June 20, 2024

Mental well-being in the post-secondary classroom

Three strategies for well-being that impact our presence in the classroom
A woman with curly brown hair sits at a desk by a window. Her computer is open and shows a video call. She is holding a cup of tea.
Stock image

Mental health and well-being are important topics for everyone, but studying and working in post-secondary education comes with its own set of challenges. On top of the personal stressors and traumas that our community may bring to work and school every day, students may experience additional stressors at school, such as financial pressures, grades, overall academic performance, and managing workload, among others.

As course instructors, you may experience teaching-related stressors such as increasing class sizes, expanding workloads, frequent changes to policies and procedures, and adapting to new learning technologies and pedagogical approaches. 

We can't eliminate stressors from our lives, but we can attempt to mitigate stress through a focus on well-being.

In light of UCalgary's Campus Mental Health Strategy renewing its focus on Community Mental Health and Well-Being, we want to reflect on three key strategies instructors and students can implement in their lives now to enter their teaching and learning spaces from a place of stronger well-being.

Prioritize reflection for resiliency

No course will go perfectly, and taking time to reflect on our successes and challenges is one strategy that boosts our resiliency. In "Four Practices to Boost Your Resiliency", Dr. Jennifer Thannhauser, PhD, a registered psychologist with Student Wellness Services, says that resiliency is our ability to “adapt well to adversity or change, and to sustain good health and energy when under constant or acute pressure."

Instead of viewing disappointing grades or difficult classes as negative setbacks, viewing them as opportunities for further learning and growth helps everyone move forward with a positive mindset.

When reflecting on assignment or course success, students might consider the following prompts: What worked well? What didn’t? What did my course instructor suggest for improvement? Where can I go for help/support? 

While reflecting on courses taught, course instructors might consider the following questions: What learning activities did we do in this class and how did they go? What could have gone better? What concepts or topics were particularly tricky? Where did students excel? How was my well-being this term? Were there any issues with workload, such as marking and feedback? 

This practice holds great value outside the post-secondary environment as well; use Thannhauser’s reflective worksheet on resilience to get started. And for more on developing resiliency, see Thannhauser’s Resilience During COVID-19 and Beyond and the TI’s Promoting Reflection and Resilience Through Course Design

Connect with others  

Connecting with others during a course can help both students and course instructors to stay positive and engaged—in their studies or work as in other parts of their lives. Thannhauser notes that “when we care for others, it activates systems of the brain that increase motivation and optimism, enhances perception, intuition and self-control, inhibits fear, protects against harmful effects of chronic/traumatic stress, and produces prosocial tendencies including empathy, connection and trust.” 

In addition to setting goals that prioritize our communities and demonstrate “bigger-than-self” aspirations, smaller acts of connection can help get us through more challenging times in the term. Course concepts can be less overwhelming when discussing them with other students. For example, students might select a study buddy or create a larger study group that meets regularly outside of class for additional support and connection. It is also critical to build in time to relax with friends. 

For course instructors, this might look like buddying up with another course instructor or colleague to support each other through a term or year. This could, for example, include exchanging course evaluations to read and summarize for each other. Instructors also need to get together with friends on occasion! 

Schedule (and protect) downtime and self-care 

While self-care might feel like a buzzword at this point, its value for how we show up in other areas of our lives cannot be overstated. Students and course instructors should both prioritize the development and regular execution of individualized self-care plans—designed to care for our spiritual and emotional well-being, tend to our stress levels, increase our resilience, and improve our physical and mental health. In a 2020 webinar entitled Self-Care and Crisis Response During COVID-19, Dr. Glory Ovie, PhD, says engaging in self-care in challenging times is especially important because it not only allows us to “take back some control, which can reduce our sense of helplessness,” but also “paves the way for kind, compassionate engagement with the world around [us]”. 

A self-care plan may include such priorities as:

  • physical activity
  • healthy food
  • relaxation and rest
  • time for fun and hobbies
  • addressing the conditions causing stress in our lives
  • seeking help from a counsellor or other support person
  • following a faith or set of spiritual beliefs

Carolyn Jeffries and Shari Tarver Behring from California State University – Northridge offer a seven-step process for how to build an individualized self-care plan. This worksheet can help you assess your current stress levels, identify what’s causing stress in your life, clarify your usual coping mechanisms, and create a self-care plan informed by this increased understanding. 

For more resources on self-care and well-being in post-secondary, visit the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning resource library or the Campus Mental Health Strategy.