Conditions for Well-Being
Social connectedness has a direct effect on college student retention, according to Allen, Robbins, Casillas, and Oh, 2008. Evidence also suggests that it has a positive correlation with achievement motivation (Walton, Cohen, Cwir, & Spencer, 2012), which may impact academic achievement. Social connectedness has also proved to be an important factor in maintaining student retention rates (Allen et al., 2008). Research suggests that supportive faculty members can have a significant positive impact on a student’s intention to persist after the first year (Shelton, 2003). You can help your students by connecting with them or by helping them connect with each other!
- On the first day of class, use a brief survey to get to know students. Ask about their backgrounds, interests, strengths, needs and other topics.
- If appropriate, use the survey information to adjust teaching course content.
- Learn the names of your students.
- Get out from behind the podium or desk and move among the students. If you use a tablet that connects to the projector, you can allow students to write on the tablet themselves to show how they would solve a problem or answer a question.
- Incorporate welcoming rituals or mindfulness practices at the start of class.
- Share personal connections to content— areas where you struggled, concepts you were surprised to learn, personal anecdotes, etc.
- Close each class with something positive. For example, have students share something they learned or something they’re interested in learning more about.
- Use various forms of cooperative or collaborative learning.
Incorporate “Welcoming Rituals” at the Start of Class
- Smile and greet students.
- Carry on informal conversations before class.
- Play music before class.
- Allow students to choose the tunes.
- Ask students how they are doing.
- Start class by letting students share one WOW, POW or CHOW:
- WOW:Something great that happened in the past week.
- POW: Something disappointing that happened recently
- CHOW: A great new restaurant experience.
- Start with a brief writing assignment and/or peer conversations.
- Allow students to go over homework in pairs or cooperative groups.
Mindfulness and Stress Reduction
Mindfulness has been shown to improve memory and testing performance, reduce stress levels, and foster better physical health (Bonamo, Legerski & Thomas, 2015; Kerrigan et al., 2017). Mindfulness practice has also been shown to improve mental-health outcomes for students who are struggling in an academic setting (Dvoˇráková et al., 2017). While the goal of mindfulness is not to help people achieve more, it has remarkably reliable effects on well-being, academic performance, stress reduction and general health for its practitioners.
- Engage in “brain breaks” that allow students to take their minds off the learning content.
- Allow for collaborative discussions or other interactions during instruction.
- Allow for short periods of movement (e.g., get up and find one person with whom to share a thought, story or question).
- Provide a “mindfulness minute” at the beginning of class, before exams, etc., in which you encourage or allow students to sit quietly and use deep breathing techniques.
- Practice techniques for focusing attention.
- Teach students how to use effective self-talk and stress-reduction approaches to manage their emotions.
- Incorporate mindfulness activities at highly stressful times (e.g., before an exam).
- Organize mindfulness activities outside of the classroom. Examples include:
- Visiting the Providence College Galleries and explore using art to promote mindfulness.
- Encouraging students to participate in a yoga, meditation or exercise classes (available for free in Providence College’s Recreation Sports program).
- Encouraging students to participate in mindfulness classes or activities for extra credit.
- Let students know about resources for meditation, reflection, and mindfulness on campus (e.g., St. Dominic Chapel, the Personal Counseling Center’s Center for Mindfulness, Rec Sports, etc.)
I LOVED IT WHEN OUR PROFESSOR TAUGHT US A MINI MINDFULNESS TECHNIQUE TO USE BEFORE EACH CLASS STARTED. IT WAS A REALLY RIGOROUS CLASS AND IMPORTANT FOR ME TO DO WELL IN. HER TECHNIQUE HELPED ME NOT FREAK OUT BEFORE TESTS. NOW I AM USING IT IN OTHER CLASSES TOO!
Growth mindset, or the belief that intelligence is not a fixed trait but one that can improve, is shown to be positively correlated with student achievement scores (Bostwick, Collie, Martin, & Durksen, 2017; Dweck, 2006). Students’ mindsets can influence how they react to stressful situations, failures and challenges. Having a growth mindset is associated with more adaptive coping and learning strategies after failure. Alternately, a fixed mindset leads students to disengage from their challenges and feel helpless (Dweck & Leggett, 1988). Fortunately, a student’s mindset is malleable. Here are some strategies to help your students change the way they see themselves in relation to challenging coursework.
- Teach students how to use mistakes/failures to their advantage.
- Let students see you make mistakes, then show them how you use those mistakes to learn.
- Discuss how mistakes and failures by important people in your field have been part of the natural process of learning and overcoming difficult academic challenges.
- Struggle with concepts in front of students and allow them to help you work through the process.
- Explicitly talk with students about learning and deliberate practice.
- Discuss and model self-regulation strategies for learning and applying content. (See below.)
Discuss and Model Self-Regulation Strategies for Learning and Applying Content
- Setting goals and monitoring progress toward those goals.
- Using self-talk effectively to motivate your way through difficult material or problems.
- Creating time management plans to accomplish goals.
- Thinking about your approach, identifying misconceptions, and doing something to fix those misconceptions.
- Becoming aware of your own emotions, such as anxiety, and using techniques to address them.
- Focus less on competition and performance and more on learning and mastery. Examples include:
- Not grading exams or other assignments based on a normal distribution.
- Allowing students to retake exams or parts of exams to learn from mistakes.
- Allowing students to rewrite papers or redo projects based on feedback provided.
- Having students take exams both individually and in groups.
- Giving students choices in how they demonstrate knowledge and mastery of content.
- Build in different ways for students to demonstrate learning and mastery of content. Examples include:
- Using a variety of assignment types— exams, papers, presentations, videos, etc.
- Letting students choose how they demonstrate their learning within individual assignments (e.g., creating a video, writing a paper, giving a presentation).
- Allowing students to choose whether they work on assignments individually, in groups or with partners.
- Allow for students to fix mistakes and work through problems they’ve encountered so they can see the progress being made.
- Let students know you don’t want perfection. Do this by using words like “learning” and “growing,” rather than “achievement” or “performance.”
Resilience is the ability to recover from stress despite challenging life events that otherwise would overwhelm a person’s normal ability to cope with that stress (Smith et al., 2008). Students with more resilience tend to have better mental health and academic outcomes (Johnson, Taasoobshirazi, Kestler, & Cordova, 2015). Being able to bounce back from difficult experiences can mean coping after a bad grade or recovering from a stressful life event like the loss of a loved one. Fortunately, resilience seems to be a malleable psychological factor that, with work and time, can be strengthened. Studies have shown resilience is linked to mindfulness, a sense of purpose in life, an optimistic outlook and active coping styles (Smith, Epstein, Ortiz, Christopher, & Tooley, 2013).
- Talk about times that you’ve failed and how you worked through those failures.
- Teach students how to use mistakes/failures to their advantage.
- Use exams and other assignments as teaching tools, rather than the end of learning. Examples include:
- Instead of simply giving students their grades, go over the exam or assignment and discuss areas of common struggle, what these mistakes mean for thinking and learning, and how they connect to new learning.
- Allow students to correct mistakes and redo assignments to demonstrate continued mastery and learning.
- Provide students with individual feedback on assignments, and model how to use this feedback to improve on future assignments.
- Explicitly teach strategies you use to overcome failure.
- Teach students how to self-assess accurately by modeling your own self-assessing behavior.
- Focus less on competition and performance and more on learning and mastery.
- Be optimistic about how students are doing in your class.
In Fall 2017, I had taught a required second-year undergraduate course for the eighth time, and I took a very different approach. I mentioned to the students that I had struggled with specific topics in that same course when I was an undergraduate student. I told them that I had re-ordered the traditional presentation of the topics in the class to make it easier to grasp the more difficult concepts. I received several “thank-you’s” during the semester from students who were repeating the course and had been overwhelmed by one of the more difficult topics due to the traditional order of topics.
In simple terms, researchers define gratitude as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life” (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Lyuboirsky, 2007). Emmons, McCullough, and their peers have demonstrated the beneficial impacts of expressing gratitude on physical and mental health (Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006; Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Neff, 2011). This research also shows that through consistent practice, gratitude can be developed over time, leading to higher levels of happiness and self-worth and stronger relationships (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Lyuboirsky, 2007; McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002).
- Show students how to express gratitude. Examples include:
- Share things in your life for which you are grateful.
- In class, share student actions that have inspired gratitude.
- Give individual students written notes describing something they’ve done that you appreciate.
- Send emails to individual students listing things they’ve done that you appreciate.
- Have students think about or list things for which they’re grateful. Examples include:
- Before an exam, give students two minutes to write about one object of gratitude.
- During a break in class, have students contemplate a relationship for which they are grateful.
- For homework, ask students to write a letter to someone who has made them feel grateful.
- Have students keep a gratitude journal and write in it once a week.
- Be optimistic. Focus on the positive more than the negative. Examples include:
- At the beginning of the semester, focus on the benefits of being in your class.
- When going over an exam or assignment, focus on what students did correctly before addressing their mistakes.
- At the end of the semester, share how teaching the class benefited you, and have students share how the class benefited them.
Think of inclusive education as an ongoing effort with three distinct but related goals (Waitoller & Kozleski, 2013): to more equitably distribute learning opportunities; to recognize and honor the differences among students; and to provide opportunities for marginalized groups “to represent themselves in decision-making processes.”
As a conclusion to their meta-analysis of inclusive education research, Waitoller and Artiles (2013) argue that inclusivity should be treated more broadly. Rather than focusing on a unitary identity like “disabled” or “female,” for example, treat the question of inclusion in the classroom through a lens of intersectionality, considering all relevant identities and groups that have been historically marginalized in educational settings.
- Consider student needs when it comes to seating, visual/audio equipment, note taking, test taking, response opportunities, etc.
- Use inclusive language and gender-neutral pronouns.
- Provide resource information in your syllabus or elsewhere. (See the “Resources” section.)
- Be prepared to allow for and respond to different student responses within the content.
- Explicitly talk about mental health and well-being to normalize difficulties.
Early in my teaching career, Parker Palmer (author of The Courage to Teach) visited campus. During his address to the PC faculty, he encouraged us ‘do not be afraid to love your students.’ I took that advice to heart, and it has made all the difference.
—Dr. Mary O’Keeffe
Self-compassion and Empathy
Self-compassion is not the same thing as self-esteem; it is a practice of treating yourself like you would a close friend by accepting your shortcomings but also holding yourself accountable to grow and learn from failure (Neff, 2003, 2011). Research on this topic conducted at UT Austin suggests that “self-compassionate individuals may be better able to see failure as a learning opportunity and to focus on accomplishing tasks at hand” (Neff, Hsieh, & Dejitterat, 2005).
- Model how you have compassion for yourself and others.
- When you make a mistake or struggle with something, share it with students and talk about strategies you use to be compassionate with yourself (e.g., self-talk).
- When a student comes to you with a question or need, show that you are listening and understand where they’re coming from (e.g., look at them, smile, shake your head, repeat what they say to clarify).
- Discuss common humanity among you and students. Examples include:
- When students struggle or fail, talk about a time when you had a similar experience.
- Share your own positive and negative experiences at specific times (e.g., before or after giving an exam, when going over an assignment).
- Try seeing things from a student’s perspective, and help him or her see things from your perspective.
- Give students the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume they’re lazy or trying to get out of work.
- Acknowledge students’ lives outside of class. These lives may include:
- Chronic illnesses
- Athletic commitments
- Campus leadership roles
- Other classes
Life purpose, or meaning in life, is a core component of positive psychology and refers to the belief that one lives a meaningful existence. This belief is associated with higher life satisfaction (Chamberlain & Zika, 1988), happiness (Debats, van der Lunne, & Wezeman, 1993), and hope (Mascaro & Rosen, 2005). Having a sense of life purpose has multiple positive associations with coping, health, well-being and adaptive coping strategies (Thompson, Coker, Krause, & Henry, 2003). It’s also related to a lower incidence of psychological disorders (Owens, Steger, Whitesell, & Herrera, 2009). Helping students understand how their academic life is linked to their sense of purpose in life, may help them maintain motivation, hope and engagement with the course.
- Have students set goals for what they want to accomplish in the course, and consider how these goals relate to larger life goals.
- Share how course content relates to your own life and goals.
- While teaching, explicitly connect content to students’ goals.
- Set up times to talk informally with students about their goals and life plans.
In all likelihood, someone has taken advantage of me in terms of asking for and getting extensions or make-ups. But I have to balance that risk against one in which I must scrupulously interrogate students’ lives and put myself in the position to say, ‘Well, I don’t believe your word. Show me proof that your grandmother died.’ Kindness to students who are struggling is important to me, and if I am going to err, I tend to err on the side of assuming that students are being truthful.