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Best Practices

The LTO Best Practices

Issue No. 72: Mental Wellbeing in the Classroom

Welcome to the seventy-second issue of The LTO Best Practices. Each month, the Learning & Teaching Office will be spotlighting a timely topic in education.

This issue is based on a workshop delivered by Natalie Roach, Mental Health Coordinator for Workplace Wellbeing Services and Student Health and Wellness.

Classroom practices that support mental wellbeing are just one part of a three-part system for increasing accessibility and inclusivity in teaching at Ryerson. Two of these three parts, flexibility in teaching and learning [pdf] and Universal Design for Learning [pdf] have been discussed in previous Teaching Tips documents. This issue of Best Practices will focus on the third.

This issue is also available for download as a pdf.

Check out our page of Teaching Tips handouts for more downloadable documents on a variety of teaching topics.

What is Mental Wellbeing?

The Public Health Agency of Canada defines positive mental health as “the capacity of each and all of us to feel, think, act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face.”

As instructors, it’s important to keep in mind that our students may often “find it difficult to maintain emotional health and wellbeing because of the many adjustments they must make when attending university, such as having to balance academics with life commitments” (Ryerson Mental Wellbeing).

A 2016 National College Health Assessment found four major mental health-related inhibitors to academic success at Ryerson: stress (45%), anxiety (33%), sleep difficulties (31%), and depression (25%). In a snapshot of students from 2016, Ryerson students reported:  

Anytime in the last 12 months

2010

2013

2016

Felt so depressed that it was difficult to function

37%

44%

49%

Felt overwhelmed

56%

61%

89%

Seriously considered suicide

7%

12%

15%

Attempted suicide

1%

2%

3%

 

Mental Wellbeing and Learning

When students struggle mentally, the impact manifests itself in academic performance. Stress, anxiety, and depression “decrease students’ intellectual and emotional flexibility, weaken their creativity, and undermine their interest in new knowledge, ideas, and experiences” (Douce & Keeling, 2014). Depression can suppress the brains ability to form new memories. Chronic stress has been shown to reduce “the desire to explore new ideas and to solve problems” (Stixrud, 2012).

Because mental health is the most frequently cited student challenge, and the most frequently identified impact is academic performance, it makes sense that one clear site for intervention could be the classroom (Patterson & Kline, 2008). To support student learning, instructors should aim to create conditions supporting mental wellbeing, and thus learning, through teaching practices. Instructors can benefit from a supportive classroom environment as well—in the words of Jennifer Poole, Associate Professor in Ryerson’s School of Social Work, creating a classroom environment that supports mental well being leads to “more engaged and committed students, better relationships, [and] higher work quality.”

Classroom Practices to Support Mental Wellbeing

Simon Fraser University has mapped out a set of inter-connected conditions for creating wellbeing in the learning environment.

  1. Positive Classroom Culture: “Creating an enjoyable and welcoming classroom culture can enhance positive wellbeing for students and instructors. This can be accomplished through humour, inspiration, open-mindedness, connecting with students or deeply engaging them in their learning.”
  2. Optimal Challenge: “Students perform and feel their best when they are challenged, but have adequate resources to meet the challenge.”
  3. Social Connection: “Facilitating interaction helps students build social networks which foster resilience and are an asset to well-being. Social connection in the class can help create a sense of community and positive classroom culture.”
  4. Flexibility: “Providing students with some flexibility over their learning experiences helps them to feel empowered and supported, contributing to their well-being.” Read more about teaching strategies that support flexible learning [pdf].
  5. Personal Development: “By providing opportunities for personal and professional growth in class you can increase students’ skills, resiliency and preparedness for the future.”
  6. Inclusivity: “An inclusive learning environment demonstrates an intentional consideration for all students and in doing so, can enhance positive well-being.” Visit the LTO’s page of resources for Supporting Your Students.
  7. Real-life Learning: “By connecting learning to life you offer students opportunities to build their personal skills and confidence in their future.” Read more about engaging students with experiential learning [pdf].
  8. Services and Supports: “The in-class experience provides an important opportunity to connect students with resources that can support their personal well-being and readiness to learn.” Visit the website for Ryerson Student Affairs, including Student Learning Support and Mental Wellbeing.
  9. Instructor Support: “As an instructor you play an important role in setting a positive and supportive tone that can go a long way in helping students to feel welcome and at ease.”
  10. Civic Engagement: “Providing students with opportunities to make a valued contribution through their coursework can boost their emotional well-being.”

Instructor Behaviour

In 12 of 38 studies reviewed by Orr and Bachman-Hammig, instructor behavior was a powerful contributor to the quality of students’ experiences (2009). Empathy and approachability were highly valued attributes, as well as respectful, positive, and understanding instructors. For students, feeling that the classroom was a caring and safe environment took precedence. Approachability and empathy have also been identified as effective teacher characteristics when working with adult learners (LTO Teaching Tips: New Methods in Adult Education [pdf]).

Students also appreciated when faculty didn’t hesitant to work with them, and in fact many students valued faculty mentorship as “equally important to the postsecondary experience as academic learning” (Orr & Bachman-Hammig, 2009).

Simple ways to demonstrate approachability and empathy can include sharing mistakes, being flexible and inclusive in both teaching style as well as assessment methods, and using the course outline and D2L to connect students with supports. Instructors can also think about ways to infuse course content with wellbeing topics, as in the Engelhard Project at Georgetown University, which tries to find “opportunities within the regular academic content… where topics of mental health, wellness and student well-being can be highlighted, linked to course content and also considered from a personal perspective.”  

To see our work cited, please download the PDF version of this issue.

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Training and Support at Ryerson

The Ryerson Mental Wellbeing website provide students, staff and faculty, and families of students to get help, help others, and/or find out more about mental wellbeing. The site provides links to services and resources available on-campus, in the community, and online to improve and gain an awareness of mental wellbeing.

The Centre for Student Development and Counselling (CSDC) offers free, confidential counseling services for students in crisis.

Faculty and staff are invited to participate in Mental Health 101, a training session on how to respond to students who may be in mental health distress. Please contact Natalie Roach (natalie.roach@ryerson.ca) to find out more on upcoming sessions. 

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"The LTO Best Practices" is produced monthly by Michelle Schwartz, Instructional Design and Research Strategist at the Learning & Teaching Office of Ryerson University.

Do you have any thoughts, suggestions, or best practices that you would like to see appear in this newsletter? Please send all submissions to michelle.schwartz@ryerson.ca. We look forward to including your contributions in our next issue!

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