How to make campuses and courses more compassionate

Telling students that you’ve considered their well-being in organisational culture and curriculum design can in itself bolster confidence, says Louise Lawrence

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University of Exeter

University of Exeter
4 Nov 2021
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Making university campuses and courses more compassionate will lead to better student outcomes
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The pandemic has been a defining moment for well-being in higher education. Student welfare was already a hot topic before coronavirus lockdowns started, with universities working hard to ensure the right support was in place, and now it is clearer than ever that this work should continue with renewed vigour. Everyone must strive to make campuses and curricula more compassionate.

At Exeter, where I work, we are currently considering enablers and barriers to whole institutional approaches to well-being. These considerations are in relation to areas such as: organisational values and communications; cultural networks and connections for students (particularly around social prescribing); and pedagogy, mindful learning and assessment patterns. It seems obvious that making universities more compassionate places can help safeguard mental health, not to mention encourage students to better reflect on their learning.

Of course, it’s crucial to have the right medical and counselling support in place for students, but broader social and cultural approaches also have great capacity to effect change. Higher education institutions are places to convey knowledge and skills, but they’re also environments where people can collectively develop compassionate and collaborative communities − which will ultimately foster more just, equitable and flourishing forms of education for all. To be compassionate is to view education not as a product but as a formative, collaborative and values-led process.

One early – and easy – step can be encouraging peer “community connectors” to link isolated students with societies and social events on campus, as well as make students aware of their subject representatives, allies and inclusion champions within the student body. Helping students connect to their wider community can also aid them in overcoming feelings of isolation both on and off campus.

Developing resources and support to help faculty create compassionate curricula, designed to make students feel supported and included, is also critical to the task. Ways to embed well-being in curricula include:

Fostering connection by co-producing group agreements with students at the start of the module outlining values, purposes and procedures for conduct and communication.

Being active and promoting physical movement and “brain breaks” at appropriate points in class − both in face-to-face and virtual spaces. Departmental jogging groups and city heritage walks have also been popular.

Taking notice through writing weekly wikis or journal entries reflecting on the learning journey.

Keeping up learning by encouraging students to form links with subject societies and visiting speakers.

Giving back by producing a gratitude wall for students to mark moments, people and contributions that they’ve found helpful and/or are grateful for.

Such initiatives have all helped build morale within the learning community and foster a positive mindset throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, staff have also “empathy mapped” their communications and curricula − a way of signifying behaviours and feelings evoked by a learning process, and a proven means to enhance well-being.

Academics have also infused mental health and well-being themes explicitly into the subject matter of curricula. In a module on disability studies, for example, students designed and led “slow” seminars in which contemplative observation, reading and writing were integral parts of the sessions. There is also a “mindful classics” project focusing on contemplative pedagogies in the teaching of antiquity. Theology and religion modules on spiritualities have involved practitioners of mindfulness, meditation and yoga, and students have had opportunities to physically practise these (remotely) within class, too.

Academics who want to make their university a more compassionate place also need to be mindful of their tone in written feedback and ask students about any aspects of the subject, structure and  interface of a module that they found difficult. Too many points of assessment, tasks not being built up incrementally to instil confidence and bunching of assessment deadlines are common causes of anxiety and stress.

It’s also important to encourage active and meaningful contact, cooperation and peer learning opportunities between face-to-face and online students. In-class “breakout rooms” and after-class digital discussion/social spaces for students, such as digital cafés and virtual student lounges on electronic module sites, have been useful in building learning communities across different spaces.

So, what can be learned from this process? For one, simply being up front with students that you’ve considered their well-being in organisational culture and curriculum design can in itself bolster confidence and safety and reduce (self-)stigmatisation around this issue. In the end, including compassion and kindness as institutional values aims to ensure that students don’t just survive – they thrive.

Louise Lawrence is professor of New Testament interpretation and co-head of the department of theology and religion at the University of Exeter. She is also the author of Refiguring Universities in an Age of Neoliberalism − Creating Compassionate Campuses.

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