructor, if I believe you may need additional support, I will express my concerns, and the reasons for them, and refer you to resources that might be helpful. It is not my intention to know the details of what might be bothering you, but simply to let you know I care and that help is available. Getting help is a courageous thing to do—for yourself and those you care about.
Counseling, Health, and Wellness Services help students cope with difficult emotions and life stressors. CHWS has an experienced team of licensed psychologists and mental health counselors who are well prepared to help you make the most of your educational experience. All services are provided at no charge and are available for PLU students who are currently enrolled in classes. We also extend emotional support to undocumented students, as well as those students impacted by undocumented family or friends.