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How can aspects of wellbeing be addressed in the curriculum?

  • 5 April 2024
  • By Harriet Dunbar-Morris

In a world that has changed due to the Covid pandemic and the cost of living, students are increasingly less able to engage with standalone support provided by institutions. They are also less well-prepared for higher education study, having undertaken parts of their secondary education during the pandemic, not always together in a classroom and not always with exams in exam halls and under strict exam conditions, as previous generations had done.

This is why it is so important to support our students to help themselves with wellbeing and resilience. For me the best way to do that is to ensure this is done within the curriculum, so that everyone is catered for – it is not opt-in and only for those who can attend additional activities out of teaching hours. Embedding Wellbeing into the Curriculum: A Good Compendium of Good Practice, published by Advance HE last month, is an important step forward in developing understanding in this area.

Concern for wellbeing in the curriculum is not new, of course, but currently it feels more urgent than ever before. The aim of the Compendium, which I compiled together with peers at Swansea University (Joanne Berry), University of Portsmouth (Fiona Cook) and Bangor University (Fran Garrad-Cole) is therefore to highlight specific examples of how colleagues in the UK and beyond think they have improved student wellbeing through their teaching, and to explore their differing understandings of wellbeing.

As Joanne notes in her Introduction to the Compendium, some set out to improve student wellbeing on purpose, and this is an explicit learning outcome of their modules; others have evidence that the approach, structure and assessment of their modules had an unintended and positive impact on the wellbeing of their students. Some of these modules are examples of university-wide initiatives with large-scale reach, but others have simply been introduced by individual lecturers into their subject areas.

For academic staff this Compendium is therefore extremely useful, as so many publications can be quite theoretical – extolling the virtues and benefits of embedding wellbeing in the curriculum, but not actually providing any help with what that actually means on the ground.

The staff I personally interviewed for the case studies in this Compendium were at pains to share what they had actually done, what pitfalls to avoid, what they would do differently if they were doing it again, and we have also written about how the initiatives can be adapted to other subjects, courses or settings. The Compendium concludes by bringing together ideas from all the case studies to provide a clear series of recommendations to help institutions embed wellbeing in their own curriculum. These include:

  • Consider using a ‘social contract’ so all students discuss, acknowledge and agree module expectations.
  • In class, think about how the room is set up, and also ask students how they want to engage with the module outside class.
  • Co-create with your students, be flexible with your approach, and think about prompts you can use to provoke discussion and openness among students and staff.
  • Give students the chance to express their fears or anxieties about the module, its assessment, or even about their future careers, and be mindful of expectations and terminology such as resilience and full potential.
  • Consider the personal experiences that may be shared by students, and be explicit about connections between your module or teaching and the wider environment.

It is important that staff can draw on good practice from across the sector, both home and abroad, to enhance the student experience.

That is particularly important in an institution like The University of Buckingham, with its 50:50 home international student body. So this practical guide is something I will be able to use as I review the portfolio at Buckingham, which will use my Charrette workshop methodology to enable programme teams to review their course design. Charrette participants can consider and I am sure embrace and amend or adopt as appropriate the suggestions in the Compendium about ways to make changes for the benefit of students to enhance wellbeing.

For me, this is what being a Principal Fellow and a National Teaching Fellow is all about – helping others to enhance things for staff and students. I hope colleagues find this useful for their practice, embrace the suggestions about ways to make changes for the benefit of students, and that students will indeed benefit as a result.

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1 comment

  1. Arti Kumar says:

    Thank you for your article, I’m very interested in the topic of wellbeing as an essential human need, integrated with health, happiness and resilience. All these are aspects of bio-psycho-social functioning and should be addressed as an inclusive need for staff and students in tandem. While it is generally accepted that skillsets for employability — and now sustainability — are essential in HE, we cannot ignore that mental health impacts the ability to function well in learning, work and life in general. To address this I created additional material in my book (2nd ed. 2022), which has tools for holistic health and wellbeing alongside the andragogy for personalised learning and holistic health. The new material is in need of action research for educators to evaluate and improve, as needed. Please see website to access more information.

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