Educational research shows that what academic educators do in the design of classes, and how they interact with students, has a strong impact on student engagement in learning, including the approaches they adopt and the learning goals they develop (intrinsic or instrumental). How educators teach and interact with students creates a ‘learning climate’ that can affect student learning and wellbeing.

Listen to PhD student Michelle Walter’s story of mental health difficulties and the role of teachers.
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Student vox pop: What could teachers do to support student wellbeing?
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As outlined in 1.3: Wellbeing essentials, student mental wellbeing is supported when teachers create a learning climate that nurtures and sustains Autonomous Motivation through regular experiences of Belonging, positive Relationships, Autonomy and Competence. While these experiences can be supported through the curriculum (see 2.2 Start here), they can also be promoted by teaching practice in the classroom.

Teaching approaches can foster (or undermine) students’ autonomous motivation
‘Autonomy-supportive’ teachers aim to support students to own and invest in their learning, to connect with their inner motivational resources (emerging interests or important goals) and make learning personally meaningful. To this end, autonomy-supportive teachers use a range of strategies and techniques that assist students to feel that their actions are agentic (and self-determined) rather than being ‘controlled’ by external powers and demands.

By contrast, teachers who exercise a ‘controlling’ teaching style motivate and engage students by reference to external standards (‘employers are only interested in the top 20% of graduates in this course’), performance anxieties (‘pay attention, this is on the exam’), and contingent rewards (‘excellent – I see you’ve been reading my textbook’). While these strategies work to motivate students in the short term, they are not sustaining in the longer term as they direct students to focus on avoiding ‘failure’ or pursuing external indicators of approval and achievement, rather than deep learning and personal growth.

Learning climates and autonomous motivation 
Positive relationships and a climate of equality, respect and fairness among students enable all students to take advantage of the available learning opportunities and explore emerging interests. A sense that one can become good at new skills and master new knowledge – with appropriate time and effort – is also essential for academic motivation and achievement (Vansteenkiste, Lens and Deci, 2006).

Creating learning environments that support student wellbeing

Teacher’s interpersonal approach to students and their learning – characterised by the goal of encouraging students to be self-initiating (rather than pressuring them to behave in certain ways) – can affect student wellbeing. Key strategies for promoting autonomy-supportive learning environments are explained and examples are provided below. Keep in mind, however, that use of one or more of these strategies in isolation will not create a learning climate that students perceive as supporting their autonomous motivation.

Autonomous Motivation


  • Design learning tasks and select problems or examples that connect with students’ interests, preferences, curiosity and current knowledge
  • Help students to make meaning through their learning and understand the value of the knowledge and skills being developed
  • Help students to connect concepts and skills being learned with their lives and work (relevance)
  • Assist students to set personal learning goals that are realistic, meaningful and challenging
  • Developing short (2 minute) videos to introduce each week’s lectures or show current issues in the media to provoke students’ curiosity.  +more
  • Including regular feedback from different sources including self-reflection, other students, the teacher, or third-party sources outside of the classroom such as editors of online journals or Wikipedia.  +more
  • Helping students think about their futures as professionals, rather than students who are finishing a course.  +more



  • Show understanding that some students need more time than others to grasp concepts and skills
  • Design learning tasks that value and draw out diverse perspectives, experiences and forms of prior knowledge
  • Encourage students to contribute and build collective knowledge about the topic
  • Encouraging students to share stories about their achievements.  +more
  • Encouraging students to run social outings for small classes. +more
  • Practising unconditional positive regard – by explicitly disregarding any personal histories with students and focusing on the current shared learning experience.  +more
  • Constructing mindful, considerate replies in discussion forums.  +more

Positive Relationships


  • Foster collaborative and cooperative learning that helps students feel connected to peers
  • Be friendly and approachable
  • Demonstrate interest in students’ questions and ideas
  • Understand students’ perspectives, concerns and experiences
  • Spending “consultation time” in shared, public, and familiar spaces.  +more
  • Getting students to ‘showcase’ their work to each other.  +more
  • Checking in with first-year students around mid-semester.  +more
  • Constructing mindful, considerate replies in discussion forums.  +more



  • Provide meaningful choices (that reflect students’ interests and are not too complex) and facilitating flexible approaches to learning
  • Provide justifications for required tasks and skills so that students can ‘internalise’ and self-endorse the reasons for the activity/unit
  • Acknowledge and accept expressions of negative feelings and affect – e.g., ‘I appreciate that some students find this task/activity/topic boring. This is why it’s important…’
  • Use language that minimises pressure and control – e.g., ‘You might like to try…’ rather than directives and ‘should/must’ statements.
  • Asking students to reflect on the process they chose to use to complete the assessment. +more
  • Focusing feedback on individual elements of the assessment piece rather than discussion of the piece as a whole or discussion of the students’ role in the piece. +more
  • Helping students see that there is more than one way to progress and improve throughout the course. +more



  • Scaffold the early stages of student learning so that students experience achievement and reward for effort
  • Design, simplify or increase the complexity of learning tasks and problems so that they provide optimal challenge for students
  • Provide informational (rather than judgmental) feedback
  • Developing a series of short videos to demonstrate fundamentals of the course.  +more
  • Including feedback from alternative sources including self-reflection, other students, the teacher, or third-party sources outside of the classroom such as editors of online journals or Wikipedia.  +more
  • Running activities in class that require the skills needed for the assessment but use different content and are not graded.  +more
  • Getting students to ‘showcase’ their work to each other in low-stakes, non-assessed environments.  +more