The teaching and learning environment shapes and strongly influences students’ overall higher education experience. Classroom culture, course design, curricula, assessment, physical and virtual spaces as well as teachers and tutors all play a key role not only in students’ learning but in their personal well-being and ability to flourish.
Therefore, it is crucial to look at how we can create and sustain healthy learning settings, particularly in the current scenario with the challenge of intense online learning.
Learning environments that are student-centred and care-rooted and have the creation of a learning community at their heart have a positive effect on student well-being. Simple well-being pedagogies can be implemented for fostering such experiences throughout students’ time at university.
A warm welcome
First, setting a welcoming scene is important both at classroom and at institutional level. Transitioning into the university environment, whether far from home or via laptop screen, is an exciting yet daunting time for many students.
Carefully crafted and interactive online pre-arrival resources can provide prospective students with clear, useful information about the academic journey and university experience ahead, preparing them for their studies while allaying fears and doubts.
In a similar way, creating a welcoming online classroom environment is key and virtual icebreakers can be great tools for developing more comfortable settings and for facilitating integration among the students.
Online icebreakers come in a range of forms, from asking students to share their expectations for the new module on Padlet’s online noticeboard, to grouping them into breakout rooms to discuss current news related to the session’s content.
The aim is to encourage students to engage with each other and the lecturer. This will dismantle any feelings of isolation right from the start and make the teacher seem more approachable.
It is essential to promote learning environments where students feel connected, mitigating the social loss associated with off-campus learning.
Co-production of work fosters reciprocity, shared responsibility, a sense of community and self-confidence. So, stronger online connections can be achieved by introducing co-creation exercises in which students work remotely together and in partnership with the teacher, while contributing to the module and course curriculum.
For example, students could collaborate online to create tasks and role-play scenarios for the whole class or on the delivery of an online workshop.
Online peer assessments and peer marking are ways to promote social cohesion and diversify students’ perspectives.
Encouraging students to contribute to an online community glossary on Moodle or any other learning platform helps create a community of learning, where students can actively support each other in better understanding and revising content.
A healthy online learning setting is engaging, inclusive and caters for different learning abilities, needs and personalities.
This can be difficult in large online classes but using polling software such as Vevox or Socrative encourages whole-class engagement and allows the option for students to participate anonymously.
Short online videos offer a unique, multisensory, inclusive way to communicate important information with virtual cohorts of all sizes, while sharing messages in a personal, caring way.
As an alternative to a text-heavy email, a short, carefully crafted PowerPoint video can be shared with students to update them on the module while providing words of encouragement.
Similarly, recorded audio and video assessment briefings can prove more effective for students with diverse learning abilities while offering an opportunity for much-needed reassurance – because assessment can be a severe stressor.
Directing care by employing soft skills such as approachability, empathy and a capacity to listen and communicate clearly can promote student well-being and can be achieved through any of these simple but deliberate strategies online.
Embedding and sustaining well-being in the curriculum when planning courses, modules and assessment exercises has never been more important. While presenting unprecedented challenges, the online learning and teaching environment can contribute to the development of a truly care-rooted university experience.
Her advice is based upon research she carried out with colleagues in 2020: “Student Wellbeing in the Teaching and Learning Environment: A Study Exploring Student and Staff Perspectives”.