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What is the relationship between learning design and student well-being?

I put this question to my colleagues Erin DeSilva, Assistant Director of Learning Design and Technology, Prudence Merton, Associate Director of Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, Caitlin Barthelmes, Director of the Student Wellness Center and Todd Gibbs, Assistant Director for Health Improvement at Dartmouth. 

Each of my colleagues took the lead in answering my specific questions (see their names in parentheses after each question), although this was a collaborative effort.

As you read the questions and answers, please think what you might want to ask Erin, Prudence, Caitlin, and Todd.

Q1:  What is the relationship between learning design and student well-being? (Caitlin)

Student well-being is critical for engaged learning. When students feel their best, they can live up to their fullest potential in and out of the classroom. Consider a student who is struggling with stress, anxiety, sleep difficulties, or depression; they are less able to retain new information, participate fully in class, or contribute positively in a group project. A student who is thriving, or functioning well psychologically, socially, and physically, is more able to engage with the material, professors, and classmates.

The reverse is also true.  Academic experiences can have a profound impact on student wellness. Well-being is influenced by the environments in which we live, work, and play. The classroom environment and related coursework dominate student life, making faculty choices powerful mechanisms to enhance or undermine well-being. Faculty can leverage the bidirectional relationship of learning and wellness in exciting ways. Many of the practices and approaches that are most effective for teaching and learning are also techniques that support the well-being and health of students, such as creating a supportive classroom environment, implementing meaningful assessment, and utilizing a flexible course design.

Q2: What do instructional designers mean when they speak with faculty about creating a supportive classroom environment? (Erin)

A supportive classroom environment has much in common with a well-designed course. Setting a tone of open communication starts with a syllabus, which allows students to clearly see not only the instructor’s expectations, but also their values and priorities. It is the instructor’s responsibility to communicate learning objectives, and to work with students to connect these learning outcomes to previous knowledge and life experience. These connections can sometimes be made in isolation, but when an instructor creates an environment where students are expected to share and grow together, a community of support can form.

When I work with faculty members, I try to encourage them to really consider not only the scope and sequence of their content, but also the places and spaces in which students will interact with them, and with each other. Finally, it is a worthwhile exercise to consider your implicit learning objectives and decide how critical they are to your course. For example, are you hoping that students build time management or teamwork skills in your course, or are you assigning long-term or group projects for other reasons? If the latter, what other options might there be for students to demonstrate their knowledge? This distinction between required and optional tasks can be helpful in flexible course design conversations.

Another course design trick that is great for learning in general, but can be especially useful when trying to mitigate unnecessary stress, is the use of frequent, low-stakes assessment. Giving students a chance to practice skills and automate the learning processes that are necessary for your course will increase the opportunity for learning.

Q3: What can professors do to make their courses more relevant to the lives of their students? (Todd)

It’s important to recognize that academics are one of the most salient domains of a student’s life, so students’ academic experiences have an influential impact on their overall well-being. Recognition of this inherent connection between well-being and students’ course experiences can guide instructors to be more responsive to student needs for effective learning. Effective faculty responses include an intentional scaffolding of learning throughout the course, helping students to identify and transfer previously acquired skills to the current course, and helping them consider how their learning experiences in the current course might also transfer to future course applications or other domains of their lives.

It may be worthwhile to consider the numerous changes that students are experiencing at any point in time. Regardless of age or academic rank, transitions are a universal characteristic for people enrolled in educational programs, and changes (positive or negative) produce stress. First-year students may be adapting to profound changes in their social support, a need for new life skills, and potential leaps in academic expectations. As enrollment progresses, students continue to refine relationships and make choices related to course of study and career, ultimately preparing for graduation and the shift from a structured educational environment to the more autonomous context of “life after college.”

Acknowledgment of student transitions by faculty might result in some reflection about how students’ academic experiences can facilitate or inhibit their ability to successfully navigate normative transitional challenges. For instance, in a first year course students may benefit from grading policies that permit the resubmission of assignments based on initial feedback as they adjust to increased expectations regarding their academic performance. Encouraging students to receive feedback and build upon it through further work could help them establish a growth mindset for learning that has the potential to enhance student engagement throughout their academic careers. Academic policies and flexible course design can help students feel valued and understood, building their capacities for effectively managing these stressors in a manner that produces better outcomes for both well-being and academic success.

Q4:  Can you give some examples of what a flexible course design might look like? (Erin)

Flexible course design has a wide range of possibilities! As you get to know your students, understanding how best to help them learn is a natural outcome. For example, if you realize halfway through a group project that your students are fixating on one objective (e.g. creating a final product) at the expense of the other (e.g. learning about the process of design and iteration), you may pause the assignment and create an opportunity for reflection. This will help students refocus on the purpose of the assignment, and can especially help students who are struggling to communicate their fears and needs and time management problems to their group mates because it brings the guidepost into focus once more.

The trick to flexible course design is to create opportunities for your students to give you feedback on how the course is working for them. This can be done through a midterm evaluation, an exam wrapper, or even an open-ended question in a minute paper or during office hours. As you review your students’ thoughts, consider what you can change immediately, what you might change next time you teach, and what you can’t change because it would be in conflict with your teaching philosophy or methodology. Then, most importantly, share these thoughts with your students, letting them know that you value their voices and perspective.

Flexible course design is an important part universal design; creating a learning experience that is accessible to the broadest range of learners. There are many tools available to assist in considering who your students are, how they access information, and how they can demonstrate this knowledge to you.

Q5: Many professors struggle with how to meaningfully assess student learning.  How is assessment related to student wellness, and what strategies should professors think about adopting? (Prudence)

Research has shown (Macfarlane-Dick, 2006)  that the most powerful influence on student achievement is feedback, e.g., formative assessment. This is particularly true for feedback given without a grade. Formative assessment can communicate to the student that faculty care about the student’s learning.  We also know that frequent, low-stakes testing (as mentioned above) provides students with opportunities to practice and consolidate new knowledge, enables them to self-monitor their progress and gain control of their learning. 

Most student stress related to assessment comes from summative assessment, especially infrequent high-stakes testing.  So for faculty, if they want their assessment plan to be meaningful, they should design it to align with learning outcomes, focus on student performance, contain frequent, timely and a variety of opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning. 

What are your thoughts and questions about the relationship between learning design and student well-being?

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