Review: #EconTEAching Session 15: Designing Online Teaching with Student Well-Being in Mind, by Stefania Paredes Fuentes (University of Warwick)

Teaching and learning during a pandemic increased our awareness of the importance of well-being for learning. Learning is facilitated by positive emotions but may be hampered by negative ones, therefore well-being and learning are associated with one another. In this EconTEAching session, Jo Blanden (University of Surrey), Jonathan Boymal (RMIT), and Eric Golson (University of Surrey) shared their ideas and experience on “Teaching with Student Well-Being in Mind”.

The following points develop the key takes from this conversation, and what we can do moving forward.

How wellbeing affects learning?

Both wellbeing and students’ learning are affected by social and emotional aspects that can be embedded in our academic environments. Jonathan Boymal describes these as:

  1. Sense of belonging: The classroom is a social space and peer connections and lecturer-student connections matter. We all need to feel we belong to the space we share, whether this is a physical space or a virtual one.
  2. Purpose/meaning: It is important that students understand how what they do is valued and part of the bigger picture.
  3. Sense of agency: feeling in control over their learning helps students to adapt to the changing learning environment.
  4. Confidence: students need to feel they are getting better and master what they are learning.

These points were echoed by Jo Blanden who shared Surrey’s experience on the key aspects that matter for students’ engagement: development of personal connections with their lecturers and peers which helps to develop sense of belonging; access to resources which facilitates students’ engagement with the subject; clear expectations which helps to develop sense of agency as students know what to expect at any step in their learning, and motivation which contributes to build up confidence as motivated students tend to learn more.

Last year however showed us that there are other aspects that we usually take for granted, but the pandemic emphasised this should not be the case: good mental health and a suitable living/learning environment also affect how students learn.

Moving forward, we can’t ignore these aspects. We may leave the pandemic behind (fingers crossed!), but if we are really keen into improving our learning environments, we need to consider students’ wellbeing.

What can lecturers do? Small changes, big impact!

Now that we know that students’ wellbeing and academic achievement are both strengthened by positive academic environments, as lecturers we can make some small changes in our teaching practices that can make big differences for students learning. 

  • Length of classes: When preparing asynchronous material, a good starting point is to consider the cognitive load in each resource. We may be tempted to upload an hour of recorded lecture, mimicking what we do during face-to-face meetings. However, this is not necessarily the best practice. Think about shortening the material, perhaps based on specific topics. This can help students to maintain interest and split the work in smaller tasks, which makes it feel more achievable.
  • Learning outcomes: Try to explicitly state the learning outcome for each material you create/set. This helps not only students to keep focus and understand why they are doing what they are doing, but also help us lecturers to link the context of the specific material to the bigger picture.
  • Make the material engaging: If we want students to be engaged, we need to design the material in an engaging way. You can prepare couple of questions that students should be able to answer after engaging with the prepared content. This can provide a sense of purpose to engage with the material and keep them motivated. 
  • Positive spins on communication: Regular communication is important for students to feel connected with the subject and that their engagement matter. However, the content of the communication is relevant too. Intimidating communication (“we have noticed you didn’t watch the videos. If you don’t watch the lectures, you will fail the test”) may have a negative impact on students’ engagement, while positive twists on the same message can actually foster engagement (“we noticed you haven’t engaged with resource A, we find that students who engage with these resources in a timely matter, tend to achieve a higher mark in this module).
  • Use assessments to increase motivation: Rethinking the assessment structure moving away from assessments of learning (the case of high-stake assessments) to assessments for learning that can be used to maintain engagement helps. Lower-stake assessments scattered through the term, that allow students to demonstrate how they are engaging with the learning outcomes can help to foster motivation and engagement.

Offering first level of care through the curriculum can do a lot to support students’ well-being. Take-up of support available can be low, so by offering in-built support withing the curriculum may make a difference.

What institutions should do? More support is needed! 

Last year was not only tough on students. Staff also suffered from increased workloads and dealing with personal and professional lives who felt they merged on one unique block.

Eric Golson recognised that while some of the work developed last year can be reused in the new academic year, changes in the discipline will require a continuous update of our resources. The changes in teaching during the pandemic are not one-off but a lifetime change in workload, as students’ expectations have changed, and institutions have to recognise this on academic workloads.

Participants to the session were excited about the many ideas shared to help us to create resources that support our students, but small changes can’t address all the issues related to the new systems. We need institutional strategies on students (and staff) well-being support, if we want to thrive in the coming years. Stressed, overworked, and demotivated lecturers cannot create exciting and engaging learning environments. We can’t maintain a ‘response-mode’ on for the new academic year, and institutions have to step up and increase support in order to maintain teaching and learning quality standards.

Thank you all for pausing your marking sessions and joining us on this engaging chat. As usual, the participants to the session were very active and provided excellent questions and insights into their own practices. Thank you to the panel for the great session and leaving us with plenty of food for thought for the future and to the always good chair Cloda Jenkins (UCL, CTaLE) for keeping the discussion flowing smoothly!

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