Skip to main content
Mental Wellbeing

Education for Mental Health Toolkit - Wellbeing and Learning

There is an extensive literature demonstrating the transactional relationship between student learning and student wellbeing.

Wellbeing and Learning

There is an extensive literature demonstrating the transactional relationship between student learning and student wellbeing. Taking a holistic model of wellbeing that considers physical, social and psychological wellbeing, we can see that relationship with learning in the research evidence. 

Physical Wellbeing and Learning 

Numerous studies have demonstrated the impact of physical wellbeing on student learning and performance. Sleep (1-2), hydration (3), exercise (4) and diet (5) have all been shown to have clear effects on how students feel, learn and perform. Having reserves of energy, concentration and stamina can help to ensure students are able to learn at their optimum level and perform in stretching academic assessments. Regular physical rest and breaks have been shown to positively impact on cognitive function making learning, problem solving and creative activity more possible (6). 

Education for Mental Health

Download a digital copy of the full toolkit, the staff development toolkit and case studies.

Download the report

Social Wellbeing and Learning 

Researchers in social neuroscience (7) have demonstrated that social isolation and loneliness reduces cognitive function. This has been shown to reduce students’ ability to focus attention, concentrate, remember and problem solve. Some research has shown a direct impact on overall academic ability and grades (8-9).  

On the opposite side of this axis, social belonging, interaction and connection have been shown to be beneficial for student learning. Authors such as Vincent Tinto (10), have long argued that student sense of belonging to their university plays a significant role in determining student persistence and success. Researchers, including Bandura, have shown that learning is often socially situated (11). Students are more likely to learn well in classrooms in which they have a sense of connection, support and psychological safety – i.e. the social learning environment is a safe place in which to experiment, make mistakes and correct misconceptions. This has implications for inclusion, as students who are marginalised by in lesson experiences or by curriculum content, are likely to feel a reduced sense of belonging and lower levels of psychological safety.

Psychological Wellbeing and Learning 

UK Government data indicates that students who experience mental illness are more likely to drop out of university and underperform academically. Research in neurology proposes some potential explanations for some of this. In particular, it appears that high levels of negative emotional arousal (anxiety, fear, low mood etc.) can reduce cognitive functioning, making it more difficult to learn, concentrate and problem solve. A low level of mental wellbeing can negatively impact concentration, motivation, self-confidence and the ability to engage with attendance and assessment, therefore significantly impeding learning overall (12-13).  

On the other hand, good wellbeing has been associated with enhanced creativity (14) and the ability to enter into a ‘flow’ state of learning, described as a state of complete concentration or absorption that benefits learning and academic performance (15). In other words, good psychological wellbeing can support good learning. 

Impact of Learning on Wellbeing 

The influence of wellbeing on learning is then well established. However, research also suggests that how students engage with learning, how they are taught and how they are assessed can influence their wellbeing. In effect, wellbeing and learning exist in a transactional relationship constantly impacting on each other.  

Research suggests that for many students, how they engage with their learning appears to have a relationship with their wellbeing (16). Students who engage in deep learning, driven by intrinsic motivation and who gain meaning from their learning are more likely to have better wellbeing than those who engage in surface learning, driven by extrinsic motivation (17).  

Studies of teaching and assessment indicate that changes to how students are taught and assessed can have both positive and negative impacts on their wellbeing. This, therefore, places curriculum design and delivery as a central factor in both student learning and student wellbeing, with the power to influence both. 

Curriculum that is well designed, taught and assessed can support a positive spiral of good wellbeing and good learning. 

Curriculum that is poorly designed, taught and assessed can create a negative spiral heightening poor wellbeing and leading to poor quality learning and academic performance. 

Key lessons 

  • Student learning and student wellbeing exist in a transactional relationship, constantly impacting on each other 
  • This relationship can be positive and/or negative  
  • Student wellbeing can be supported through curriculum design, delivery and the classroom environment (in person or online) 
Buff line
  1. Scullin MK. The eight hour sleep challenge during final exams week. Teaching of Psychology. 2019 Jan;46(1):55-63.
  2. Curcio G, Ferrara M, De Gennaro L. Sleep loss, learning capacity and academic performance. Sleep medicine reviews. 2006 Oct 1;10(5):323-37.
  3. Pawson C, Gardner M, Doherty S, Martin L, Soares R, Edmonds CJ. Water consumption in exams and its effects on students' performance. In: Annual British Psychological Society Conference: London 2012 18-20 April.
  4. Rasberry CN, Lee SM, Robin L, Laris BA, Russell LA, Coyle KK, Nihiser AJ. The association between school-based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance: a systematic review of the literature. Preventive medicine. 2011 Jun 1;52:S10-20.
  5. Florence MD, Asbridge M, Veugelers PJ. Diet quality and academic performance. Journal of school health. 2008 Apr;78(4):209-15.
  6. Buch ER, Claudino L, Quentin R, Bönstrup M, Cohen LG. Consolidation of human skill linked to waking hippocampo-neocortical replay. Cell Reports. 2021 Jun 8;35(10):109193. Available from: doi: 10.1016/j.celrep.2021.109193
  7. Cacioppo, John T. & Patrick, William. Loneliness. New York : Norton, 2008.
  8. Baumeister RF, Twenge JM, Nuss CK. Effects of social exclusion on cognitive processes: anticipated aloneness reduces intelligent thought. Journal of personality and social psychology. 2002 Oct;83(4):817.
  9. Cacioppo JT, Ernst JM, Burleson MH, McClintock MK, Malarkey WB, Hawkley LC, Kowalewski RB, Paulsen A, Hobson JA, Hugdahl K, Spiegel D. Lonely traits and concomitant physiological processes: The MacArthur social neuroscience studies. International Journal of Psychophysiology. 2000 Mar 1;35(2-3):143-54.
  10. Tinto V. Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of educational research. 1975 Mar;45(1):89-125.
  11. Bandura A. Bandura’s social learning theory. Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications. 1992:175-92.
  12. Craig, N. and Zinkiewicz, L. Inclusive practice within psychology higher education. York: The Higher Education Academy Psychology Network, 2010. Available from:
  13. Quinn N, Wilson A, MacIntyre G, Tinklin T. ‘People look at you differently’: students’ experience of mental health support within higher education. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling. 2009 Nov 1;37(4):405-18. Available from: doi: 10.1080/03069880903161385
  14. Rothenberg A. Essay: Creativity—the healthy muse. The Lancet. 2006 Dec 1;368:S8-9. Available from: doi:
  15. Csikszentmihalyi, M. Flow: The psychology of happiness. London: Rider & Co, 1992.
  16. Postareff L, Mattsson M, Lindblom-Ylänne S, Hailikari T. The complex relationship between emotions, approaches to learning, study success and study progress during the transition to university. Higher education. 2017 Mar 1;73(3):441-57. Available from: doi: 10.1007/s10734-016-0096-
  17. Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum Publishing Co. 1985.