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Mental Wellbeing

Education for Mental Health Toolkit - Finding Meaning in Learning

One of the ways in which students can derive positive wellbeing from the curriculum is through the production of meaning.

Finding Meaning in Learning

One of the ways in which students can derive positive wellbeing from the curriculum is through the production of meaning. Research, conducted for this project, has demonstrated a positive relationship between how meaningful students find their curriculum and their overall levels of wellbeing (1). When students find curriculum content and activities meaningful, it can enhance psychological and behavioural engagement and learning and lead to positive emotions and experiences such as fulfilment, passion, pride, hope, and confidence. By contrast, a lack of meaning is linked with negative emotions and experiences such as anger, boredom, frustration, demotivation and disengagement (2-3). 

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      The production of positive emotions through learning can aid self-regulation (4), suggesting a long-term, positive impact on mental wellbeing. Meaningful work is linked to greater psychological wellbeing (5) and there is an indication that students who perceive their studies to be meaningful have greater life satisfaction (6). When students find learning meaningful, it also helps to place them within their academic discipline, integrating their values, interests and experiences with their field of study. This can increase their sense of belonging and strengthen their self-concept, providing focus for their ongoing growth and development (7).  

      Meaningful learning has been defined in a number of ways (1). These include personal significance (8), the connection between curriculum content and students’ own lives, interests and values (9), impacts on personal growth (10), or with concepts such as engagement, motivation and satisfaction (11). Research for this project suggests that personal meaningfulness is more important for mental wellbeing than relevance to future potential jobs or careers (1). 

      Despite this, many students do not see their academic studies as meaningful (12). This may be due to a secondary school system that has trained students to focus on surface level, extrinsic performance as the purpose of education i.e., that the point of education is not learning per se, but rather to pass end of school assessments. Being able to find meaning in academic content and activities can sometimes be a happy accident but is better thought of as a skill that must be developed (13). Students in our research suggested that academics rarely pointed out to students why content was meaningful or worked with students, to help them find meaning in what was being learned.  

      However, students in our co-creation panels were able to provide examples of ways in which academics had helped them make meaningful connections. These often involved demonstrating how content was relevant to other individuals, groups, or the wider environment, or involved reflection on the connection between the subject and a wider sense of meaning in life (14). Students suggested that drier, more difficult material could be rendered more engaging and accessible, if they were first helped to find a meaningful connection to the subject. 

      Academics who are familiar with the entire landscape of their discipline can find it easy to identify why a particular subject has meaning and importance, However, for novice students this meaning is not always obvious or easy to grasp. Creating space in the curriculum to explore why subject content is meaningful, to connect it to wider issues and support students to find ways to link it to their own interests, values and experiences can deepen their engagement and thereby improve learning and wellbeing. Over time, this activity can help students to develop the skill of finding meaning within subjects or tasks for themselves, which can also be a protective factor for future wellbeing and performance. 

      Key Lessons 

      • Students can derive positive wellbeing from the curriculum when they find content and activities meaningful. 
      • Students find learning meaningful when it has personal significance, creates connections between curriculum content and students’ own lives, interests and values and impacts on personal growth.  
      • Many students report that they do not find their learning meaningful. 
      • Deliberate practice within the curriculum can help students develop the ability to find meaning in learning and tasks, which can help protect their wellbeing in future, whether as a student or in the workplace. 

      Top Tips 

      • Begin new subjects by exploring connections between the topic and wider agendas and by helping students find a personal connection to some element of what will be covered. 
      • Encourage deep learning and the construction of meaning, rather than rote memorisation.  
      • Scaffold assessment to allow students to pursue questions and aspects of each subject that they find meaningful to their value, interests and experiences – e.g., by providing a range of questions, allowing students to shape their own questions or providing questions that allow students to follow their interests. 
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      1. Upsher R, Li KW, Hughes G, Byrom B. Curriculum Design and Student Mental Wellbeing –Investigating the Meaningfulness and Relevance of University Course Curricula. 2021. In review.
      2. Trigwell, K., Ellis, R., & Han, F. Relations between students’ approaches to learning, experienced emotions and outcomes of learning. Studies in Higher Education, 2012:37, 811-824. Available from: doi: 10.1080/03075079.2010.549220
      3. 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/s10734-016-0096-7
      4. Pekrun R, Goetz T, Titz W, Perry RP. Academic emotions in students' self-regulated learning and achievement: A program of qualitative and quantitative research. Educational psychologist. 2002 Jun 1;37(2):91-105.
      5. Arnold KA, Turner N, Barling J, Kelloway EK, McKee MC. Transformational leadership and psychological well-being: the mediating role of meaningful work. Journal of occupational health psychology. 2007 Jul;12(3):193.
      6. Fakunmoju S, Donahue GR, McCoy S, Mengel AS. Life satisfaction and perceived meaningfulness of learning experience among first-year traditional graduate social work students. Journal of Education and Practice. 2016;7(6):49-62.
      7. Stubb J, Pyhältö K, Lonka K. The experienced meaning of working with a PhD thesis. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research. 2012 Aug 1;56(4):439-56.
      8. Kretchmar RS. What to do with meaning? A research conundrum for the 21st century. Quest. 2007 Nov 1;59(4):373-83. Available from: doi: 10.1080/00336297.2007.10483559
      9. Mitchell M. Situational interest: Its multifaceted structure in the secondary school mathematics classroom. Journal of educational psychology. 1993 Sep;85(3):424.
      10. May DR, Gilson RL, Harter LM. The psychological conditions of meaningfulness, safety and availability and the engagement of the human spirit at work. Journal of occupational and organizational psychology. 2004 Mar;77(1):11-37.
      11. Rosso BD, Dekas KH, Wrzesniewski A. On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review. Research in organizational behavior. 2010 Jan 1;30:91-127.
      12. Perkins KK, Gratny MM, Adams WK, Finkelstein ND, Wieman CE. Towards characterizing the relationship between students’ interest in and their beliefs about physics. InAIP Conference Proceedings 2006 Feb 14 (Vol. 818, No. 1, pp. 137-140). American Institute of Physics.
      13. Asikainen H, Gijbels D. Do students develop towards more deep approaches to learning during studies? A systematic review on the development of students’ deep and surface approaches to learning in higher education. Educational Psychology Review. 2017 Jun;29(2):205-34. Available from: doi:
      14. Bailey C, Madden A. What makes work meaningful—Or meaningless. MIT Sloan management review. 2016 Jun 1;57(4):1-9.