Talking Teaching: Pedagogy of care and the role of faculty in student mental well-being

Every month our team of Instructional Designers meets for “Talking Teaching” – sessions where we share and discuss interesting articles, methods, and pedagogies. To start off the new academic year, we want to share a podcast that focuses on the role educators play in supporting student mental health.

The podcast we’d like to share with you this month:

The Role of Faculty in Student Mental Health (episode #373 from the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast). This podcast is free to access through your preferred provider.

Related resources we’d like to share with you this month:

ACUE Report: Creating a Culture of Caring: Practical Approaches for College and University Faculty to Support Student Wellbeing and Mental Health - This free faculty resource contains numerous easy-to-implement ideas and templates to heighten student awareness of mental health resources on your campus, and support your interactions with students expressing mental health concerns. 

Report: The Role of Faculty in Student Mental Health - Data from this report is discussed in the podcast conversation.

 In this blog, we’ll recap the podcast by sharing key trends and statistics regarding student mental well-being, as well as some practical tips they suggest for embedding a culture of care into your classroom policies.

Sobering statistics

According to the Healthy Minds Study, the past five years have seen a sharp increase in the prevalence of self-reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in college students. Unsurprisingly, the most recent data show that mental health has worsened further during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly half of the study population surveyed in fall of 2020 (over 1700 students pursuing a bachelor’s or graduate degree) reported having symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Students on a college campus

Mental health has a strong influence on academic performance, with over 80% of students reporting that their mental health negatively impacted their classroom work.

Additionally, trends in long-term data suggest that students with depression are twice as likely to drop out of college than those not reporting depressive symptoms.

As much as mental health impacts classroom performance, what happens within the classroom can also have an impact on mental health – both positively and negatively. For example, during the pandemic, students reported that the number one thing impacting their mental health was academics – specifically the uncertainty surrounding the flexibility of classroom policies for those struggling with their own mental wellness. 

Insights such as these led to the creation of the ACUE Report: Creating a Culture of Caring: Practical Approaches for College and University Faculty to Support Student Wellbeing and Mental Health. This is an excellent, free resource that you can share with your colleagues as a guide for how to engage in conversations about well-being with your students, and how to embed your courses with a pedagogy of care. 

Supporting educators to support students

If the past year has taught us nothing else, it’s that educators are real-life superheroes. You take on far more responsibilities than your listed job description because you truly care about your students’ health and success.

In fact, in a survey of over 1,600 faculty members at 12 colleges across the US, 80% of faculty surveyed said they were in some way involved in discussions with students about their mental health, and nearly 75% desired more training around how to discuss mental health needs with their students.

These statistics are a testament to the incredible nature of teachers. While this discussion is primarily focused on student mental health, it’s also acknowledged that there isn’t nearly enough focus on supporting faculty mental wellness. Educators have carried a heavy burden over the pandemic, and we need systemic change to ensure they have adequate resources and support to make their workload manageable and enjoyable. The more we can support educators, the better they can support students. If you'd like to read more on this topic, EdSurge has run a number of articles about poor support for educators on their blog, exploring rising demoralization, burnout, and suggesting ideas to overhaul the higher education system.

Although we can't address systemic change in this article, we would like to share some of the student-focused, practical tips that stuck out to us from the podcast and report:  

1. Put yourself in your learners’ shoes

Approachability was the number one thing students valued most in their educators! Starting off the semester by addressing your class with something as simple as, “I know how much I valued meeting new people and leaning on study groups when I went through college, and it must be really hard to not have that same level of in-person community.” Or, if you feel comfortable, sharing a time when you needed support can normalize asking for help.

Anything that imparts the message that we are all human with shared experiences of challenges, successes, highs, and lows can increase student comfort in your class. 

Other ways you can make yourself more approachable as an educator include:

  • Offering and promoting office hours.
  • If you are teaching online, making sure you have published a photo of yourself with a small bio.
  • Participating on discussion boards with students.
  • Checking in via email with students who might be struggling.
A chalkboard sign hanging on a post. The sign says in white chalk "Welcome please come in".

2. Validate-Appreciate-Refer (VAR)

If a student opens up to you about their mental health concerns, follow the Validate-Appreciate-Refer® model. It’s important to remember that the conversation is about them, so even if you’ve been through something similar, it’s best not to lead with your own experiences.

  • First, acknowledge their struggle with phrases like, “That sounds really difficult,” or “That makes sense.”
  • Next, let your student know they did a good thing by coming forward and sharing with phrases like, “Thank you for sharing this with me, that must have taken a lot of courage.”
  • Finally, refer students to relevant resources (professional and otherwise) that may support their wellness. 

3. Point students to mental health resources on campus

If your institute has made these clear to faculty, you can include these details in your syllabus, LMS, or email signature. Again, this normalizes asking for help and eliminates the barrier of students having to research where to find help on their own. 

If you or someone you know are struggling, the CDC provides a list of free and confidential resources. Note that the link given in this list to The Trevor Project's TrevorLifeline is not working; instead, people seeking help should visit The Trevor Project's "Get Help" page.

4. Clearly communicate your classroom policies regarding late work, extensions, or dropped assignments

Take time to give students a clear overview of your classroom policies and processes, such as requesting assistance or an extension, early on in the school year. Open communication about policies educates students about what processes exist (rather than the blanket statement of, “I don’t accept late work.”), avoids shame in students utilizing these processes, and encourages students to be more proactive when they feel like they need extra time for an assignment.

Having a policy where the lowest grade is dropped can also be comforting to students going through a rough time. 

5. Be aware of inequities

On average, students of color, LGBTQ students, first-generation, and low-income students have lower rates of seeking help. Being mindful of this is the first step; however, if your institution offers cultural competency training, this is a great initiative in which to get involved. The better we understand our student population and the challenges they face, the better we can serve them.

Again, clarity regarding your classroom and assignment policies and the available support resources can also go a long way in lessening any reservations individuals may have around seeking support.

6. Consider the timing of your deadlines

A submission time of 9 am may encourage students to pull an all-nighter, whereas 9 pm may cause students to work through dinner.

To encourage healthy sleeping and eating habits, 5 pm is generally considered one of the best times for a deadline. (However, if your student population has more students with families or full-time work outside of school, a different time may be more appropriate.)

7. Err on the side of trust

A chalkboard sign hanging on a post. The sign says in white chalk "Welcome please come in".

Yes, some people will and probably have already taken advantage of any added academic flexibility put into place over the 2020–2021 school year, which can make one hesitant to offer the same degree of accommodation this year. However, we rarely know what students are going through outside of school or the status of their mental health.

If we are upfront and clear with our policies at the start of the year, and err on the side of believing students when they need extra help, it will benefit students that really need the support. And if individuals are consistently taking advantage of these, this is a great opportunity to direct them to other support systems offered by your institution.

Strength in numbers

It’s perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed, excited, angry, ambivalent, or any other emotion about this academic school year. We hope that the tips from this podcast and the additional resources provide a greater sense that we are all in this together. (And if you have the time, we encourage you to listen to the podcast episode! It’s a fascinating and moving discussion, and really worth investing the time (50 minutes) to hear their insights.) 

Join the discussion

Have you noticed a change in the frequency of conversations you’ve had about student mental well-being? Are you aware of the mental health resources available for both faculty and students at your institution? What practices do you put into place in your classroom to create a culture of care? Join us in the ADI: Educator Community on LinkedIn and let other educators know your thoughts!

Our online community is a hub for life sciences education in #highered, where you can share resources, ask questions, get feedback, and build meaningful relationships - across campus and across the globe!

Related Talking Teaching articles:

How to improve students’ lab report writing »

Can machine learning improve student outcomes? »

Engaging remote biology students »

How to format learning objectives to improve student learning »


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