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Student retention and success: reflecting on the role of mental wellbeing in the curriculum and university

10 Sep 2020 | Dr Michelle Morgan In advance of Advance HE’s Student Retention and Success Symposium, 16 September, Dr Michelle Morgan reflects on some of the key areas that HEIs will need to address in their approach to supporting and retaining students.

The last seven months have been extremely tough for students and staff, and there is still much uncertainty as to how the rest of the year will unfold as students and staff start to return to campus, and to renew or commence their studies. We want our new and returning students to have the best experience we can deliver in these strange times, and to support their progression, attainment, and success. At the heart of this will be supporting mental health and wellbeing.

Covid-19 will continue to create unknowns, and we will have to deal with these as they appear. However, we can plan for the things we already know through our previous experience and importantly, for the ‘known’ unknowns when developing mental health and wellbeing strategies. In a landscape of uncertainty, providing clear, honest, and accessible information for students across different levels of study, and for staff, has never been more critical.

So, what will mental health and wellbeing in the curriculum and the university look like in 2020/21? I look at four of the key areas that need to effectively be addressed if we are to help reduce the additional stress and anxiety faced by our HE communities.

Four key areas

1.    Institutional awareness of new and returning student and staff concerns

We need to know how students are feeling about resuming their studies, any concerns, or issues they may have so we can address them. This could include new and returning students who are already struggling and want a break from studies and those that live at home and commute and have, or family members have, an underlying health condition so are cautious about blended or any face to face learning. With a new academic year already upon us [in the UK], staff have barely caught their breath after having to adjust their teaching and assessment so could be exhausted. As a result, it will be important to keep monitoring how students and staff are feeling as the year progresses. This will help with the planning, managing and immediate provision of support ensuring there are no gaps between the pressure point and delivery.

2.    Set and manage expectations: what, how, why, when, and where

Setting and managing student and staff expectations along with providing clear advice and guidance will help. Telling students about the common pressure points throughout the study lifecycle and proving key information on how learning will happen, how safety on campus and accommodation and social activities will be managed, will all help reduce stress and anxiety. Some of the questions and concerns  that students and staff will have are highlighted below.

How will learning happen?

  • What constitutes F2F? (e.g. in-person, webinar)
  • What are the contact hours?
  • How will the timetable work?
  • What if a student has a lack of online resources, access and space?
  • How will the lack of exam experience across all levels be managed?
  • What happens if a student’s start is delayed due to illness, local lockdown, flight cost?

Safety on campus

  • Where and how will social distancing in learning and social spaces work?
  • Will masks and hand sanitizer be provided? Will learning spaces be regularly cleaned?
  • Will there be Covid-19 Antibody Testing? Will it be a requirement?
  • How will students and staff be able to identify the difference between Freshers' Flu and C-19?
  • What are the quarantine plans for EU/OS students?

Accommodation and social activities

  • Will students live and learn in ‘study bubbles’?
  • What is the Illness protocol?
  • Will any sports and volunteering activities take place?
  • Will bars and food facilities be open?

3.    Bridging the learning digital gaps and access- don’t make assumptions!

Although new students may be social digital natives, they are not necessarily learning digital natives. Both new and returning students will be required to learn in ways that they are unfamiliar with. This could be further complicated by limited resources (e.g. accessible equipment for online learning and 24/7 internet access) and them not having quiet space in their home environment to study. So supporting the student’s digital competency journey as they transition to, and through university will be essential in ensuring that no student is left behind. Digital competency induction across all undergraduate years and PGT study needs to take place in stages to help maintain engagement. Scaffolding how to learn at university will be especially important for new students and notably for those who are direct entrants into Level 5 and 6. Identifying who needs digital support, whether students or staff, will be critical.

4.    Self-awareness and wellbeing

Overnight, Covid-19 required us to adopt new ways of connecting through online meetings and webinars. However, online work all day is exhausting and it’s not without potential health problems!  And when we get students and staff back on campus, how easily will they revert back to communal learning whether in a lecture or studying in a library? What will be the wellbeing fallout of Covid-19 on our new and returning students, and those that graduated this year? As well as providing clear guidance on learning and campus attendance etiquette, helping students and staff be more aware about their worries and concerns, and identifying increased stress levels and anxieties  will be important in ‘helping them help themselves’, and in reducing risks to the spread of Covid19 and possible campus lockdown.

Students have a responsibility to the university to abide by safe practice. University leadership teams have a responsibility to students and staff to provide a safe environment. The university community has a responsibility to the towns and cities in which they reside to act sensibly, and city leaders and government have a responsibility to all residents and visitors to put in place safety measures.

Our challenges in the coming few years , and the fall out that will take years to recover from, are numerous. Students in 2019/20 have spent more time out of a physical learning environment than in, so understanding and bridging the learning gap is critical as is getting the wellbeing support right for every transition stage.

I look forward to discussing these issues and more at the forthcoming Symposium where a fantastic line up of presenters and delegates will  gather to discuss the following questions:

  • How do we embed wellbeing in the curriculum and why?
  • What is an effective way for academic departments and students services to work together to support student wellbeing?
  • How can we design and enable better student peer-support?
  • How can we address post-graduate and research students wellbeing and success? 
  • How are staff supported to protect their own wellbeing and students? 
  • How to try out practical approaches to wellbeing in the classroom?

Join our Student Retention and Success Symposium: Examining the role of mental wellbeing in the curriculum and university, Wednesday, 16 October.

Next week, Advance HE will publish, An exceptional transition to higher education: induction of new and returning students during the  ‘new normal’ year, authored by Dr Morgan.



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