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Mental Wellbeing

Education for Mental Health Toolkit - Wellbeing and the Curriculum

The curriculum is one of the few guaranteed points of contact between student and university (1).

Wellbeing and the Curriculum

The curriculum is one of the few guaranteed points of contact between student and university (1). Curriculum therefore plays a central role in the student experience and any whole university approach to mental health and wellbeing. Students may not join societies, live in halls of residence or access student services but they must interact with their curriculum if they are to progress and remain a student.  

There is also a transactional relationship between student learning and student wellbeing. While learning and academic achievement are the primary foci of the curriculum, it is clear that it can only succeed in maximising both outcomes if curriculum is also conducive to wellbeing (2-3). 

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Recent work in this area has suggested that the design and delivery of curriculum can have both positive and negative impacts on student wellbeing and on student learning (4). Research has shown that changes to the structure of the curriculum, to curriculum content, to modes and methods of assessment, to grading and to the social environment within the classroom (online and in person) and in group learning activities, have the potential to improve both student wellbeing and learning (2-3, 5-10). There is also a good theoretical and research base to suggest that elements of curriculum that support learning also support wellbeing. In other words, one of the most effective things universities can do to support student wellbeing is to ensure good teaching and assessment based on sound pedagogy (11). 

In qualitative research conducted for this project, students identified social connection, meaningful content, and easy access to resources and support as important in facilitating positive wellbeing.  

However, the corollary to this is that poorly designed and delivered curriculum can undermine wellbeing. Baik et al. (11) drew on Self-determination Theory (12-13) to outline a series of ways in which curriculum could undermine wellbeing. These include the ways in which: 

  • curricula can exclude students, through hidden curricula, undermining sense of identity and belonging. 
  • curricula can undermine students' sense of autonomy if it is overly prescriptive or if students do not have clarity on why they are being asked to engage in particular learning and assessment tasks. 
  • curricula can undermine students’ sense of competence and achievement if it is not appropriately stretching, if feedback is overly critical or absent, if students are not supported to develop their ability to self-reflect on their own growth and develop self-efficacy. 
  • curricula can undermine autonomous motivation if learning is confused, improperly sequenced, lacks personal meaning and assumes the existence of pre-knowledge which students do not have. 

To this model we can also add that it can potentially have negative impacts if: 

  • deadline bunching results in students having to complete significant amounts of work at the same time, potentially competing with other responsibilities leading to exhaustion and the adoption of surface leaning strategies. 
  • the learning environment feels hostile or potentially threatening – e.g., if it lacks psychological safety or peers are characterised as the competition rather than collaborative learners. 
  • the learning environment encourages students to adopt unhealthy study behaviours – going without sleep, working long hours without breaks, etc. 

Reversing this view, curricula can also have positive impacts if:

  • Learning provides meaning, purpose and a sense of fulfilment 
  • The learning environment is inclusive, supportive, health promoting and psychologically safe   
  • The curriculum supports sustainable personal growth in knowledge, understanding, skills and confidence 
  • The curriculum engages student voice and teaching, learning and assessment are modified in response to student learning, experience and insight

There is then an overwhelming case for universities to prioritise the factors that can impact on wellbeing within curriculum design and delivery. 

Key lessons 

  • Curriculum design and delivery can have both positive and negative impacts on student learning and wellbeing. 
  • Good teaching and sound pedagogy are two of the most effective things universities can do to improve student wellbeing. 

Curriculum design should actively consider embedding those elements and approaches that support learning and wellbeing. 

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  1. Hughes G, Panjwani M, Tulcidas P, Byrom N. Student mental health: The role and responsibilities of academics. Oxford: Student Minds. 2018. Available from:
  2. Houghton AM, Anderson J. Embedding mental wellbeing in the curriculum: maximising success in higher education. Higher Education Academy. 2017 May 10;68.
  3. Baik C, Larcombe W, Brooker A, Wyn J, Allen L, Field R, James R. Enhancing student mental wellbeing. Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education. 2017. Available from:
  4. Lister K, Seale J, Douce C. Mental health in distance learning: a taxonomy of barriers and enablers to student mental wellbeing. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning. 2021 May 15:1-5.
  5. Vailes F. Embedding wellbeing’in the French language curriculum: How to help first year university students develop their perception of learning, motivation and self-efficacy. Educational Role of Language Journal. 2020 Sep;2020(3):pp-31. Available from: doi:
  6. Brooker A, McKague M, Phillips L. Implementing a whole-of-curriculum approach to student wellbeing. Student Success. 2019 Dec 1;10(3):55. Available from:
  7. Huggins A. Autonomy supportive curriculum design: A salient factor in promoting law students' wellbeing. University of New South Wales Law Journal. 2012;35:683.
  8. Slavin SJ, Schindler DL, Chibnall JT. Medical student mental health 3.0: improving student wellness through curricular changes. Academic Medicine. 2014 Apr;89(4):573.
  9. Thomas LJ, Asselin M. Promoting resilience among nursing students in clinical education. Nurse education in practice. 2018 Jan 1;28:231-4.
  10. Thomas LJ, Revell SH. Resilience in nursing students: An integrative review. Nurse education today. 2016 Jan 1;36:457-62.
  11. Baik C, Larcombe W, Brooker A, Wyn J, Allen L, Brett M, Field R, James R. Enhancing student mental wellbeing: A handbook for academic educators. Parkville VIC: The University of Melbourne. 2017 Nov.
  12. Deci EL, Ryan RM. Self-Determination Theory. In Van Lange PAM, Kruglanski AW, Higgins ET (Eds.), Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; 2012; p. 416-437. Available from: doi:
  13. Reeve J. Self-determination theory applied to educational settings. Handbook of self-determination research. 2002;2:183-204.