Home > CICMH Toolkits > Mental health and the learning environment > Understanding why curriculum design and the learning environment need to reflect mental health

Understanding why curriculum design and the learning environment need to reflect mental health


One area where faculty can have the most significant impact is in curriculum design, since curriculum design can impact workloads, due dates, stress, anxiety, and wellness of both students’ and faculties.[1]Dyjur, P., Lindstrom, G., Arguera, N., & Bair, H. (2017). USING MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLNESS AS A FRAMEWORK FOR COURSE DESIGN. Papers on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching, 2, 1-9. When a curriculum is designed inclusively through an intersectional approach, it takes into consideration the mental well-being of the students who are engaging with it as well as their cultural and social backgrounds. It also takes into consideration the policies and values of the school, the particular faculty, and the individual faculty members.[2]Dyjur, P., Lindstrom, G., Arguera, N., & Bair, H. (2017). USING MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLNESS AS A FRAMEWORK FOR COURSE DESIGN. Papers on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching, 2, 1-9. Designing a flexible curriculum by using universal design eliminates the need for numerous individual student adjustments on an ad hoc basis.[3]Bunbury, S. (2018). Disability in higher education – do reasonable adjustments contribute to an inclusive curriculum? International Journal of Inclusive Education, 24(9), 964-979. doi:10.1080/13603116.2018.1503347 This sense of flexibility can be created through how courses are structured and delivered.[4]Stanton, A., Zandvliet, D., Dhaliwal, R., & Black, T. (2016). Understanding Students’ Experiences of Well-Being in Learning Environments. Higher Education Studies, 6(3), 90. doi:10.5539/hes.v6n3p90 Flexibility within the curriculum is something that students have highlighted as being valuable. In particular, students note that faculty members’ willingness to adapt and be flexible when students are facing challenges helped to minimize their stress and allowed them to refocus on learning the course material.[5]Stanton, A., Zandvliet, D., Dhaliwal, R., & Black, T. (2016). Understanding Students’ Experiences of Well-Being in Learning Environments. Higher Education Studies, 6(3), 90. doi:10.5539/hes.v6n3p90 One way to be flexible is to provide a date range within which an assignment can be due, as opposed to a specific day.

INTERSECTIONALITY: Intersectionality a means of assessing how different forms of inequality operate together and exacerbate each other.[6]Steinmetz, K. (2020, February 20). Kimberlé Crenshaw on What Intersectionality Means Today. Retrieved from https://time.com/5786710/kimberle-crenshawintersectionality/ An intersectional approach is that takes into account the context of people’s lives with regards to their identities and shapes programs based on their needs, capacities and experiences.[7]Ontario Human Rights Commission. (n.d.). An introduction to the intersectional approach. Retrieved from http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/intersectionalapproach-discrimination-addressing-multiplegrounds-human-rights-claims/introductionintersectional-approach[8]Chaplin, D., Twigg, J., & Lovell, E. (2019, April). Intersectional approaches to vulnerability reduction and resilience-building (Rep. No. 12). Retrieved from https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resourcedocuments/12651.pdf

Ensuring the creation of a course that has a manageable scope of learning and a number of course outcomes can help to avoid unnecessary burdens on both faculty and students.[9]Dyjur, P., Lindstrom, G., Arguera, N., & Bair, H. (2017). USING MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLNESS AS A FRAMEWORK FOR COURSE DESIGN. Papers on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching, 2, 1-9.  The end goal of curriculum design is to create a curriculum that can be responsive to students’ needs and optimizes their learning without singling them out for differential treatment.[10]Mackean, G. (2011). Mental health and well-being in postsecondary education settings. CACUSS, 1-59. For more on this and how health knowledge and skills can be brought into curriculum, see the section on curriculum infusion that follows.

Creating a space where students can make meaningful contributions and connections is also very important.[11]Lane, K., Teng, M. Y., Barnes, S. J., Moore, K., Smith, K., & Lee, M. (2018). Using Appreciative Inquiry to Understand the Role of Teaching Practices in Student Well-being at a Research-Intensive University. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 9(2). doi:10.5206/cjsotl-rcacea.2018.2.10  Students indicate that participating and sharing their unique perspectives and experiences helps to increase their well-being, sense of worth and learning outcomes. Students’ positive connection to faculty members and classmates helps them participate more fully in the learning environment. This positive connection helps to ensure that students can actively participate in dialogue and conversation with both teaching staff and each other.[12]Stanton, A., Zandvliet, D., Dhaliwal, R., & Black, T. (2016). Understanding Students’ Experiences of Well-Being in Learning Environments. Higher Education Studies, 6(3), 90. doi:10.5539/hes.v6n3p90[13]Dyjur, P., Lindstrom, G., Arguera, N., & Bair, H. (2017). USING MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLNESS AS A FRAMEWORK FOR COURSE DESIGN. Papers on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching, 2, 1-9. Building a non-hierarchical environment where deeper relationships can be fostered gives students the space to develop trust in faculty members, which is crucial to supporting a person dealing with a mental health challenge.[14]Morosanu, L., Handley, K., & O’Donovan, B. (2010). Seeking support: Researching first-year students’ experiences of coping with academic life. Higher Education Research & Development, 29(6), 665-678. doi:10.1080/07294360.2010.487200 Though a student with a mental health issue may hesitate when asking for assistance, they may seek support for academic concerns. These interactions are opportunities to notice or pick up on the signs of distress that may be tied to mental health and direct students to the right resources and supports, if necessary. If a student needs help, intervention at this early stage could help to increase the number of students who end up getting the proper care to meet their needs.[15]Gulliver, A., Farrer, L., Bennett, K., Ali, K., Hellsing, A., Katruss, N., & Griffiths, K. M. (2018). University staff experiences of students with mental health problems and their perceptions of staff training needs. Journal of Mental Health, 27(3), 247-256. doi:10.1080/096382 37.2018.1466042

Incorporating a feedback process throughout a course can also be helpful. Students note that when they’re able to give their feedback throughout the semester and feel it is being received, this contributes to their overall feeling of being supported in the learning environment.[16]Stanton, A., Zandvliet, D., Dhaliwal, R., & Black, T. (2016). Understanding Students’ Experiences of Well-Being in Learning Environments. Higher Education Studies, 6(3), 90. doi:10.5539/hes.v6n3p90 These moments of reflection also help to provide insights into any difficulties within a course where faculty/teaching staff can then support students in figuring out how to cope with these difficulties in positive ways.[17]Dyjur, P., Lindstrom, G., Arguera, N., & Bair, H. (2017). USING MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLNESS AS A FRAMEWORK FOR COURSE DESIGN. Papers on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching, 2, 1-9.

Based on the Okanagan Charter (2015) approach for health-promoting colleges and universities, along with similar research, we know students learn best when they are holistically supported in a safe classroom environment.[18]Lane, K., Teng, M. Y., Barnes, S. J., Moore, K., Smith, K., & Lee, M. (2018). Using Appreciative Inquiry to Understand the Role of Teaching Practices in Student Well-being at a Research-Intensive University. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 9(2). doi:10.5206/cjsotl-rcacea.2018.2.10 Students describe a safe classroom environment as non-judgmental when someone makes a mistake or has a differing opinion and where one can participate in ways that are encouraging to self and others.

But, curriculum design does not have to work alone in a silo. It can be paired with curriculum infusion. The combination of these two methods creates courses that centre the mental health and wellbeing of both students and faculty.

CURRICULUM INFUSION: Curriculum infusion is the act of bringing health issues/information into the academic curriculum through means such as readings, assignments and discussions.[19]Riley, J.B., & McWilliams, M. (2007). Engaged Learning through Curriculum Infusion. Peer Review, 9(3). Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/engaged-learning-through-curriculum-infusion

The case for curriculum infusion

What Is curriculum infusion?

Curriculum infusion (CI) is a public health teaching practice that helps professors develop class activities that introduce vital health information and life skills, such as sleep hygiene, safer sex practices, and stress management, directly into their courses.

CI supports an institution’s academic mission by increasing students’ awareness of, and reflection upon, their well-being in a manner that enhances and reinforces course content. It is an important tool in a broader approach to student well-being in COVID-19 and beyond by engaging faculty in health promotion efforts and giving them a concrete way to meaningfully impact their students’ health and well-being. CI can be done at the faculty, program/department or course level through collaboration with your colleagues and students.

Getting buy-in

Effective CI programs require the buy-in of both university executives and faculty.

ENGAGING EXECUTIVES

An effective CI program requires buy-in from high-level/executive campus decision-makers who support and endorse the idea. Their support can be enlisted by linking CI to the mission and vision of higher education, the strategic directions of the university, and university commitments.

Many colleges and universities espouse valuing their students’ health and wellness. Campus decision makers are increasingly acknowledging the need to address students’ health and wellness through the whole university system. For example, nationally, many Canadian universities have adopted the Okanagan Charter. They have committed to:

  • Embed health into everyday operations, business practices and academic mandates
  • Lead health promotion action and collaborate locally and globally

An example of a strategic framework and executive commitments can be seen through the work UBC is doing (see links).

Implementing a CI program can help fulfill these commitments in innovative ways.

ENGAGING FACULTY

Those already implementing CI at their institutions know that for this practice to be embraced by faculty, it must meet their needs and be flexible enough to be implemented. In this spirit, it will be helpful to offer a variety of CI ‘packages’ that offer various levels of engagement, from which professors can select, as proposed the previous ‘How should I do it?’ section.

It is unrealistic to expect faculty to only participate out of good will or personal interest. Professors’ time and resources are often stretched thin, having to fulfill the many demands of their role: teaching, supervising, research, service. Faculty may also resist being ‘told’ how to teach and structure their courses. Importantly, this is not the intention of CI. At all times, CI offers an invitation to faculty to experiment with new ways of teaching and bringing life-skills and topical, real-world concerns into the classroom in a manner that enhances and reinforces course content.

To help enlist participation, CI can be ‘endorsed’ by a high-level university body. Further, the ‘return on investment’ must demonstrably benefit the faculty members (as well as the students) and these benefits to faculty must be clearly communicated:

  • Acknowledge the additional load incurred through involvement in the CI program by allowing participation to fulfill some faculty administrative requirements.
  • Offer extrinsic and career-enhancing incentives for participating in the CI program, such as stipends, grants to support class-related activities, and research funds for projects that explore the benefits/impacts of CI.
  • Highlight intrinsic rewards, such as the ability to connect with students on a new level, and improved job satisfaction.

Other ways to engage faculty include:

  • Acknowledge CI ‘champions’ through the creation and appointment of CI faculty fellowships. Fellowships provide recognition and also come with a teaching reduction and a stipend.
  • Promote the opportunity in new faculty orientations and through recurrent messages to faculty.
  • Run faculty conversations that create a community of colleagues for deep exploration of various topics that relate to teaching and well-being.
    • An example of a community of practice is one created at UBC for folks interested in teaching and student well-being (see link).

Section Source: Gabriella Szabo, Concordia University (2020)

Why should I consider it?

CI’s benefits include:

  • Teaching health behaviours and related life-skills in a structured way; the approach points to the limitations of assuming that students will learn these vital skills on their own
  • Increasing students’ awareness of – and reflection upon – issues of health and wellness in ways that enhance and reinforce the intellectual content of their courses
  • Influencing students’ health-related knowledge, attitudes and behaviours in ways that reduce their risk of declining mental health related to stress and mental health issues
  • Strengthening the campus ‘safety net’ by training faculty, teaching assistants and peers (classmates, friends) to recognize signs of distress and well-being challenges in students, understand how to approach these students effectively, and know where to direct them for help
  • Creating relationships among campus health and mental health providers and students so students will feel comfortable approaching these professionals for their personal health needs

References

References
1, 2, 9, 13, 17Dyjur, P., Lindstrom, G., Arguera, N., & Bair, H. (2017). USING MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLNESS AS A FRAMEWORK FOR COURSE DESIGN. Papers on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching, 2, 1-9.
3Bunbury, S. (2018). Disability in higher education – do reasonable adjustments contribute to an inclusive curriculum? International Journal of Inclusive Education, 24(9), 964-979. doi:10.1080/13603116.2018.1503347
4, 5, 12, 16Stanton, A., Zandvliet, D., Dhaliwal, R., & Black, T. (2016). Understanding Students’ Experiences of Well-Being in Learning Environments. Higher Education Studies, 6(3), 90. doi:10.5539/hes.v6n3p90
6Steinmetz, K. (2020, February 20). Kimberlé Crenshaw on What Intersectionality Means Today. Retrieved from https://time.com/5786710/kimberle-crenshawintersectionality/
7Ontario Human Rights Commission. (n.d.). An introduction to the intersectional approach. Retrieved from http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/intersectionalapproach-discrimination-addressing-multiplegrounds-human-rights-claims/introductionintersectional-approach
8Chaplin, D., Twigg, J., & Lovell, E. (2019, April). Intersectional approaches to vulnerability reduction and resilience-building (Rep. No. 12). Retrieved from https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resourcedocuments/12651.pdf
10Mackean, G. (2011). Mental health and well-being in postsecondary education settings. CACUSS, 1-59.
11, 18Lane, K., Teng, M. Y., Barnes, S. J., Moore, K., Smith, K., & Lee, M. (2018). Using Appreciative Inquiry to Understand the Role of Teaching Practices in Student Well-being at a Research-Intensive University. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 9(2). doi:10.5206/cjsotl-rcacea.2018.2.10
14Morosanu, L., Handley, K., & O’Donovan, B. (2010). Seeking support: Researching first-year students’ experiences of coping with academic life. Higher Education Research & Development, 29(6), 665-678. doi:10.1080/07294360.2010.487200
15Gulliver, A., Farrer, L., Bennett, K., Ali, K., Hellsing, A., Katruss, N., & Griffiths, K. M. (2018). University staff experiences of students with mental health problems and their perceptions of staff training needs. Journal of Mental Health, 27(3), 247-256. doi:10.1080/096382 37.2018.1466042
19Riley, J.B., & McWilliams, M. (2007). Engaged Learning through Curriculum Infusion. Peer Review, 9(3). Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/engaged-learning-through-curriculum-infusion
Guide: PDF Version