Student wellbeing will be supported or undermined by the curriculum depending on the extent to which it fosters students’ autonomous motivation, and creates opportunities for students to experience competence, autonomy, relationships and belonging. If curriculum is not designed to support these wellbeing essentials, it may inadvertently undermine students’ psychological resources, contributing to or exacerbating mental health difficulties.

Hear from OLT Fellow and national teaching award winner, Professor Rachael Field.
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What do we mean by ‘curriculum’?
Curriculum is thus a product and a process, with the design goal of facilitating and enriching student learning. Designing curriculum involves asking: to best achieve the desired learning outcomes, ‘what should we teach?’ and ‘how should we teach?’ (Barnett, 2009).
Elements of an academic curriculum
Formal learning experiences are delivered through course materials, lectures, tutorials, seminars, assessment tasks, work placements and so on. Complementary informal learning experiences occur through co-curricular student activities, such as volunteering, mentoring programs, sporting and social events. These are explicit curriculum elements.

There is also the ‘hidden curriculum’ – messages communicated indirectly through the formal curriculum about desired values, beliefs, behaviours and ways of understanding. These implicit messages, often culturally specific, can powerfully shape students’ experiences of university education and their engagement with the formal curriculum (Margolis, 2001).

This project addresses design of the formal curriculum, both at a macro whole-of-program or degree level and at the individual unit or subject level. In considering ways to enhance student mental wellbeing, it also attends to the messages delivered through the informal curriculum.

Why is the curriculum so important to student mental wellbeing?
Moreover, all students are engaged with the formal curriculum (in varying degrees) making it the best vehicle for ensuring that all students have opportunities to experience competence, autonomy, relationships and belonging. If the curriculum is not designed to create such opportunities and to foster students’ autonomous motivation, it will inadvertently undermine students’ psychological resources.
How might curriculum design inadvertently undermine student mental wellbeing?
Factors such as curriculum crowding, lack of structure and coherence in the sequencing of topics and tasks, and assuming knowledge that has not been taught will undermine Autonomous Motivation. Students will also lack motivation if they are unable to internalise the value and importance of knowledge and tasks that they do not find inherently meaningful.
Curricula may also undermine Belonging by making (direct or indirect) discriminatory assumptions about individuals and social groups. In either case, a student may feel mis-recognised and excluded, possibly rejected and offended. Such assumptions can be avoided by finding out as much as you can about your students, their circumstances and their prior learning when planning your curriculum. Also ensure that all curriculum materials use inclusive language and avoid social and cultural stereotypes.
Given high student numbers in most university courses, these positive Relationships may no longer occur ‘naturally’, leaving students feeling that the university is impersonal and that they are anonymous.

Scheduling time in the curriculum for ‘ice-breakers’ and ‘getting-to-know you’ activities, and in-class interactive activities (such as buzz groups, think-pair-share) can help facilitate positive inter-personal experiences. Ensuring that all students have some ‘small group’ experiences, or an opportunity to be individually supervised, will also help to foster meaningful interactions and a sense of relatedness. Such experiences enhance a student’s sense of belonging, as well as experiences of autonomy and competence. Close relationships with other students or an academic will also sustain a student who feels out of place or that they are not a natural ‘fit’ within their course or institution.

Providing rationales for curriculum choices and decisions, in terms that demonstrate understanding of students’ perspectives and concern for their interests and goals, will help students to endorse those choices and decisions, thereby supporting a sense of Autonomy and agency. Offering meaningful choices is also valuable – provided that choices are not too complex and genuinely enable students to pursue different interests and preferences.
Students will also feel ineffective or incompetent if the workload is not manageable; if effort is wasted because the ‘goal posts’ shift or instructions and goals are unclear; or if feedback identifies errors or weaknesses without explaining how these can be addressed. A carefully planned curriculum with clear learning goals, sequenced learning activities, and assessment tasks that inform both learning and subsequent teaching are the basis of student competence-support.

The next pages of this module consider how curriculum can be designed to actively support student wellbeing.

Research snapshot 2.1: Designing curriculum to support student mental wellbeing

Student mental wellbeing is a condition (or pre-requisite) for effective learning (Seligman, 2012). Emerging evidence confirms that student wellbeing can be cultivated and supported through intentional curriculum design (Slavin, Schindler, & Chibnall, 2014; Slavin et al., 2012Tang & Ferguson, 2014).

Key strategies employed to successfully promote student wellbeing in medical (e.g., Slavin et al., 2014; Slavin et al., 2012) and legal education (e.g., Tang & Ferguson, 2014) involve identifying and reducing unnecessary stressors in the curriculum and recognising students’ psychological needs. They include:

  • Providing competency assessments and feedback on student work, rather than normative grading
  • Allowing students greater flexibility in how they approach tasks or the topics they study
  • Streamlining the traditional curriculum content and reducing contact hours to increase space for personal time and other commitments
  • Equipping students with skills to manage stress, uncertainty, unknowns and conflicts
  • Supporting students to find meaning and positivity in the tasks they are required to perform.

For university educators, the possibility of improving student learning outcomes as well as mental health is a major incentive to consider the psychological impacts of curriculum design and, where possible, ensure that curriculum choices support rather than undermine student wellbeing.