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Inclusive Teaching

Mental Health and Academic Success

December 7, 2015
ND Learning

As finals week approaches, so too does finals week stress. If the papers and exams to grade are piling up, be sure to carve out time to relax and maintain your physical and mental health. Finals week and the end of the semester are also important times to be conscious about students’ stress levels and mental health needs. According to a number of recent reports, mental health issues are widespread among today’s college students and are one of the most significant challenges to academic success. This may be most evident during final exams due to students’ workload, high-stakes assessments, procrastination, life changes at the end of the semester, and even weather and seasonal changes. As you wrap up this semester and begin planning for spring classes, here are five tips for helping students in distress and being responsive to the health needs of students:

  1. Know the symptoms of potential mental health issues. Some of the most visible signs include missing class often, changes in mood, appearance, or academic performance, being disruptive in class, perfectionism and disproportionate responses to grades, and repeated requests for exemptions/extensions for class assignments. Some students may also directly disclose their health concerns with you. If you have concerns about a student, speak with them in private to determine what the appropriate actions are for their situation. Concerned about a Notre Dame student but not sure how to help? Contact the University Counseling Center (UCC) Warm Line at 574-631-7336 to consult with a staff member about how to proceed.
  2. Be prepared with resources for students in need. Faculty and teaching assistants at Notre Dame should be familiar with the many resources offered by the UCC; if you determine that a student requires help that you are not equipped to provide, you may refer the student to the UCC or consider walking with them to the counseling center. You might also include a statement in your syllabus about mental health and a list of other resources available to students on campus; see a (partial) list of other resources available to help students at the end of this post. As you work with students, it is important to note that if a student reports an incident of sexual misconduct, violence, harassment, or stalking, faculty and teaching assistants are required by law to report the disclosure to the Deputy Title IX Coordinator. In the event of a serious crisis or if you are concerned that somebody is in a life-threatening circumstance, you should call 911 immediately.
  3. Build a healthy learning community. Work to ensure that students feel included and respected in your classroom and able to participate in the learning process. Before class begins, talk with students about how they are doing. This is a good strategy for creating a welcoming classroom environment, and signals to students that you take their overall well-being seriously. Building rapport with students also allows you to gauge where students are at with respect to your course and makes sharing potential concerns with them an easier experience. Include active learning activities to get students talking to their peers and building important social connections, and make sure students understand what is expected of them to succeed in your course.
  4. Remind students about resources. In addition to listing resources in your syllabus, you may want to remind all students of these resources during crucial times of the semester (especially mid-terms and finals week). One strategy for doing so is to send an email to all of your students indicating that you are aware that their stress levels may be higher during that time period and inviting them to speak to you or to utilize the UCC or other resources on campus if they have concerns. This is one small way to reduce the stigma of seeking help, and may be the little push students need to seek valuable assistance.
  5. Consider your course design. Without drastically changing the fundamentals of your course, there are a few small steps you can take so that all students can be successful without undue stress. For example, try converting large high-stakes (and high-pressure) assignments into smaller ones. A final exam that was worth 70% of one’s grade could be broken down into smaller tests and quizzes. A final paper could be scaffolded to encourage effort throughout the semester instead of writing it the night before it is due. Importantly, in addition to reducing the stress on students, these strategies often lead to higher-quality work and greater retention of course material. Other helpful course design factors include thinking about due dates, the order in which material is presented, and the background knowledge required to complete assignments.

As educators, we want students to be successful, and an important component of students’ success is mental health and well-being. You may be one of the first people to recognize that students are experiencing difficulty, and though you should not act as a counselor to students, you can still be a supportive mentor by being conscious of where students are at and prepared with resources available to help them succeed. These tips are merely a starting point for responding to mental health issues in the classroom; for more information about resources at Notre Dame and about mental health on college campuses, see the selected links below:

Resources at Notre Dame

Further Reading