Part II: Promoting Student Well Being

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“Starting a conversation with a distressed student can seem daunting, but it can be as easy as just stating that you care about the student and are concerned for her and then letting that student talk and get things off her chest. You’ll often be pleasantly surprised at how little ‘prodding’ you really need to do.” – Alyse Knorr, English TA, Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, George Mason University

The college years are a time when a student’s focus of life changes from family and home to the college community. Relationships between parents and children change and evolve into relationships between parents and young adults. This evolution varies by culture as well as by individual family. Students are forming a new identity that integrates the many contexts in which they live.

FOUNDATION FOR SUPPORTING STUDENTS

Today’s students face intense pressure to succeed. Guidance, support and help from faculty can ensure the creation of a living-learning environment where students can productively face many issues for the first time.

As faculty, we can better prepare ourselves when we understand the developmental tasks facing students:

  • Becoming Autonomous: managing time, money, and other resources, taking care of oneself emotionally and physically, working independently and interdependently and asking for help.
  • Establishing Identity: developing a realistic self- image including an ability to handle feedback and criticism, defining limitations and exploring abilities, and understanding oneself in culture.
  • Achieving Competence: managing emotions appropriately, developing and pursuing academic interests, identifying and solving problems, becoming confident and competent, and preparing for careers and life-long learning.
  • Understanding and Supporting Diversity: meeting people from diverse backgrounds, encountering differences, and learning to honor the gifts of others.
  • Establishing Connection and Community: learning to live respectfully with and among others, and developing skills in group decision-making and teamwork.

HELP STUDENTS UNDERSTAND AND MANAGE STRESS

The college years can be times of discovery and excitement. Those who work with students often strive to incorporate those qualities into their teaching. At the same time, the developmental tasks that are particular to the college years can be taxing and difficult. Stress responses can be triggered by positive experiences, such as falling in love or acing an exam or by negative experiences, such as an unexpected loss, disappointment or traumatic event. As a positive influence, stress can compel us to action, move us into our “peak performance zone,” and bring a sense of excitement or exhilaration to our lives. As a negative influence, it can result in fatigue, anxiety and feelings of helplessness. In other words, stress is what our bodies and minds experience as we adapt to a continually changing environment.

Stress occurs on a continuum. To maintain health tension, a person must balance the right amount of stimulating challenges with a healthy diet, a consistent sleep schedule, regular exercise and stress management techniques.

HELPING STUDENTS BALANCE STRESS

According to the 2011 National College Health Assessment Survey,

  • 28% said that stress had negatively affected their academic performance.
  • 43% rated their stress level as “more than average” and
  • 10% reported experiencing “tremendous stress” with the past 12 months.

GET TO KNOW YOUR STUDENTS

Create a welcoming environment for all students. Social support and a sense of larger community promote wellbeing and are the best insurance against stress and self harm. Here’s what some university students have said about the importance of feeling a sense of community and engagement with faculty:

“No matter the day, stressful or not, there’s no kinder gesture of caring than knowing my name. In a class of over 40 students, Professor G. knows each student’s name. This is a comfort beyond words.” —Human Development Major

“What makes me feel connected? When professors have gone out of their way to organize a lunch, dinner, or social gathering. One invited the whole class to her house before the holidays. I now realize that professors are people too.” —ILR Student

“I emailed my professor to say that I couldn’t attend class because I was completely overwhelmed and not feeling well. She emailed back to say, ‘I hope you feel better soon.’ It was a simple response, but it made me feel like I mattered.” —CALS Student

SUGGESTIONS

  • Get to know students by name.
  • Your department may want to sponsor social events such as meals in the dining halls, club outings, picnics or barbecues, and sporting events, especially during orientation for new students. These are another way for departments and faculty members to create a dynamic that ensures a comfortable atmosphere for students.
  • Consider making a student-professor meeting a course requirement.

FOSTER COOPERATION VS. COMPETITION: Extreme competition and stress can lead to increased depression, antisocial behavior and substance abuse. Isolation is a factor in suicide as well as in violent behavior. Social connectedness is a predictor of well-being, even more so than income or educational attainment.

BE CLEAR IN EXPECTATIONS AND COMMUNICATION: Students feel more at ease when they know what will be expected of them from the start. This information is helpful for decision-making and time management. Clear and consistent communication enables students to get the most out of their undergraduate education. Without accurate information, students feel that everyone else is doing well and that they are the only ones struggling.

STRESS AND STUDENT EVALUATION: Test in the same manner in which you teach. Be sure that a test measures what students have learned. Provide specific feedback and corrective opportunities. Grade inflation is a problem—95 percent of students think that they are failing if they don’t get all As. On the other hand, a mean of 30 can be psychologically devastating. Negotiating flexibility can be difficult while also striving for academic excellence.

OPEN POSSIBILITIES VS. CLOSING DOORS: Challenge the thinking that students must get into the one and only top graduate school or field. Emphasize that there are lots of graduate schools, opportunities and careers and that they will find something that will work for them.

BUILD CONFIDENCE: Use teaching methods that are motivating and relevant to students with diverse characteristics with respect to age, gender, culture, etc. Encourage the sharing of multiple perspectives. Demonstrate and demand mutual respect.

ENCOURAGE UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH: The concept of involving undergraduates in original research, from science to the humanities, has been gaining support from educators across the country in recent years, in part because of the belief that it stimulates an increased level of engagement both in their major and in the institution in general.

TAKE TIME TO ADVISE STUDENTS: According to recent surveys, many students say that their relationship with their advisor is less than satisfactory; some claim that they do not have the same field of study as their advisor. Some reported that they either ended up with a fabulous advisor or independently sought out an excellent advisor. Many students report that their peer advisors as well as their college academic advisors were very helpful.

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