* This article first appeared on teaching professor On July 8, 2019. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
The mental health of college students currently receives a great deal of attention. Over the past few years, the frequency and severity of mental health problems reported on college campuses have increased dramatically. In a recent survey, 64 percent of respondents identified mental health issues as a reason to drop out of college. Students have reported that stress and anxiety are the primary factors that influence an individual student’s academic performance (American College Health Association, 2017).
Universities are struggling to figure out how to tackle this serious health concern. What we need is a comprehensive strategy that invites all members of the university community to commit to a common vision – one that supports student learning and well-being. This leads to the question I’m interested in exploring: Are there practices teachers can implement in their courses that support this vision? Although many instructors may feel that it is not their responsibility and that they do not have the training to act as de facto advisors, there are teaching strategies, which are not difficult to implement, that can support student learning and well-being.
Create a supportive learning environment
The course climate can influence learning experiences and outcomes. Thus, the teacher must create an environment conducive to learning – a space where students feel safe, supported and encouraged to discuss issues and ask questions.
Adopting a student-centered teaching philosophy is essential to creating an environment that fosters student learning and well-being. This means creating experiences for active participation, where students’ needs, curiosity, and interests are directed. The instructor becomes a facilitator, co-creating the learning experience with the students, who share the responsibility for learning.
Supportive learning environments foster positive relationships between faculty, students, and students. While teaching first-year students, I realized how important it is for college students to discover that there are individuals in the school who care about their lives and future, and teachers who care about their students’ academic success and personal well-being.
Faculty members can convey this concern in many ways – by listening, by showing mutual respect, and by showing empathy. If students realize that the teacher cares, they are more likely to take that teacher’s advice about campus support resources such as learning centers and extension services. They may listen more intently when interested teachers encourage their participation in health and fitness activities, clubs, organizations, and regular visits with their counsellor. The college can invite a support team to the class to introduce themselves and provide students with information about their services. Peer mentors can also contribute to a supportive learning environment. The research provides evidence of the important role peer mentors can play in helping students deal with the many challenges they may face in college.
Employ pedagogical methods that enhance learning and well-being
In addition to the learning environment, teaching strategies shape course experiences and learning outcomes. Many educational approaches engage students in the academic learning process while meeting their personal and social needs.
Culturally appropriate pedagogy (CRP) is a great example. Uses students’ culturally diverse backgrounds to enhance the learning experience. CRP engagement strategies focus on encouraging students to share their personal stories and to integrate learning into students’ lives outside of school. Providing opportunities for social participation is another example of how teachers can promote student development and well-being. Peer social interactions can increase learning through the exchange of ideas and foster a sense of community.
In a study I conducted at my first-year seminar, students identified making friends with their peers as the most important factor that contributed to developing their sense of belonging. Students’ sense of belonging can be encouraged in courses by including community building activities, use of assignments that require students to attend campus events with classmates, form study groups, and work on group learning and service projects. Students in the study reported that making friends with their classmates helped them expand their friend networks, make them feel “fit in”, and increase their involvement in campus life.
Implement teaching practices that enhance student learning and well-being that benefit students, faculty, and the institution. On an individual level, students’ learning experiences may lead to positive relationships with their teachers and peers. These relationships can provide students with a sense of support that reduces anxiety and stress and contributes to their academic success. At the faculty level, adopting a holistic approach to teaching and learning allows teachers to make an important contribution to issues related to mental health, and is instrumental in helping students succeed in college and beyond. At the institutional level, by adopting a comprehensive integrated approach and providing the necessary resources to support the initiative, universities can demonstrate a strong commitment to addressing this serious health concern.
Although the practice of teaching is only one of many factors that affect student well-being, courses can serve as important locations to help students feel connected to each other and to the university community. Effective treatment of this health crisis requires a shift in thinking. It states that all members of the university community work together to help students develop the knowledge, skills, and attributes required to be healthy, intellectually engaged and civic citizens.
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Michelle C. Everett, Ph.D., was most recently a lecturer for interdisciplinary studies at Coastal Carolina University. Her responsibilities included teaching and coordinating first-year experience and peer mentorship programs. Her research focuses on teaching and learning in higher education, with a particular interest in strategies for student engagement and well-being and interdisciplinary methods of knowledge.
American College Health Association. (2017). American College Health Association National College Health Assessment 2: Executive Summary for Fall 2016 Reference Group. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association. Retrieved from https://www.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-II_FALL_2016_REFERENCE_GROUP_EXECUTIVE_SUMMARY.pdf