Theme 2: Learning, teaching and assessment
What does it cover?
- Curriculum design
- Assessment strategies
- Support for learning
- Inclusivity and academic integration
- The old of academic staff*
Principles of good practice
2.1 Universities ensure that curriculum takes a holistic and inclusive view of learners, using evidence informed practice and secure scaffolding to enable all students to develop skills, confidence, academic self–efficacy and improve performance.
2.2 Universities ensure that curriculum is designed to facilitate students to acquire skills, knowledge and understanding at an appropriate pace.
2.3 Universities ensure that curriculum and pedagogic practice encourages deep learning, meaning, mastery and development.
2.4 Universities ensure that curriculum design, pedagogic practice and academic processes consider and seek to impact positively on the mental health and wellbeing of all students.
2.5 Universities clarify the role of academics in supporting student mental health and guide staff to maintain supportive, appropriate boundaries.
2.6 Universities ensure that staff in teaching and learning support roles understand how they can support student mental health and wellbeing through good pedagogic practice.
Why is this theme important and what matters?
The only guaranteed points of contact between a student and their university are their academic staff and the curriculum (1). Therefore, any genuine whole university response has to consider the role of academics and the curriculum in supporting good mental health and wellbeing (2).
The design and structure of the curriculum can have both negative and positive effects on student wellbeing and learning (2, 3). Workload, classroom practice, teaching and learning methods, assessments and approaches to feedback and grading can have both beneficial and detrimental effects (2, 4, 5). Consultation with BAME and disabled students specifically identified that a lack of inclusive practice in curriculum and teaching can have negative consequences for their wellbeing.
This does not mean that learning at HE level should not be challenging or stretching. Engaging in meaningful, challenging activity can be good for medium to long term mental health and wellbeing (6). New learning and overcoming difficulties can increase an individual’s ability and confidence to manage future challenges.
However, the nature of the challenge and how it is encountered makes a crucial difference. As a participant in the Charter consultations put it – “What matters is ‘What is hard?’ and ‘Why is it hard?’” In other words, is the challenge difficult because it is appropriately academically stretching or because it is unclear, the students are unprepared and/ or they lack necessary resources (4).
In the first case, the challenge will be beneficial. In the second, it will be unhelpfully stressful, undermining the student’s self–efficacy, confidence, sense of competence and commitment.
How students engage with academic learning can also have an impact on their wellbeing. One of the ways this is discussed is to consider deep and surface learning (7). In deep learning, as the name suggests, students engage deeply with their subject, motivated by their passion or interest, reading widely, connecting what they have learned to previous learning and seeking understanding. In surface learning, students are more likely to skip over the surface of the subject, focusing only on what they need to know, to get the grade they want, with the minimum amount of effort. They are more likely to seek to regurgitate material rather than understand it and learn subjects in isolation from each other (7).
Students who engage in deep learning appear to have better wellbeing than those who primarily surface learn (8). (This is not to say that surface learning is always an undesirable strategy – it can be a valid and sensible choice in certain circumstances). Deep learning allows students to gain meaning and fulfilment from their academic study, focusses their motivation intrinsically, and develops their ability, and therefore can benefit wellbeing. Surface learning places the focus on extrinsic motivators, such as grades, and denies the opportunity to gain meaning and understanding.
Just as a students’ learning environment can affect their wellbeing, so a students’ mental state can impact on their learning. Imposter syndrome, perfectionism and academic anxiety can reduce learning and performance, while confidence increases students’ ability to engage in active, higher level learning (9–11). Ensuring that the learning environment is safe and supports student development is vital. For example, we know that collaborative classrooms, in which students are encouraged to support each other’s learning, improve the learning and wellbeing of all students. However, competitive classrooms reduce performance and wellbeing (12).
Students may also benefit when relevant, good quality psychoeducation and meta–learning is included in the curriculum, supporting them to develop their ability to manage their own wellbeing and learning (13–15). However, thought should be given to ensuring that psychoeducation is delivered by appropriate staff. It should not be assumed that untrained academics can automatically provide this safely and effectively (1).
Curriculum that supports wellbeing, therefore, takes a holistic view of learners, using secure scaffolding and evidence informed practice to enable all students to develop skills, confidence, academic self–efficacy and improve performance.
Curriculum is designed to ensure that students can acquire skills, knowledge and understanding at an appropriate pace and encourages a focus on deep learning, meaning and development.
Alongside curriculum, consideration must be given to the role of academic staff. Evidence from research and the Charter consultations indicate that academics have become the frontline of student support (1). However, many lack clarity about their role and boundaries, feel they lack the skills to appropriately respond and that gaps between academics and support services negatively impact on student and staff wellbeing. This lack of clarity creates risk for students, staff and universities.
The role of academics, therefore, must be clarified. Staff must be guided to maintain supportive boundaries and to understand how they can support student mental health and wellbeing through good pedagogic practice.
Research from the Charter consultation – E. Cage, E. Jones, G. Ryan, G. Hughes & L. Spanner (2021) Student mental health and transitions into, through and out of university: student and staff perspectives
Student Minds – Student mental health: The role and responsibilities of academics
Higher Education Academy – Embedding mental wellbeing in the curriculum: maximising success in higher education
|1. Hughes, G., Panjwani, M., Tulcidas, P., Byrom, N. (2018). Student mental health: The role and responsibilities of academics. Oxford: Student Minds.|
|2. Houghton, A–M. & Anderson, J. (2017) Embedding mental wellbeing in the curriculum: maximising success in higher education. York: Higher Education Academy|
|3. Slavin, S. J., Schindler, D. L. & Chibnall, J. T. (2014). Medical student mental health 3.0: improving student wellness through curricular changes. Academic Medicine, 89(4), 573.|
|4. Thomas, L. J. & Asselin, M. (2018). Promoting resilience among nursing students in clinical education. Nurse education in practice, 28, 231–234.|
|5. Hofmann, S. & Mühlenweg, A. (2018). ‘Learning intensity effects in students’ mental and physical health – Evidence from a large scale natural experiment in Germany.’ Economics of Education Review. 67, pp. 216–234.|
|6. Wu, G., Feder, A., Cohen, H., Kim J., Calderon, S., Charney, D. & Mathé, A. (2013). Understanding resilience. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. 7. DOI: https://doi. org/10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00010|
|7. Haggis, T. (2003), Constructing Images of Ourselves? A Critical Investigation into ‘Approaches to Learning’ Research in Higher Education. British Educational Research Journal, 29: 89–104.. DOI: 10.1080/0141192032000057401|
|8. Postareff, L., Mattsson, M., Lindblom–Ylänne, S. & Hailikari, T. (2016). The complex relationship between emotions, approaches to learning, study success and study progress during the transition to university. Higher Education, 73(3), 441–457. DOI: 10.1007/s10734–016–0096–|
|9. Sotardi, V. A. and Dubien, D. (2019). Perfectionism, wellbeing, and university performance: A sample validation of the Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (FMPS) in New Zealand.’ Personality & Individual Differences, 143, pp. 103–106.|
|10. Starley, D. (2019). Perfectionism: a challenging but worthwhile research area for educational psychology.’ Educational Psychology in Practice, 35(2), pp. 121–146.|
|11. Cusack, C. E., Hughes, J. L. & Nuhu, N. (2013). ‘Connecting Gender and Mental Health to Imposter Phenomenon Feelings.’ Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, 18(2), pp. 74–81.|
|12. Johnson, D. W., Maruyama, G., Johnson, R., Nelson, D. & Skon, L. (1981). Effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic goal structures on achievement: A meta– analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 89(1), 47–62.. DOI: http://dx.doi. org/10.1037/0033–2909.89.1.47|
|13. Pakenham, K. I. and Viskovich, S. (2019). Pilot evaluation of the impacts of a personal practice informed undergraduate psychotherapy curriculum on student learning and wellbeing. Australian Psychologist, 54(1), pp. 55–67|
|14. De Bruyckere, P. (2018). The Ingredients for Great Teaching. London: Sage Publications|
|15. Hattie, J. (2008). Visible Learning. London: Routledge|