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.
What do we mean by ‘curriculum’?
Curriculum is defined in this project to include what is taught (and assessed) as well as how it is taught (and assessed).
Elements of an academic curriculum
There are three elements to an academic curriculum: formal learning, informal learning and the ‘hidden’ curriculum.
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?
The curriculum is central to students’ experience of university. It is a university’s primary means of influencing what and how students learn, and it helps shape their attitudes, behaviours and understanding of the world.
How might curriculum design inadvertently undermine student mental wellbeing?
Autonomous Motivation is undermined when students feel pressured or controlled, or feel that their interests and perspectives are not acknowledged.
A sense of Belonging – in the classroom, the course and the academic field – will be undermined by subject curricula if topics and tasks make incorrect assumptions about students’ capacities, prior knowledge, interests or experiences.
Positive Relationships are more likely to form when the curriculum is designed to facilitate personal interactions between students and between students and faculty.
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.
Experiences of Autonomy (being in the driver’s seat) will be denied or undermined if students do not understand why certain knowledge and tasks are required of them, or they feel that what they have to do and how they have to do it is overly-prescribed.
Experiences of Competence will be undermined if the curriculum does not offer optimal challenge, if ‘threshold’ concepts and skills are not established early, or if students do not receive meaningful and informative feedback on their progress.
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., 2012; Tang & 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.