Academics may have to change the way that they teach and conduct assessments to help improve student mental health, according to the leaders of a new research project.
The £2 million project led by the University of Derby aims to produce guidance on curricula, pedagogy and assessments that facilitate better student mental health while improving educational outcomes.
It was one of 10 projects designed to tackle the sharp rise in reported student mental health issues which shared £14.5 million of funding from the English regulator, the Office for Students.
Gareth Hughes, research lead for student well-being at Derby, said that responsibility for mental health could not be left to support services – especially when academics were the one point of guaranteed contact between a university and its students.
“How we teach, how we assess, how our students are learning is a key element in student life so it needs to be making a positive contribution to student mental health if we really want to address this problem,” he said.
Mr Hughes said that examples of possible positive approaches included “scaffolding the curriculum”, under which lecturers teach students how to approach a task and are clear about what they are being asked to do, avoiding the risk that learners are left not knowing what to do and “feeling incompetent”.
“Clustering of assessments” where students have lots of different modules all with essay hand-in dates at the same time can also be “problematic” and “cause large amounts of stress” and should be avoided, Mr Hughes said.
“It’s about making sure you are using multiple types and points of assessment, so that it’s spread out, it’s not impacting all in one go,” Mr Hughes said.
The funding will help to support the gathering of evidence of good practice already going on across the higher education sector, as well as looking into areas not already covered by existing research such as “non-traditional teaching spaces”.
These include field trips, which “anecdotal reports” suggest can be “a bit of a risk moment” for student well-being, Mr Hughes said.
Aston University, one of the project partners, will be developing training to ensure that new academics have the skills to support mental health and learning through their teaching. This will result in the creation of a national module for postgraduate certificates in higher education.
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