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Building a Culture of Well-being in Your Courses

Mon Feb 12, 2024 at 07:30 AM

University is a time of transition: for younger students newly out of high school, it is the transition toward adulthood, independence, agency, and identity development. While these can be positive changes, they come with tremendous pressure. For other students, it is a transition of career identity that takes on additional life responsibilities. These compounding factors can challenge one’s wellness and ability to learn. Life needs are learning needs.

While excellent training opportunities can show us how to help people in crisis, we should also strive to build a culture of well-being in our courses to help students feel equipped to face temporary or deeply rooted mental health challenges.

Proactive Well-Being Steps

Prepare multiple communication points. 
A good first step is adding a mental health statement in the syllabus. Referring back to aspects of that statement in ways that are time appropriate further communicates your acknowledgement of mental health as an ongoing need. Some real-time or online messaging options include the following: 

  1. Intermittently plan messages to maintain mental well-being, such as our student-audience learning tip: Essential Conditions for Learning and OU Resources for Student Immediate Needs.
  2. Specify concerns that may come up related to the course activities (see Lisa Hawley’s examples in Recognizing and Addressing Student Mental Health Concerns).
  3. If you use the Rec Center, tell students about going and how it helps aspects of your holistic health and work. Direct them to student well-being opportunities accordingly.
  4. Remind students 1-2 times per semester of key information in the syllabus’ mental health statement.
  5. Check in with students either through feedback or other activities. Asking questions that encourage students to reflect may provide them a space to articulate their current challenges and/or emotional state. 

Describe normal stress and anxiety. 
As students on their own for the first time, they may not acknowledge the importance of their mental and physical well-being and how these aspects lend themselves to navigating stress and anxiety. State that it is normal to experience academic struggles in college courses and validate the challenges students may face without glorifying toxic amounts of stress (e.g., pulling all-nighters, consuming high levels of substances to stay alert). You could indicate to students in your course that certain parts of the semester will be difficult but certain actions can help them persist. Two sections on “Test Jitters: Situational Anxiety” and “Chronic Anxiety” in Essential Conditions for Learning help students distinguish their anxious experiences.

Increase awareness of mental health struggle. 
While we want students to take a measured, cautious approach to their stress and anxiety, young adulthood is a common time for mental health issues to surface. Therefore, it can still go a long way to normalize the need to care for mental health. 

Share that students can take advantage of support groups offered by the Counseling Center to learn more about mental health, from managing anxiety to building social skills. For example, if your course requires giving a presentation or working in groups, you can share that these support groups build related skills.

Explicitly link physical well-being to mental well-being and academic performance.
Many studies show the importance of a good diet, movement, and sleep and how these aspects can influence learning. Consider how you can build such behaviors into a course. For example, give students a challenge: get 8 hours of sleep per night the week before an exam, showing how the benefits have been researched (Scullin, 2018). OU Rec Well can also help facilitate student well-being opportunities that you want to encourage. 

Identify learning stress bottlenecks, and fix them with OU partners.
In addition, consider how you can proactively reduce or balance stress in your course design and activity pacing. Work with CETL and the Academic Success Center to reduce students’ stress that can come with high-stakes assessments. Normalize academic success support early and often. 

Conclusion: Try Three

Some of these steps and resources likely resonate with you more than others; it may be because of your familiarity with these offices on campus, your own personal experiences, or the consistent problems you see your students encounter. From the strategies in this tip, identify and adapt three things that might help you build a culture of well-being in your courses.

References and Resources 

Select resources from Supporting Student Mental Health: Teaching Resources.

Save and adapt a Google Doc version of this teaching tip.

About the Author

Written by Christina Moore, associate director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Ideas inspired by OU colleagues during the January 2023 discussion “Student Mental Health: Faculty on the Front Line.” Others may share and adapt this blog post under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.

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