*This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on July 8, 2019. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
College student mental health is currently receiving a great deal of attention. Over the last few years, the frequency and severity of mental health issues reported on college campuses has dramatically increased. In a recent survey, 64 percent of respondents identified mental health–related issues as a reason for no longer attending college. Students reported stress and anxiety as the top two factors affecting individual student academic performance (American College Health Association, 2017).
Universities are grappling with how to address this serious health concern. What is needed is a comprehensive strategy that calls on all members of the university community to commit to a shared vision—one that supports student learning and well-being. This leads to the question I’m interested in exploring: Are there practices that 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 serve as de facto counselors, there are teaching strategies, most not difficult to implement, that can support student learning and well-being.
Creating a supportive learning environment
The climate of a course can influence learning experiences and outcomes. Consequently, the instructor should create an environment that is conducive for learning —a space where students feel safe and supported and are encouraged to discuss issues and ask questions.
Adopting a student-centered teaching philosophy is essential for creating an environment that promotes student learning and well-being. This means creating experiences for active engagement, whereby student needs, curiosities, and interests guide instruction. The instructor becomes a facilitator, cocreating the learning experience with students, who share the responsibility for learning.
Supportive learning environments foster positive faculty-student and student-student relationships. In teaching first-year students, I have realized how important it is for college students to discover that there are individuals at the school who care about their lives and their futures, teachers who care about their students’ academic success and their personal well-being.
Faculty can convey this concern in many ways—by listening, demonstrating mutual respect, and showing empathy. If students perceive that a teacher cares, they are more likely to take that teacher’s advice about campus support resources such as learning centers and counseling services. They may listen more attentively when caring teachers encourage their participation in health and fitness activities, clubs and organizations, and regular visits with their advisor. Faculty can invite support staff to class to introduce themselves and provide students with information about their services. Peer mentors can also contribute to a supportive learning environment. Research provides evidence for the significant role peer mentors can play in helping students deal with the many challenges they may encounter in college.
Employing pedagogies that promote learning and well-being
In addition to the learning environment, teaching strategies shape course experiences and learning outcomes. Several instructional methods engage students in the academic learning process while addressing their personal and social needs.
Culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) is a great example. It uses students’ culturally diverse backgrounds to enhance the learning experience. Strategies for engaging in CRP focus on encouraging students to share their personal stories and integrating learning within students’ lives outside of school. Providing opportunities for social engagement is another example of how teachers can promote student development and well-being. Social interactions between peers can increase learning through the exchange of ideas and foster a sense of community and belonging.
In a study I conducted in my first-year seminar, students identified forming friendships with classmates 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, using assignments that require students to attend campus events with classmates, forming study groups, and working on group and service-learning projects. Students in the study reported that forming friendships with classmates helped them expand their networks of friends, made them feel like they “fit in,” and increased their participation in campus life.
Implementing teaching practices that foster student learning and well-being benefit individual students, faculty, and the institution. At the individual level, students’ learning experiences may result in positive relationships with their instructors 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, embracing a holistic approach to teaching and learning allows instructors to make an important contribution to mental health–related issues and is instrumental in helping students succeed in college and beyond. At the institutional level, by adopting a comprehensive integrated approach and providing the resources necessary to support the initiative, universities can demonstrate a strong commitment to addressing this serious health concern.
Although teaching practice is only one of many factors that influence student well-being, courses can serve as important sites for helping students feel connected to each other and to the university community. Effectively addressing this health crisis requires a shift in thinking. It mandates that all members of the university community work together to help students develop the knowledge, skills, and attributes required to be healthy, intellectually and civically engaged citizens.
Michele C. Everett, PhD, was recently a lecturer of interdisciplinary studies at Coastal Carolina University. Her responsibilities included teaching and coordinating the first-year experience and peer mentor programs. Her research focuses on teaching and learning in higher education, with specific interest in strategies for student engagement, well-being, and interdisciplinary ways of knowing.
American College Health Association. (2017). American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Reference group executive summary fall 2016. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association. Retrieved from https://www.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-II_FALL_2016_REFERENCE_GROUP_EXECUTIVE_SUMMARY.pdf