Fostering Academic Wellbeing in the Classroom
by Lourdes Alemán & Melissa Cao
Although student mental health has long been a concern in higher education, the pandemic, by its very nature, exacerbated students’ mental health. The pandemic also significantly reduced studentsʼ access to formal supports (e.g., in-person counseling services) as well as informal mental health support systems, including communities within classrooms and fields of major; connections to faculty and staff; and social, interest, and identity groups on campus.
In a recent survey conducted by the Boston University School of Public Health, 65.3% of responding faculty reported that student mental health has somewhat or significantly worsened since the beginning of their faculty career, and 87.1% of faculty surveyed reported observing a significant decrease in student mental health since the COVID pandemic began (Lipson et al., 2022).
New and ongoing efforts at MIT highlight the recognition of the importance of wellbeing on campus. In Spring 2022, faculty and staff convened to share best practices and discuss future research efforts to determine the effects of implementing wellbeing practices in the classroom (see here). These faculty-facing efforts are complemented by a newly launched office within the Division of Student Life, the Office of Student Wellbeing, an institute-wide working group, Health & Promotion Working Group, and website, doing well.mit.edu, that helps faculty, staff and students coordinate programs and resources that help students prioritize their wellbeing and provide support.
Long-standing beliefs that instructors’ jobs do not concern students’ wellbeing can hinder the interrogation of teaching practices and course design choices that have shown to directly contribute to unnecessary stress and lack of wellbeing. Students’ academic outcomes depend on their wellbeing, and their wellbeing is impacted by how welcoming and supportive their learning environments are (Ezarik, 2022). Faculty, as it turns out, have a huge role to play in helping students flourish and tackle academic setbacks more productively by thoughtfully considering their course learning environments.
As stated in, Leveraging Best Practices from Remote Teaching for On-campus Education , MIT’s 2021 report of the RIC16 Ad-hoc Committee:
“Community, wellbeing, and belonging are interrelated concepts that play key roles in student academic success, overall health, and in essentially all aspects of our students’ experience. The centrality of community and of individual wellbeing is familiar to all. A sense of belonging, in some ways, underlies both, as it affects not only student mental health directly, but also how often and in what ways they seek help for issues at MIT, both academic and personal. Thus cultivating a sense of belonging to multiple communities within MIT, especially after the pandemic stressed so many of them so severely, is paramount to a high-quality student experience. Belonging, individual wellbeing, and the strength of the overlapping communities that make up MIT are crucial for our students to thrive, not just survive, academically and in life …” .
By creating a supportive culture through class practices, norms, and policies, faculty and instructors can play a vital role in supporting students’ wellbeing in the classroom. In addition, faculty and instructors can help students understand how wellbeing affects all aspects of their experiences inside and outside the classroom. Simple actions can go a long way toward improving students’ academic wellbeing and helping students feel that they have a reliable support network on campus. The following classroom-based strategies, organized by required effort, represent a subset of examples of how course design, teaching practices, norms and policies can help support academic wellbeing by increasing classroom community, creating a welcoming and caring environment, and fostering reflection and academic growth.
- Learn names & set norms during the first day of class: Have students introduce themselves on the first day so you can start learning their names. Ask about their backgrounds, interests, and needs in a course survey. For more suggestions about how to set norms during the first day of class, see this TLL page which includes a Google Form template to gather information about students at the beginning of the semester.
- Be mindful about deadlines: Be mindful of when you set deadlines, including deadlines for homework and exams. For example, 9 am deadlines encourage students to pull all-nighters, and midnight deadlines may encourage students to skip dinner to finish an assignment. Five PM deadlines are often the best choice.
- Have routine check-ins: Regularly check in with students to see how they are doing. This may be particularly important after stressful exams or big assignments. One example is asking students to close their eyes at the beginning of class and give a thumbs up or a thumbs down for how they feel. You can note which students indicated “thumbs down” and follow up with them individually later (see Communication Templates for Check in with Students).
- Consider flexibility in your grading: Offer students the option to drop their lowest assignment or quiz grade.
- Share personal experiences of struggle: When students struggle with a particular concept or an assessment, share a personal experience about a time you had a challenging academic experience and how you overcame it. Alternatively, share how certain concepts can be difficult to master/understand or show examples of students reflecting on their experience of academic challenge (for examples, see those shared within the Flipping Failure initiative). This allows students to interpret challenges as part of the college experience, bolsters academic belonging, and encourages students to adopt a growth mindset towards challenges.
- Encourage students to seek help & convey help-seeking as an expected and important part of learning: Communicate in the syllabus and during the semester which resources are available to students and how they can use them, not just when they hit a rough patch but also to deepen understanding. For example, you may include language in the syllabus and explain that class resources like office hours are valuable for all students, regardless of their class performance. Stress that these resources can help students learn the material more deeply and get to know the course instructors better. This video from the Flipping Failure initiative is a short reflection by a student on the importance of attending office hours that you can include in your course). Normalizing help-seeking has shown to encourage a growth mindset in students.
- Include syllabus statements that communicate you care about students’ wellbeing: Syllabus statements should include resources that students can use during challenging times. For examples of syllabus statements, see doingwell.mit.edu’s section on Syllabus Statements and TLL’s Create a Syllabus page.
- Encourage students to pause, be and reflect: Use the beginning of class to help students check in with themselves, particularly before stressful times (before an exam, presentations, etc.):
- Offer a 1-minute of silence and ask students to notice what is present without judgment.
- Guide students through a 2-minute breathing exercise (for example, call 617-253-CALM (2256) for a guided, three-minute relaxation recording).
- Have students do a mini-journaling exercise for 1-2 mins, writing about what is on their minds at that moment or reflecting on a topic related to class. Writing about test anxiety before an exam bolsters performance and decreases classroom inequities (Ramirez & Beilock, 2010).
- Routinely share and remind students about wellness events and resources on campus: Consider bringing an expert from Community Wellness at MIT come to speak in your course for 5 minutes about wellness resources available to students. Share a quick personal strategy students can use during stressful times.
- Encourage sharing of wellbeing practices: Regularly ask students at the beginning of class to quickly share something they are doing to relax.
- Make lecture materials accessible to students: consider recording your classes (particularly for students who cannot attend). For considerations for how to make course content more accessible, particularly for students who miss class due to illness, see here.
- Get to know your students: Use name tags to help you remember students’ names. Schedule a weekly or monthly lunch at a popular student spot where students can show up to chat with you.
- Have welcome and/or closing rituals: Incorporate opportunities in the weekly course rhythm for informal interactions with you and between students. This can improve social connectedness, which has shown to positively impact student retention and resilience. Examples could be letting students know you are available a few minutes before and after class or having a reflection at the beginning or end of class (an important concept they remembered from the last class or a takeaway from the current class).
- Co-create norms and expectations: Involve students in co-creating norms and expectations for your classroom. This is particularly important for courses with substantial group work and discussion.
- Be transparent with course design choices and norms: Share your rationale for including course design elements, norms, and assignments through the syllabus, during class, and on your course page. Transparency allows students to relate the classwork to their personal goals and increase its perceived value, which supports student motivation and sense of belonging. For an example of transparency, see this video from the first day of class, in which MIT’s Professor Jeff Gore describes teaching methods he will use during the semester and why he has chosen to use them. The Transparency in Learning and Teaching project includes many examples of how to make assessments more transparent using the following framework: 1) describe the purpose of the assessment, 2) the actual task students will do, and 3) how they will be assessed.
- Use in-class activities to encourage deep processing of content, peer interaction & classroom community: Design classroom activities that allow students to engage cognitively with skills and knowledge during class. When thoughtfully executed, active learning activities, which often involve small group discussions, result in higher learning gains for all students, increase classroom community and decrease classroom disparities. Some MIT examples of effective active learning strategies can be found here.
- Encourage meaningful connections to course content: Routinely emphasize connections to students’ lives and careers by using meaningful and authentic examples of course content in class, homework, and assignments. Have students keep an online journal or routinely fill out a reflection on connections they are seeing between what they are learning and aspects of their lives.
- Avoid high-stakes assessments: High-stakes assessments, such as exams worth 50% or more of a student’s final grade, can result in testing anxiety, which has been found to negatively effect student performance, particularly for minoritized groups. Instead, consider:
- Incorporating more lower-stakes assessments (in-class activities, quizzes, etc.)
- Designing summative assessments that allow for feedback and iteration. This might include breaking up a large summative assessment into smaller deliverables or allowing assignment revisions to minimize the negative performance effects associated with high-stakes exams. Allowing revisions also helps students feel more comfortable with receiving and incorporating feedback, asking for help, and developing mastery through adopting a growth mindset.
- Encourage 2-way communication with students and feedback through the use of:
- MUD cards: Use 1-min reflection papers or MUD cards (muddiest or most unclear point) at the end of each class or at least every week to probe for gaps in understanding. Besides asking for “what is still unclear,” you can consider asking a question about course workload to help you to better understand how much time students are spending in your class.
- Online discussion boards such as those in Canvas and Piazza.
- Mid-semester feedback .
- Focus on mastery rather than performance: Consider adopting a grading scheme that is transparent and fosters growth with multiple opportunities for reaching learning goals. Learn about Professor Eric Mazur’s transformational experience using specifications grading in his introductory mechanisms course at Harvard in this TLL Speaker Series Seminar. See this article for more information about specifications grading.
- Cultivate a sense of hope: Cultivating a sense of hope on the heels of what has been a very stressful few years is particularly important, given the rise in hopelessness among adolescents and young adults. For more context and information, see Dr. Mays Imad’s Speaker Series seminar on Trauma Informed Teaching and an article she wrote about why hope matters.
Academic WellBeing Guides
- University of Washington well-being for Life and Learning Guidebook (TLL Speaker Series seminar about this initiative and guide book can be found here)
- Texas well-being GuidebookWell-Being for Life & Learning | Husky Health & Well-Being
- Simon Fraiser University Handbook
- Ezarik, Melissa (2022, May, 17). Professors’ Part in Maintaining Student Mental Health: Infographic. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 10/12/2022 from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/05/17/seven-professor-actions-contribute-student-well-being-infographic#.Y2U-9K5zg84.link
- Henry Arnaud, Celia (2021, April 25). How an alternative grading system is improving student learning. Chemical Engineering News. Retrieved 11/07/2022 from https://cen.acs.org/education/undergraduate-education/alternative-grading-system-improving-student/99/i15
- Lipson, S. K., Zhou, S., Abelson, S., Heinze, J., Jirsa, M., Morigney, J., et al. (2022). Trends in college student mental health and help-seeking by race/ethnicity: Findings from the national healthy minds study, 2013–2021. Journal of Affective Disorders, 306, 138–147. http://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2022.03.038
- Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. L. (2011). Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom. Science, 331(6014), 211–213. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.1199427