The shift: Exploring the relationship between teaching and wellbeing
Last year, UBC became one of the first universities in the world to adopt the Okanagan Charter, an international call for post-secondary institutions to embed health and wellbeing into all policies and practices.
It follows an increasing effort to improve student mental health and wellbeing on campus. In the 2016 Undergraduate Experiences Survey, 68 percent of UBC students reported that symptoms of depression, anxiety, or stress had negatively affected their academic performance.
With students spending a considerable amount of time in class, a project at UBC is exploring how teaching practices can affect student wellbeing—and how adopting simple strategies can make a big difference.
A new area of study
“Student are seeing or interacting with faculty on an ongoing basis, and we inevitably [have] a very major impact on student wellbeing,” says Michael Lee, a senior instructor in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at UBC.
Lee is part of an interdisciplinary team of faculty, staff, and students that, for the past two years, has been researching the relationship between teaching and wellbeing.
The time students spend interacting with faculty can be significant. In the faculties of Arts and Science—the two faculties the team studied—students with a full course load can spend 15 hours or more in class each week.
Yet there has been little research in higher education about the impact of instructional practices on student wellbeing. After receiving funding in 2015 for a Small Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF) Project, the team began to explore this topic.
Data was collected through the 2015 and 2016 Undergraduate Experiences Survey, completed by thousands of students across campus. Students were asked, for example, to rate the impact certain teaching practices had on their mental health and wellbeing. The team also conducted student focus groups and instructor interviews.
“None of [the strategies] were new to us at all,” says Lee. As the team discovered, the strategies that improve student wellbeing are the same strategies that follow basic best practices of teaching.
The team organized the results into three themes and created a reflection tool with suggested strategies for each theme. Strategies are colour-coded based on their ease of implementation.
Student wellbeing is supported when their learning (and motivation to learn) is supported
The team found that wellbeing is improved when students are engaged with the learning process and feel motivated to learn. Lee notes the importance of structuring courses effectively and making subject matter interesting, relevant, and meaningful to students.
Strategies for instructors include sharing your passion and enthusiasm for a topic and setting key course dates earlier so students know what to expect.
Student wellbeing and learning are supported when students feel a sense of connection and social belonging
Wellbeing can also be improved when students feel connected to their peers and instructors. When students feel connected to each another, it can motivate them to attend class and support their studying outside of class. Lee points to strategies such as encouraging group work and maintaining the same groups throughout the term.
When students feel connected to instructors, it can motivate them to work harder and feel more comfortable reaching out for help. According to Lee, this is key to creating a supportive environment.
“The most important and the most exciting thing is seeing that [we’re] creating a learning community,” he says. “Students really feel that, in fact, I see you not only as a teacher, but I see you as part of our group in here. I can speak to you. I can ask you questions.”
Student wellbeing is enhanced when students are holistically supported
The third factor is recognizing that students’ experience extends beyond academics—for instructors, this means openly discussing wellbeing-related topics and creating a safe classroom environment.
To holistically support students, strategies include setting office hours that accommodate students’ schedule and letting students know about campus resources.
Last fall, the team began to share their findings with faculty through workshops, events, and conferences. The findings, Lee stresses, are not meant to overwhelm instructors, or make them feel like they have to implement every strategy. Rather, it is a reminder for faculty to reflect on what practices they’re using, and how they might adapt new practices for their specific class context.
Lee points to examples of how he’s changed his own teaching. “Instead of doing the usual didactic teaching, I’m using a lot of active engagement in my classroom,” he says. “I’ve been bringing more and more office hours to my students, so they can come and discuss issues with me.”
According to Lee, by thinking about effective teaching strategies, instructors are already addressing student wellbeing. He remarks, “We don’t have to do extra work. What we need to do is just be mindful of what we’re doing, and do it diligently.”
From theory to practice
This spring, the team received funding for a new Large TLEF Project. Using their research and findings, they will be testing specific classroom strategies and measuring their impact on student wellbeing.
The project will involve lead faculty members across six project sites in the faculties of Arts, Science, Land and Food Systems, as well as the Allard School of Law and UBC Okanagan.
“We’re testing to see if we make this change to the learning environment, how it will impact the student experience—their learning, their wellbeing, and their academic tenacity,” explains Patty Hambler, director of Health Promotion and Education within Student Development & Services at UBC.
Projects sites are currently being developed, and will be launched in September 2017 and January 2018. By objectively measuring the impact of teaching practices on student wellbeing, the team hopes to show that certain practices can be worth the effort and investment.
“It seemed like a natural continuation of our Small TLEF Project,” Hambler says, “to really build off what we learned and take it to the next level of rigour for the academic community.”
An evolving conversation
When looking at the conversation around mental health and wellbeing on university campuses, the team has noticed a promising shift.
Lee notes that in the past, topics such as pedagogy and technology dominated discussions around higher education. Now, there is an increasing effort to address themes such as wellbeing, inclusivity, and diversity. UBC has signaled their commitment by recently investing $2.5 million into mental wellbeing on campus.
Minnie Teng, a student in UBC’s Master of Occupational Therapy program and the knowledge translation coordinator for the project, says that the project has shown her just how diligently instructors work to improve student wellbeing. She notes that when students are overwhelmed with schoolwork and other obligations, it’s easy to assume that instructors, and the university, simply don’t care.
“Oftentimes as a student, you don’t think about how much effort an instructor attempts to put into their teaching,” Teng says. “This project has opened my eyes to how much care and thought instructors put into making their lessons—not just as a way to pass on knowledge, but also as a way to promote wellbeing.”
Hambler hopes the campus community will continue moving forward—and consider proactive ways to create an environment where all students can thrive.
“I think one of the shifts that’s maybe starting to happen is recognizing that it’s more than supporting students who are struggling,” she says. “It’s also about what we can do for all students across campus to make the university a better place, and a more health-promoting place.”
The team is wrapping up their Small TLEF Project, ensuring that resources are readily available, and working to launch the project sites for their new Large TLEF Project.
In line with the Okanagan Charter, they hope to embed wellbeing across all aspects of the university, including teaching, learning, and research. This project, Hambler says, can help them get closer to their goal.
“I hope through this project, we’ve made it easier for faculty to have that positive impact on student wellbeing, and to better understand the connection between wellbeing and learning. My hope is that students come to UBC, and they leave healthier than when they got here.”
The team wants to continue creating a dialogue on campus, and reach out to more instructors across faculties. Teng hopes that students will also encourage their instructors to adopt these approaches. “If we can gain more student buy-in on this initiative, then we can promote it to a broader audience,” Teng says, noting that it may be more meaningful when instructors hear directly from their students.
“Our belief is if we have more and more people picking up some of these practices, then we can start creating some grassroots changes,” Lee adds. “Trying to change the culture is not something you can do overnight. This is going to be a long journey, but we’re doing it one step at a time.”
Bringing Theory to Practice. The well-being and flourishing of students. Retrieved from Association of American Colleges & Universities website: https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/CLDE/BTtoPWellbeingInitiative.pdf
Canadian Association of College and University Student Services and Canadian Mental Health Association. (2013). Post-secondary student mental health: Guide to a systemic approach. Retrieved from https://healthycampuses.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/The-National-Guide.pdf
Dweck, C. S., Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Academic tenacity: Mindsets and skills that promote long-term learning. Retrieved from https://ed.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/manual/dweck-walton-cohen-2014.pdf
Lee, M., Hambler, P., Lane, K., Wada, M., Barnes, S. J., & Moore, N. (2016). Identifying the influence of teaching practices on undergraduate students’ mental health and wellbeing in the Faculties of Arts and Science. Poster session presented at the 2016 TLEF Showcase, Vancouver, Canada. Poster retrieved from http://tlef2.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2016/05/TLEF-Poster_April-21.pdf
Teaching Practices & Student Mental Health TLEF 2015-17. How Teaching Practices Influence Student Mental Health and Wellbeing. Retrieved from https://blogs.ubc.ca/teachingandwellbeing
UBC Faculty of Medicine. Mental Health Needs Assessment. Retrieved from http://mhna.ubc.ca
UBC Wellbeing. Teaching + Learning Resources. Retrieved from https://wellbeing.ubc.ca/teaching-learning-resources
Feature photo (left to right):Front row – Patty Hambler, Erin Yun, Katherine Moore; Back row – Lisa Brunner, Diana Jung, Karen Smith, Steven Barnes; Not pictured – Michael Lee, Gulnur Birol, Judy Chan, Natasha Moore