Supportive Learning Environments
Organising what and how students learn enhances holistic student wellbeing by contributing to supportive learning environments.
Student wellbeing in a holistic sense is undoubtedly a complex topic. Yet, it is increasingly a concern for educators, given that academic achievement and a balanced wellbeing mutually impact one another. Learning design—that is, the ways that teachers organise and facilitate what and how students learn—can enhance holistic student wellbeing by contributing to supportive learning environments. The aim is to “provide encouragement and appropriate guidance to help learners persist and succeed,” achieving an educational experience that balances challenge and support (Terenzini, 2020; see see-saw diagram below). Such efforts encompass realms of Delivery, Interaction and Assessment, as discussed in a recent publication by BEL+T colleagues (Thompson & Song, 2021).
Whether learning online or on campus, students have raised important considerations regarding support. In the Student Wellbeing survey, conducted in 2020, ABP students called for strategies to help them cope with the anxiety arising from their studies, as well as opportunities for connecting with their cohort. Students also shared their concerns about managing workload, and a lack of clarity around assessment requirements. This underscores the importance of considering support at both the individual and the community level, and fostering learning engagement and belonging in ways specific to each subject. Although holding virtual ‘office hours’ and providing general support guidance is important, teachers should consider how the materials may be received (especially by students remote from the campus), and ‘checking in’ more proactively with students online. Monitoring for sudden declines in learner engagement can offer an effective entry point to dialogue with individual students about challenges being faced and support available.
For those teaching Dual Delivery subjects, be sure to review BEL+T’s Dual Delivery guidance on fostering supportive learning environments and belonging under these circumstances.
Belonging refers to the attachment, reciprocity and mutual support that students feel towards various scales of community—their peers, teachers, institution, profession, etc. As a key contributor to a student’s overall wellbeing and ability to learn, a sense of belonging and social integration has been shown to be vital to a successful educational experience. In the context of online learning, designing interactive and cohort-building learning activities can help combat feelings of isolation or disconnect. These efforts thus require good coordination; more on this can be found in BEL+T’s Tactics for Coordination. As discovered throughout 2020, online teaching and learning platforms can facilitate cohort-building. However, achieving this demands that belonging is foregrounded as an explicit, rather than incidental, aim. Without moments before, after and between learning activities for informal exchanges with each other and their teachers—as they would have on campus—online students are more reliant on teaching staff to coordinate and facilitate these social connections.
Strategies for Promoting a Supportive Learning Environment and Sense of Belonging
|Learning Design Realm||Learning Activity||Teacher Roles||Teacher Qualities and Strategies|
|Delivery||Lecture||Performer||Offer empathy and approachability (put a face to disembodied announcement / emails)|
|Practical Demonstration||Demonstrator||Demonstrate expertise and fallibility (model risk-taking, iterative processes)|
|Curated content||Curator||Integrate students’ interests into content selection, and consider students’ developing knowledge in the presentation of different sections of content|
|Site visit||Guide||Consider logistical challenges of access and offer alternatives where possible|
|Interaction||Panel discussion||Moderator||Select guests reflective of student interests; Develop protocols for online etiquette (agreed by consensus with students)|
|Group discussion||Facilitator||Allow choice for interactive engagement modes, maximising student access; do not require students to use video cameras (but encourage and model it); Consider social opportunities for non-academic catch-ups|
|Collaborative session||Convener||Design group projects that can alleviate stress around group management; allow for different levels of student familiarity with online learning or platforms|
|Assessment||Assessment design||Manager||Design rubrics that will offer clarity, transparency and consistency for the values applied when reviewing student submissions, and provide another lens for understanding content|
|Formative feedback, Summative assessment||Critic, Assessor||Aim for clarity and transparency in project documentation; Use a positive and supportive tone in feedback; Ensure teaching staff deliver consistent information|
|Design review||Organiser, Assessor||Organise and moderate design crits as to provide supportive and equitable learning-focussed opportunities; Translate and frame guest criticism as needed to assist in this|
The University now hosts synchronous Social Breakouts, an opportunity for students to connect informally on Zoom twice per week. Students can enrol in Social Breakouts through Canvas, then connect with students from different faculties and from around the world! More information can be found here.
Student Equity and Disability Services
Student Equity and Disability Services (SEDS) provides support for students who need ongoing assistance with their studies. This includes students requiring adjustments for a range of reasons, including disabilities, medical conditions and cultural or religious observances. Amongst other things, SEDS works with affected students to develop Academic Adjustment Plans (AAP). For more information, please visit the SEDS website or contact SEDS by email or by phone on +61 3 8344 0836
- Student Support
BEL+T Session: Teaching for Inclusive Learning
MCSHE’s Enhancing Student Mental Wellbeing: A Handbook for Academic Educators (2017) and ‘Enhancing Student Wellbeing’ website
Patrick T. Terenzini, ‘Rethinking effective student learning experiences,’ Inside Higher Education (29 July 2020)
Teaching in Higher Ed podcast on ‘Online Culture’ (2021)
Benjamin G. Veness, The Wicked Problem of University Student Mental Health (2016 report)
What Makes a Successful Online Learner? (Minnesota State University)
Dr Dawn Gilmore's ‘Your content is online, what's next?’ RMIT Online (2 April 2020)