“According to the latest research on college students and mental health, three out of 10 students have struggled with depression in the last two weeks, and over one in four have expressed issues with anxiety. Even more distressing is the one in 20 college students who had created a suicide plan in the past year (Higher Education Today, 2022).”
For several years, the University of Minnesota has focused on a wide range of empirically-based initiatives, learning sciences research, and recommendations, including the current President’s Initiative for Student Mental Health (PRISMH) to support and promote student mental health and well-being across the UMN community (CEI, 2022; JTFSMH, 2017; UMN survey, 2019; PRISMH, 2022).
Integral to these efforts, the Center for Educational Innovation (CEI) designed and delivered several faculty development opportunities focusing on research-based teaching and learning strategies that support student mental health and well-being. Core strategies addressed in all programming include the intersectionality of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), trauma-informed pedagogy, clarity, flexibility, diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racist pedagogy.
These pedagogies provide instructors a powerful opportunity to create learning environments that effectively support all students, minimize student stress, and support overall student mental health, without sacrificing academic rigor. Instructors who develop and deliver courses with evidence-based principles of teaching and learning ease course-related student stress, and maximize both student mastery and well-being (Kaler, et al, 2021). Described below are three ways that instructors support student well-being and mental health.
1. Use strategies that provide clarity
Both UDL and trauma-informed pedagogies document the importance of clarity (CAST, 2022; Hanover, 2019). Clarity provides predictability and structure, which mitigates student stress by keeping one calm and not taxing the nervous system. The following includes a few strategies and examples to ensure clarity:
- A clear, inclusive syllabus with a course calendar of class activities, routines, materials, links to rubrics, etc.
- A clear description of grading policies in your syllabus
- A transparent, clear list/description of all assignments and deadlines directly in syllabus
- Clear verbal and written directions for all course assignments, activities, and assessments
- Clear communications, instructions, and feedback. Provide frequent written and verbal reminders. This is especially helpful for students who experienced any past or current traumatic event(s); this includes experiences such as the pandemic, any form of social injustice, adverse childhood experiences (ACES), under-representation, etc. (Wisner, 2022).
- A clear agenda for each class. Consistent, structured, and predictable expectations help keep nervous systems in check.
- Clear expectations for all assignments, homework, activities, etc. A clear rubric with observable, measurable terms helps increase mastery and student well-being.
2. Use strategies that provide flexibility
Both empirically-based UDL and trauma-informed approaches also employ flexibility, which increases student well-being by providing choice and a sense of student control, autonomy, and empowerment. Instructors infuse flexibility into their courses by incorporating any of the following strategies described below:
- Course-related flexibility strategies
- Flexible assignment deadlines such as providing options to submit one to two assignments beyond a stated deadlineAttendance policy that allows one or more absences without repercussionsVaried course formats such as courses with synchronous, asynchronous, or hybrid sessions/activities, that incorporate engaging teaching strategies (CEI, 2022; Penn State, 2022)Deadline policies that promote healthy sleep patterns such as early evening deadlines rather than midnight deadlines Supporting downtime during holiday breaks for students to destress without working on a major assignment due directly after a holiday break
- Scaffolding deadlines to submit parts of long-term, large assignments/projects, rather than one overall submission, especially near the end of the semester. This form of scaffolding mitigates course-related student distress (GCU, 2023).
- Flexible assessment & grading strategies
- Equitable grading formats that use both clear rubrics with observable, measurable criteria and frequent formative assessments that allow for revisions (Eddy & Hogan, 2014)Meaningful feedback that helps students focus on mastery, including the option to submit drafts prior to final submissionFrequent assignments with less weight, including authentic, alternative assessments (simulations, portfolios, projects, demonstrations, presentations, exhibits, papers, etc.)Course points distributed across multiple assignments, activities, and assessments, including the option to drop lowest grade on an exam/quiz or assignmentGrades based on competence for all to succeed such as contract grading formats (Melzer et al, 2022), open book exams, and take-home exams; avoid bell curve grading as this tends to increase student distress.Using study guides, case studies, and application problems, etc. to help students focus on, apply, and master critical course content/competenciesWorking together during class in a non-graded and nonjudgmental environment on the most difficult problems and applications, so students can successfully apply item(s) of similar difficulty on assessmentsPractice exams that are as difficult as upcoming exams. This helps to both mitigate course-related stress and prepare students for high critical thinking levels expected for course mastery.
- Brief review sessions near the end of several class sessions
Integrate diverse, equitable/anti-racist, and inclusive (DEI) teaching and learning strategies
In the article, Effective Teaching is Anti-Racist Teaching, the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning authors (2022) document the powerful connection between effective teaching and anti-racist pedagogy. This connection highlights the importance of using anti-racist teaching approaches, including the previously described clarity and flexibility strategies that also comprise equitable, anti-racist teaching.
- Additional inclusive, anti-racist teaching strategies and recommendations to consider:
- Design an intentional, inclusive syllabus (Columbia CTL, 2022);
- Incorporate diverse class content with diverse perspectives;
- Employ inclusive, engaging teaching strategies across course formats (in-person, online, etc.) such as:think-pair-share, muddiest point, jigsaw, case studies, application activities, compare & contrast perspectives activities, critical reflection opportunities, cooperative and collaborative projects, work groups, study groups, discussion groups, frequent student-teacher interaction, etc. (Yale, 2022; CEI, 2022; Michigan CRLT, 2022);
- Use cognitive helpers to avoid cognitive overload; examples include chunking information, checklists, signaling important information with bold text, etc. (Almog, 2019; Triandafilide, 2020).
- Create guidelines/ground rules with the students for class discussions; examples include: we attack ideas, not people; everyone can speak twice and then wait for all to share at least once; one talks at a time; we do not speak for an entire culture or ethnicity, etc.
- Amplify and encourage a climate of micro-affirmations (Sheridan CTL, 2022) such as active listening, and validating student experiences and feelings.
- Limit peer comparison bell curve grading by using criterion-referenced assessments such as: projects, presentations, group assessments, portfolios, papers, rubrics, exhibits, posters, demonstrations, multiple drafts for students to demonstrate learning progress prior to final grading, etc. (Education Reform, 2014):
- Provide visual, verbal/audio, and cognitive cues (i.e., guidelines, principles, rules, self-talk).
- Incorporate scaffolding techniques to support critical thinking and mastery:
- Partially-worked examples
- Visual and verbal prompts
- Mental rehearsals
- Breaking down projects into parts, setting due dates for sections of a large assignment)
- Partially completed case studies or problems when teaching complex concepts or procedures.
- Consider Group and Team-based activities such as Team-based learning [(TBL), Vanderbilt, 2013] where small groups compete and master complex content in a safe, non-judgmental environment (e.g., students first complete case or questions alone, then complete again with their group, and finally share answers by competing with other groups)
I hope this brief overview validates many ways that you already support your students’ mental health. And I hope that you consider using an additional strategy or two that further solidifies your students’ well-being and mental health!
Deb Wingert, PhD, serves as an education program specialist at the University of Minnesota Center for Educational Innovation. She is a subject-matter expert for the President’s Initiative for Student Mental Health (PRISMH). Over the last several years, she developed and facilitated extensive faculty development webinars, workshops, and programs focusing on empirically-based teaching and learning strategies that support student mental health and well-being.
References and Resources
Almog, N. (2019) How to avoid cognitive overload during learning. https://blogs.oracle.com/oracleuniversity/post/how-to-avoid-cognitive-overload-during-learning (retrieved January 2, 2023).
CAST (2022). About universal design for learning. https://www.cast.org/impact/universal-design-for-learning-udl (retrieved January 2, 2023).
CEI (2022). Active learning. https://cei.umn.edu/teaching-resources/active-learning (retrieved January 2, 2023).
CEI (2022). Learning science principles for instructors. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Tgb-CRZJQYI0n8jfJNiJHjSXK-9lZGfbojcxGEJwkcw/edit (retrieved January 2, 2023).
Columbia CTL (2022). Designing an inclusive syllabus. https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/resources/designing-inclusive-syllabus/ (retrieved January 2, 2023)
Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2014). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work? CBE – Life Sciences Education, 13: 453-468. Available: http://www.lifescied.org/content/13/3/453.full
Education Reform (2014). Criterion-referenced test. https://www.edglossary.org/criterion-referenced-test/ (retrieved January 2, 2023).
Hanover Research (2019). Best practices for trauma-informed instruction. https://wasa-oly.org/WASA/images/WASA/6.0%20Resources/Hanover/BEST%20PRACTICES%20FOR%20TRAUMA-INFORMED%20INSTRUCTION%20.pdf (retrieved January 2, 2023).
Higher Education Today (2022). College student mental health and well-being. https://www.higheredtoday.org/policy-research/student-support-success/college-student-mental-health-well/ (retrieved January 2, 2023).
Joint Task Force on Student Mental Health (2017). Joint task force on student mental health recommendations. https://provost.umn.edu/sites/provost.umn.edu/files/2020-03/jtfsmh_report_sept_2017.pdf (retrieved January 2, 2023).
Kaler, L., Kazlauskaite, V., Li, Y., & Wingert, D. (2021). Graduate Students’ Course-Related Stress and Stress Management. Journal of Behavioral and Social Sciences, 8(1), 186-199.
Melzer, D., Quinn, D.J., Sperber, L., & Fave, S. (2022). So your instructor is using contract grading. https://writingcommons.org/article/so-your-instructor-is-using-contract-grading/ (retrieved January 2, 2023).
Michigan CRLT (2022). Strategies for online teaching. https://crlt.umich.edu/tstrategies/tsot (retrieved January 2, 2023).
Penn State (2022). Resources and strategies for engaging students. https://teaching.ist.psu.edu/teaching-students/engaging (retrieved January 2, 2023).
PRISMH (2022). President’s Initiative for Student Mental Health: A new initiative takes shape. https://twin-cities.umn.edu/news-events/prismh-new-initiative-takes-shape (retrieved January 2, 2023).
Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. (2022). Effective teaching is anti-racist teaching. https://www.brown.edu/sheridan/teaching-learning-resources/inclusive-teaching/effective-teaching-anti-racist-teaching (retrieved January 2, 2023).
Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning (2022) Microaggressions and micro-affirmations: Opportunities for learning and inclusion. https://www.brown.edu/sheridan/microaggressions-and-micro-affirmations-0 (retrieved, 2023)
Smith-Haghighi, A. (2022). What to know about microaggressions. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/microagressions (retrieved January 2, 2023).
Triandafilide, J. (2020). Online teaching: preventing the risk of cognitive overload. https://www.cambridge.org/elt/blog/2020/10/09/online-teaching-preventing-the-risk-of-cognitive-overload/ (retrieved January 2, 2023).
UMN Survey – Wingert, D., Wick, S., PCSMHFI, & PACTLT (2019). Results from the 2019 UMN student course-related stress survey. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ZJLrFF-2My5fgOYKUHJulmQS4L2uKXNt/view (unpublished executive summary retrieved January 2, 2023).
Vanderbilt Center for Teaching and Learning (2022). Team-based learning. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/team-based-learning/ (retrieved January 2, 2023).
Wisner, W. (2022). What are adverse childhood experiences (ACES)? https://www.verywellmind.com/what-are-aces-adverse-childhood-experiences-5219030 (retrieved January 2, 2023).
Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning (2022). Inclusive teaching strategies. https://poorvucenter.yale.edu/InclusiveTeachingStrategies (retrieved January 2, 2023).