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Student mental well-being is a critical concern in higher education. The number of students disclosing mental health difficulties is increasing year on year, and statistics show consistent and concerning gaps in degree outcomes for students with mental health issues.
This is particularly the case in distance learning. Even before the pandemic, distance learning students appear more likely than campus-based students to disclose mental health difficulties and may be more likely to need support. In the Open University (OU), 12.2% of students (16,139 in total) disclosed a mental health condition in 2019–20, compared to the UK sector average of 4.2%, and the OU’s Access and Participation Plan shows worrying gaps in degree outcomes for students with mental health difficulties.
There is a need for universities to take action. Studies have found that academic pressure and university culture and systems may be triggering mental health issues, and that mental well-being for students is consistently worse than the well-being of non-students of comparative age. Sector bodies and charities like Student Minds are increasing calling for universities to take a whole-institution approach to embed mental well-being throughout practice.
Embedding well-being in distance learning
A three-year initiative in the OU is working towards embedding mental well-being in distance learning. Working with staff and students across the university, it aims to identify barriers and enablers to well-being that students experience, and co-create solutions that can be embedded in practice to address these barriers.
First, 16 students and 5 tutors took part in interviews; this identified a taxonomy of barriers and enablers to well-being in distance learning. Next, focus group events were held with 116 OU staff and students, and surveys were sent to wider groups of staff and students. These aimed to seek broader perspectives on barriers and enablers, and to generate ideas for solutions that might address the barriers in practice.
In total, 773 staff and 593 students created 806 ideas for solutions. These broadly fell into four categories: skills and confidence, learning and study, support, and environment, and culture.
Focus group events worked to turn ideas into projects. In the third year of the initiative, five projects were piloted in practice. These included:
- Well-being in learning design. Our study identified a number of examples of positive pedagogy that supported student well-being, but these were inconsistently applied in practice. This project aimed to embed positive practice in the OU’s Learning Design approach, building well-being into the design of module structure, activities and assessment through a series of recommendations to module teams in production. Recommendations included flexibility, scaffolding of challenging activities (such as group work), and embedding content on mental health. The project team worked with a student panel to hone and refine the recommendations, and these are currently being piloted with modules in production.
- Discipline-specific well-being resource hubs. Students in our study told us that wellbeing guidance tended to be rather general, and to reside in student support areas rather than be part of their study environment. This meant they frequently didn’t find it until they had a real problem, rather than using it to head off a problem before it became serious. This project aimed to address this by creating hubs of discipline-specific well-being guidance and resources for students, curated for the programme they were studying and hosted on programme ‘Study Home’ websites. The project team worked with staff across the university to agree a shared structure and example resources (for example: resources on study meditation, exam stress, maths anxiety, placement difficulties, etc.). Technical teams then created ‘Your well-being’ webpages on Study Home sites across the OU; these launched in March 2021 with generic content, and will be slowly customised by programme teams with bespoke, programme-specific content.
- Distressing content and emotional resilience. Our study recognised the difficulties that distressing curriculum content can present for students, especially when it triggers flashbacks or reminders of trauma. This project aimed to support academic module teams to ensure that any potentially distressing content in their curricula were properly scaffolded, with content warnings, guidance for students and delivered using a pedagogy of care. The project team first carried out a review of modules containing potentially distressing content. A working group then devised a banding system to classify content. Category A topics required the most signposting and support as these can trigger harmful behaviours in students; these include topics such as suicide, eating disorders and self-harm. Category B contains topics that may trigger flashbacks of trauma, such as abuse, rape, hate crime, violence or psychosis. Category C contain topics that may be painful or distressing, such as animal cruelty, death and common phobias. The team then worked with stakeholders across the university to create a standard approach to signposting, content warnings and supporting guidance for the three categories, including template guidance and wording module teams could use. This approach has been implemented in all new modules, and editors are currently working to incorporate it into existing modules.
Well-being in tuition
Our study found that support from tutors is a critical part of student wellbeing in distance learning. This project aimed to scale up positive tuition practice by working closely with academic tutors in one faculty. First, the project team worked with a small group of tutors and students to co-create an ‘inclusivity audit’ tool that tutors could use to analyse how well represented mental well-being was in their tuition practice and materials. Next, it piloted this tool with a range of tutors in the faculty, accompanied by specialist training on student mental well-being, challenges students can face, and the impact positive tuition can have. This was extremely popular and resulted in a number of completed ‘audits’ that other tutors could draw on for inspiration. Finally, the team worked with students to create a set of student videos, sharing their experiences of mental health challenges and achievements in distance learning. These videos, along with the inclusivity audit tool and examples of completed audits, were shared with tutors across the faculty, and are currently being rolled out to other faculties in the OU.
Well-being in the curriculum professional development
The findings from the study, and recommendations for practice in embedding wellbeing in curriculum and assessment, were compiled into a professional development micro-credential. Endorsed by the Mental Health Foundation, this 12-week course shares current literature, findings from the study, and practical guidance for educators in all contexts on how to ensure their practice both supports and promotes student wellbeing. Over 250 practitioners have taken the course so far.
These projects are the first steps in a journey towards embedding mental wellbeing in distance learning. These pilot projects will be evaluated, successful initiatives will be scaled up, and other solutions will be piloted. Students and staff from across the university will be involved throughout, and new funding from Office for Students has brought exciting partnerships with sector bodies and other universities, moving towards more inclusive distance learning environments.
Kate Lister, PFHEA is a lecturer in education studies at the Open University.