The number of our students disclosing a mental health condition has tripled since 2007/08 (ECU 2015: 76-77). The proportion of our students declaring a disability who disclose mental health conditions has more than doubled (ibid). Our students report significantly lower levels of mental wellbeing than the general population, with substantial differences in anxiety levels (Neves and Hillman 2016: 31-33). It is, perhaps, no wonder that we hear that the higher education (HE) sector is experiencing a “mental health crisis” (e.g. in The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The Tab), and that lecturers ask of the Higher Education Academy (HEA) advice on how they can work within this.
In response, the HEA has commissioned research and a toolkit on embedding mental wellbeing in the curriculum (Houghton and Anderson forthcoming; Lawrence forthcoming), understanding that mental health and mental wellbeing – whilst distinct – are interrelated and that a concentration on the latter can support students in their management of the former. In anticipation of these forthcoming publications, the HEA offices in York played host to a workshop, expertly facilitated by the toolkit author Dr Jenny Lawrence, in which lecturers, support staff and senior managers across the sector came together to explore, analyse and plan for learning and teaching that supports our students’ wellbeing. This blog piece is a personal reflection on just a few of the many rich ideas that emerged from the activities and discussions.
The workshop concentrated on how we can utilise the new economics foundation’s five ways of wellbeing (Aked et al 2008) when designing our learning, teaching and assessment practices, as advocated in the forthcoming research. That is to say, exploring the curriculum through the lens of:
- connecting: to the learning process, content and learning community;
- being active: including physical activity, active learning and the exercising of social and political agency;
- taking notice: of the learning community, curriculum content and personal response to both;
- giving: to the immediate learning or wider community;
- keeping learning: through the student life cycle and beyond.
Two things were immediately clear in our explorations of these. First, an understanding of boundaries: as lecturers we cannot control the mental wellbeing of our students. Mental wellbeing is affected by whole lived experiences of which the classroom is just a part. However, that is not to say we have no influence over our students’ mental wellbeing. The way we teach and the environment in which we do so can impact on student wellbeing, and thus on our students’ ability to learn. Still, that is also not to say that we should mollycoddle our students: learning is – and to be effective should be – uncomfortable and troublesome. Instead, we can ensure that the way we teach provides the most effective platform from which our students can learn, and this includes a platform that does not derail our students’ mental and educational resilience.
Second was an understanding that the five ways to wellbeing as applied to curriculum processes can be seen, in some ways, as simply good pedagogy. Active learning, learning in which we encourage students to take notice of how their lived experiences relate to curriculum content and their content to the wider world, learning that encourages interconnectivity and interdependency is learning that has been argued to support student success. Indeed, many of the delegates at the workshop were already practicing some of that which was discussed. Hence, the embedding mental wellbeing in the curriculum approach (as I understand it) is not asking lecturers to make additions to their current teaching approaches but instead to explore how their current teaching approaches work within the five ways model, and whether any existing activities might want to be reshaped to be more effective.
Further, it is unlikely that every class or even module would incorporate all five ways: this would be impractical and unwieldy. Instead, we can look at the most appropriate ways forward for our disciplines, our students and our institutions, accepting that where we might concentrate on one element in a specific context, we might do less with another, addressing it at another time. Many at the workshop noted that a programme approach to mainstreaming the five ways would, then, be best. This requires a team approach and implementation must be cognisant of and negotiate within the sometimes competing perspectives not just between staff, but also between individuals and programme teams, and between individuals and the institution as a whole. Lecturers need support from the centre if they are to implement a successful wellbeing-infused approach to learning and teaching, whichever approach is adopted.
Indeed, it was acknowledged in the workshop that the five ways approach was just one that could be adopted. The wider toolkit encourages staff, programmes and institutions to use it as a starting point through which to think about the embedding of mental wellbeing in the curriculum and from which they can develop their own ways forward. One way was explored by a subsection of delegates that flipped the workshop focus around. In addition to exploring how we can support our students to connect, be active, take notice, give and keep learning through our pedagogies, this group explored how we as lecturers teach in such a way that lives the five ways. How do we, they asked, connect to our students, take notice of them and the learning process, be active within this, learn through it, and give back? Such explorations move beyond the how of teaching into the relationships of teaching, encouraging us to explore the reciprocity of learning, and, you could argue, bringing the individual back to the heart of both mental wellbeing and the curriculum.
Aked, J. Marks, N. Cordon, C. and Thompson, S. (2008) Five ways to well-being: the evidence. A report presented to the Foresight Project on communicating the evidence base for improving people’s well-being. London: new economics foundation.
ECU (2015) Equality in higher education: statistical report 2015. Part 2: students. London: Equality Challenge Unit.
Hougton, A.M. and Anderson. J. (forthcoming) Embedding mental wellbeing in the curriculum: maximising success in higher education. York: Higher Education Academy.
Lawrence, J. L. (forthcoming) Maximising success in higher education: embedding mental wellbeing in the curriculum toolkit. York: Higher Education Academy.
Neves, J. and Hillman, N. (2016) The 2016 student academic experience survey. York and Oxford: Higher Education Academy and Higher Education Policy Institute.