It’s no secret that student mental health is a growing concern. Covid has compounded many of the social, academic and financial inequalities and challenges to mental health across the higher education sector in the UK and beyond. The result has been more students needing mental health support than before the pandemic and compared to other demographics.
Say the word “university” and the image that forms in the mind is likely a physical campus. Campus is where we interact with others in both scheduled and unexpected ways that lend meaning to those interactions, and it can be difficult to approximate the same levels of immediacy and spontaneity online.
Faculty have a marked influence on students’ learning and academic success through their teaching. During the shift from face-to-face to online learning, the importance of the faculty role has become even more salient, with students looking to their instructors for stability, leadership and support during uncertain times.
Meet Harry. Harry is an assistant professor, no tenure yet − hopefully in a few years. According to his contract, Harry is supposed to spend 60 per cent of his working time teaching and 40 per cent on research. Academic reality, however, tells another story.
In the past two weeks, Harry was part of a hiring committee (which took eight hours), contributed to a report on student evaluations (two hours), peer-reviewed an article (six hours), attended an editorial board meeting (two hours) and had a number of chats with students who needed extra attention (three hours).
One of the key changes faced by students and educators alike in the shift to online teaching has been a decrease in social presence. Yet numerous studies have demonstrated the importance of social presence in education. The benefits include increased student satisfaction, participation and engagement with material, and a greater likelihood of students feeling comfortable in a course and confident in approaching their instructor. More social presence has been shown to reduce challenges inherent in online education such as interpersonal disconnection and isolation.
We see many varied examples and incidents of cyberbullying around the world. As many students enter their second year of online schooling, it’s an even more important, timely topic, especially for the younger generation. Because they all live with this technology, the first thing they do when they wake up is check social media. With increasingly online lifestyles, cyberbullying can take on many different forms.
Two things changed the direction of my personal and professional life in my early twenties: during my senior year in college, I survived a violent sexual assault, and three months after graduation I experienced homelessness. My family was not equipped to support me with either because they were struggling financially and had strong opinions regarding my queer identity. I was forced to navigate the sexual assault trauma on my own while still trying to earn my degree.
At the beginning of the pandemic, universities’ focus was necessarily on managing the shift to remote delivery of teaching and assessment. However, for those of us on the front line, it quickly became apparent that looking after our students’ well-being was equally important – if not more so.
All of us involved in teaching online have had to find a balance between live classes and pre-recorded material. In doing so, the emphasis has generally been on ensuring the best possible learning outcomes for our students.
We, as educators, must focus on our students’ emotional needs as well as their educational requirements if we are to teach online effectively. Here are simple ways to make sure students feel connected and supported from a distance.
How are you, really?
Many of us will experience well-being challenges at various points in our lives, and this is especially true for students. The links between mental health and well-being and student engagement, progression, retention and achievement are well documented, and for many the pandemic has added to these challenges. It is therefore important that student health and well-being are promoted throughout university life and that a holistic approach is adopted.