While stress can be a normal part of the university experience, instructors can design courses that focus on learning while reducing the unnecessary hurdles that can increase stress and interfere with learning. This tip sheet provides course design strategies that consider student wellbeing. Many of the strategies in this tip sheet can be considered good pedagogical practices that enhance the learning environment for all students. Select which strategies align with your course context, intended learning outcomes, and your teaching style and know that even one small change can make a big difference.
The structure and demands of your course set expectations for your students.
Consider how your course impacts student wellbeing. Dyjur et al. (2017) provide a list of questions for instructors to consider when designing their courses (see Table 1 in article). Questions include:
- “How do your course policies support or impede mental health and wellness?”
- “How can you maintain reasonable expectations for student learning within the constraints of the course?”
- “How can teaching and learning activities be structured to foster mental health and wellness for students?”
- “How might you promote or support student resilience?”
Use diagnostics to help students self-assess. Helping students to understand their level of preparedness for various aspects of your course can clarify gaps in their knowledge or skill and help them prioritize their efforts.
Apply Universal Design principles. Universal Design frameworks are useful tools in designing inclusive and equitable course experiences that support all learners, including those with mental health challenges. For further guidance, see CTE’s Universal Design: Course Design and Universal Design: Instructional Strategies tip sheets. Here are a few strategies that support universal design by building flexibility into the course:
- Rather than having one or two heavily-weighted assessments, provide smaller, more frequent, and low-stakes assessments with feedback so students can learn your expectations and improve on their work.
- Design a series of assessments in such a way that the lowest grade can be dropped.
- Include provisions for late assignments and make-up tests. For example, some instructors include “slip days”, which allow every student in the class a certain number of days to delay an assignment deadline before being given a penalty.
- In seminars and class discussions, provide choice in how students demonstrate participation (e.g., students can write reflection journals on class discussions).
- Recognize your students may have multiple responsibilities on- and off-campus. Provide appropriate challenge for your students to reduce unnecessary stress.
- Avoid very heavily weighted tests (e.g., an exam worth more than 30-35% of their final grade).
- Co-ordinate the timing of your midterms and assignments with instructors of the other required or core courses in your program
Provide clear expectations for your students. Be explicit in your rationale and expectations for course activities and assessments so your students know what to expect and how to succeed in your course. Provide clear deadlines in your course outline to enable students to plan.
Consider the tone of your syllabus and course. Phrases such as “all students must” and “failure to follow these instructions” may come across to your students as unwelcoming and inflexible. You can also include a wellbeing statement in the course syllabus. While not required, Counselling Services provides information you can adapt for your course outline or slides.
As an instructor or Teaching Assistant, you can provide information to assist a student in accessing help, but you should not take on the role of a counsellor or try to diagnose the student.
Campus Wellness and the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health recommend following three steps when responding to students in need of support (a more detailed description of each step can be found in the embedded hyperlinks):
- Recognize the indicators of mental illness.
- Respond to the student in a way that is appropriate to the situation at hand and the existing relationship you have with the student.
- Refer the student to the appropriate resources so that they can access the services available.
Campus Wellness has created several resources to increase awareness of mental health supports available on campus. One of these resources that may be particularly useful is a guide for how faculty and staff can support students in distress.
As an instructor or graduate student, you are balancing many responsibilities, and it’s important to take care of your own mental health.
- As a graduate student, you can also seek support through the resources listed in On-Campus and Community Support Services section above.
- Reach out to the course instructor or a mentor (e.g., your Department Graduate Chair or your colleagues) to talk about the conversation (maintaining confidentiality unless it’s an issue where personal information needs to be shared).
Talking about mental health with students can be difficult and emotionally draining.
- Reach out to a mentor (e.g., your Department Chair or your colleagues) to talk about the conversation (maintaining confidentiality unless it’s an issue where personal information needs to be shared).
- Seek support services if you need them; consider it as a debrief about your talk with the student (health professionals have them all the time). See the university’s Employee & Family Assistance Program for more details.
If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help. View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.
- Dyjur, P., Lindstrom, G., Arguera, N., & Bair, H. (2017). Using mental health and wellness as a framework for course design. Papers on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching: Proceedings of the University of Calgary Conference on Learning and Teaching, 2, 1-9.
- Centre for Teaching Excellence. (2019). TA Handbook: Section 8: Mental Wellbeing.
- Centre for Teaching Excellence. (2018). Accessibility in Teaching.
- Council of Ontario Universities. (2017). Teaching Students with Mental Health Disabilities.
- Simon Fraser University. (n.d.). Well-being in Learning Environments.
- University of British Columbia. (2016). Teaching Practices that Promote Student Wellbeing: A Tool for Educators.
CTE Tips Sheets
- Course Design: Questions to Consider
This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Supporting Students’ Mental Wellbeing: Course Design. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.