In an academic year filled with plenty of uncertainty, confusion and endless challenges, university students and staff have felt a huge impact as a result of the pandemic. That’s not to say, though, there hasn’t been much to celebrate; new skills have been acquired and academics have harnessed digital technologies like PebblePad to adapt their learning and teaching objectives to an online environment, while also being able to support and maintain connection with their students. We’ve written elsewhere of the challenges educators face in the rapid shift to online learning at scale, but in this post I want to focus on the student experience.
Obtaining a university degree is a big milestone for many. But the process of securing this degree can have a huge impact on the mental health and wellbeing of those studying. This is true under ‘normal’ circumstances, but the effects of the pandemic have both amplified existing pressures and created a raft of additional stressors that have made university studies considerably more challenging. During Mental Health Awareness week in the UK we want to recognise the importance of student wellbeing in academia and supporting those who are in need.
The impact of Covid-19 on mental health
The devastating impact of Covid-19 on the mental wellbeing of students has been evidenced in recent polls. A December poll conducted by the UK Office for National Statistics in 2020, showed that 57% of students stated that they had witnessed a deterioration since the start of term, with many referencing limited contact with their academics as a cause for their anxiety.
As a leading impediment to academic success, deteriorations in mental health can lead to decreased motivation, disengagement and reduced student retention rates. 71% of North American university students indicated increased stress and anxiety due to the pandemic, with academic performance being referenced as a concern by more than 80% of those students.
Clearly, these are concerning statistics, and the difficulties of supporting student wellbeing are compounded by students being unable to drop-in to campus-located services. But there are ways to keep the channels of communication and information open to students.
The importance of connection with students
Long before the pandemic hit, universities had been using PebblePad’s unique set of tools, which provide real-time insight on student progress and well-being, to maintain connection with their students. We’ve seen a terrific array of supportive practice - from large scale Personal Academic Tutoring initiatives, through supporting transition to university, to staying connected to students in work-integrated learning settings – even rural placement where students may be thousands of kilometres away from the university.
The pandemic has only rendered such initiatives even more relevant and, as many universities continue harnessing digital technologies for remote and blended learning environments, student-connection should feature more prominently than ever. The ability to view student progress and development on a piece of work in real time; to provide workbooks that support research planning, projects, tutorials or independent enquiry; to support group work or peer review for helping students feel engaged and connected to their peers; these are just some of the ways we’ve seen our partner organisations respond to the need to ensuring students remain engaged and on track towards success.
Nurturing wellbeing throughout the return to on-campus learning
There is little doubt that teaching and learning in higher education have been markedly changed in ways that will remain and continue to evolve. Yet it’s difficult to imagine that on-campus attendance won’t continue to remain a vital part of the university experience for the majority of students. As students return to lectures or tutorials, and to work-integrated learning activities, there will be the need to ensure connectedness and support remain well-established, and that students are provided with opportunities to make sense of their experiences - and the emotions around them. This has already begun to varying extents in Australia. For those students able to go out on placement, PebblePad has enabled a safe space for reflection on their experiences in the workforce during the pandemic, and a place to document and explain any disruption or incompletion regarding their outcomes. Naomi Rooney, Program Director for the Bachelor of Nursing at the University of South Australia notes, "We've seen some very insightful reflections on what is happening during this unique situation taking place in their very early careers."
PebblePad’s capability to support learning activities on and off campus, as well as large-scale orientation and personal tutoring initiatives, helps nurture the wellbeing and engagement often needed by students. For us, fostering student engagement, wellbeing and success is underpinned by three key components - student-centredness, scaffolding and support. Our top tips for achieving this are:
- Embed active, collaborative and reflective student-centred learning approaches in every step of the learning journey.
- Add structure and guidance by scaffolding the student learning journey to support effective tutoring, mentoring and advising initiatives.
- Offer support and intervention by quickly identifying students who are struggling or disengaging with their learning journey.
We’ve been delighted to see the results from some of PebblePad’s most recent work with universities in the UK, North America and Australia to support their students, and hope that such work paves the way for a renewed focus on student wellbeing as we move cautiously into a 'living with COVID' reality.
Adopting student-centred learning approaches is one of our top tips for fostering student success. If you'd like to learn more about how PebblePad can support this ambition, our guide contains insights to get you started.