Have you wondered what small actions you can take to enhance student wellness in your remote courses? Professor Nancy Heath and her team recently created the resource Enhancing Student Wellness: Simple Tips for Instructors, in collaboration with Teaching and Learning Services and the Wellness Hub. The resource describes simple, easy to implement activities that can make a big difference to students in your course.
In the following interview, Nancy and graduate student team members Stephanie Zito and Laurianne Bastien describe the process of creating the wellness resource, compiling examples of strategies, and getting feedback from students.
Nicole: What was your motivation for creating the Enhancing Student Wellness: Simple Tips for Instructors resource?
Nancy: Professors were saying that they could see their students were having a hard time, and they wished they knew how to support them in the classroom. They said it seemed liked the students were feeling isolated, they were leaving their videos off, and they didn’t feel their students were doing well.
So, it was through interactions with my colleagues, where my colleagues were saying, “I wish I had some easy tips to support student wellness, with the key being: 1) I’m not a mental health professional, 2) it’s got to be easy, not a lot of additional work, and 3) there should be evidence behind it.”
Nicole: How did you choose the strategies included in the resource?
Nancy: The motivating factor behind the overall framework was that it had to be simple and the strategies could not take up a lot of time, because professors are already feeling tight for time.
We know that connections are critical for student wellness. So, we knew one category for tips had to be about connections, because students are feeling isolated and disconnected.
The second category is about increasing wellness, right here, right now. The professors were saying that students have their video off, are dead silent, or are clearly uncomfortable. It feels like class is not a positive experience, and the students are not looking forward to coming to class online. So, this category is focused on making class just a teeny, tiny bit more fun.
We have so many resources for student wellness on campus, but we can’t get the information to students. Students are overwhelmed with this. So, the third category of tips is about sharing resources.
Nicole: Can you share how you considered the student perspective when creating the resource?
Stephanie: From a student perspective, I think creating connections is so important in an ordinary offline context. You’re lingering after class, you’re talking to your classmates, and you’re making these connections with people that aren’t necessarily about course content. Having that time to actually connect with your peers is valuable.
Nancy: Something that was important in how we approached this resource was considering the diversity of our students at McGill. Some individuals may be uncomfortable if I throw them into a breakout room to chat with others without any structure. The resource offers guiding questions to help students get the discussion going.
Nicole: Which of these strategies do you particularly like using with your students?
Nancy: First, I would say the random breakout rooms of five minutes. We do it twice a class, and it’s just two people with a guiding question. At the beginning, I made the mistake of making them talk about COVID, but I got the feedback that they don’t want to talk about that, so we give different prompts. That’s been extremely well received.
Another one I really like is the positive share. We made a point of being culturally aware, to not make assumptions that everyone wants to share a picture of a pet, for example. So, we invite them to share a picture of something that makes them feel good, like a pet, or a favourite food, on their screen at the end of the class. Some weeks, students don’t want to share anything, so we always have a back up for our own, like the Fattest Bear Challenge. But at the end of class, we always have something fun for people to laugh at or comment on.
I have a lot of favourites – I also like the quiz. The great thing about Zoom is the ability to create polls for engagement. You can add a couple of questions to get to know each other, for example, how many people live at home versus on their own, or who lives with roommates versus who lives alone. I start the next class with a graph of the results and discuss them—like how many people in the class are not in Montreal, and how challenging that is. So, even though I’m in a class where almost everyone has their screens off, there’s that sense of community.
Nicole: What feedback have you received from students on the in-class use of these strategies?
Nancy: The students, for the most part, really, really enjoy these strategies. They enjoy that I’m making an effort.
As Steph said earlier, that connection is something they do normally, as they come into the class while you’re setting up to teach or chatting over coffee at break. They don’t have that anymore. So, they’re very appreciative.
Laurianne: I think students really appreciate that these are all small things that are very low effort. I feel like a lot of students want to build a sense of community and make connections, but not everyone has time to commit to an hour a week for an organized social event on Zoom. These are great ways that we can build connections in class, and it only takes a few minutes.
Stephanie: It’s a challenging time for everyone—students and instructors. Going beyond just saying, “How are you, how have you been?” makes a difference, because that might be uncomfortable for students to answer, especially in larger classrooms. Doing these different activities can bring up morale without having to ask that question directly.
Nancy: As Steph noted, this is a challenging time for professors, too. I want to help students feel better; I really, really do, but I’m not doing so great myself. So, it has to be in a way that is easy. The key thing for me is right in the heading – simple tips for instructors. Just tell me something I can do tomorrow, that is really easy. That’s critical.
Click on the link to access the Enhancing Student Wellness: Simple Tips for Instructors resource. We’d love to know: What other easy-to-implement strategies can you suggest for supporting student wellness? How about strategies for supporting instructor wellness?
Main image by Catherine Cordasco on Unsplash