The theory and practice of student wellbeing in higher education

Yasemin Oruc and Marjolein Deunk heartily agree that when it comes to student wellbeing, science and practice are closely connected. “I noticed how important personal attention is for students when I started teaching myself,” says Yasemin. Three years ago she was granted a Comenius Teaching Fellowship in the field of student wellbeing. Yasemin Oruc, MSc. MBA is a research fellow in City Hospitality and a senior lecturer in Marketing Innovation at Hotelschool The Hague. Dr. Marjolein Deunk is an assistant professor in Educational Sciences at the University of Groningen. In addition, she’s received a Comenius Teaching Fellowship (2018) and is a member of the ComeniusNetwerk. In this interview they share their insights on educational innovation and student wellbeing.

Yasemin: “I got the feedback from students that they really appreciate that I'm genuinely interested in how they are doing. In addition to my regular classes, I gave extra Mindfulness in Business lessons in the evenings and they were always full. This made me realise that we have to do something with this.” She and her colleague Jenny Sok were granted a Comenius Teaching Fellowship. “We used a positive approach. In everything we offer to students, our approach always starts from what works well and how you can increase those activities. Also, what doesn’t work and how do we solve it?” Yasemin and her colleague developed a framework with various ways to stimulate student wellbeing.

Yasemin: “In general, these are small, easy things you can do as a teacher. For example, taking into account the activities of students with regard to deadlines and assignments. But also, starting the lesson with a check-in or a mindfulness exercise. Or the way you communicate with students about their performance. Instead of saying, “After the holidays you must have done this”, you can also say, “ You have already achieved this and you will learn this”'. Lecturers can choose approaches from the framework that suit them. You really don't have to start with a meditation if you don't like to meditate. Unfortunately, there is sometimes a misconception surrounding mindfulness and wellbeing. I also notice this in my PhD research in the field of mindfulness and marketing in City Tourism.”

"Wellbeing is inextricably linked to learning."

Marjolein Deunk

Marjolein recognises this: “That misconception is indeed a pity, because education and wellbeing are closely linked. When you're comfortable in your own skin, you learn a lot better. The examples from the framework you mention are in line with the results of the review study that Hanke Korpershoek and I did. We have included 52 studies with actions aimed at student wellbeing that teachers, study programmes and institutions can implement. We have divided the results into three categories of actions to promote student wellbeing. These are: the person-oriented approach, the relational approach, and the didactic approach. The first includes for example mindfulness exercises, but also psycho-education. Mentoring, contact with lecturers, bonding with peers and bonding with the campus are part of the relational approach. And the didactic approach includes testing methods and scheduling.”

Yasemin: “I aim to connect with students and regularly ask them, “ How are you really doing?” Make no mistake, that is quite a culture shift in the hospitality industry, where I used to work. We are used to always keep on going because it is a high-pressure environment. But, a poll among students showed that 62% think personal connection with the teacher is important. And to be honest, I used to miss that with some of my own teachers. That's why I do it differently now." Marjolein adds: “Many lecturers really want to do something about student wellbeing. They also want students to do well. But they often lack time.”

Marjolein and Yasemin agree that they can learn from each other. Marjolein: “There is often little exchange of pedagogical-didactic practices between universities of applied sciences and research universities, while that can be very instructive and valuable. This exchange does take place in dual programmes such as the academic teacher training course, and in the ComeniusNetwerk, which is also the strength of the network.” Yasemin: “I am sometimes amazed at the differences between the two worlds. Another interesting question is how research results are used in practice. There is often a great willingness from the hospitality industry to take immediate action. But within academia, there is sometimes less room for specific implementation of developments in the industry.”

"Do you want to get started with student wellbeing? Dare to take small steps and have faith."

Yasemin Oruc

Marjolein: “When you think about educational innovation, you don't just have to think about using digital, high-tech resources. It is about helping students to acquire knowledge and skills in an inspiring environment. You could see educational innovation as an emphasis on the importance of education. Research universities are very focused on research, education is regarded as an add-on. Fortunately, there is currently a movement to increase the importance of teaching, but this still has some way to go.” Yasemin: “I also find innovation a difficult term. I prefer to call it a focus on education. Although it often requires extra effort on top of my work, there is always room within my educational institution to reflect on what we do. And I do that together with our students, because I really believe that innovation is a process of co-creation.”

Finally, Marjolein explains that the research into student wellbeing emphasises that the model student does not exist. “But our education system is designed for that type of student,” says Marjolein. “It’s important to realise that. What you offer will not work for every student. Just as it will not suit every teacher to use mindfulness to contribute to student wellbeing.” Yasemin: “I also experience that the (model) student doesn't exist. For example, we've had to deal with students who didn't show up and we didn't understand why. It turned out that they were experiencing other problems. In response, we have set up coaching and buddy systems for those students, but that requires customisation as an institution.” Marjolein: “So you have to know each other a bit, that's what it comes down to.” “Knowing each other and really seeing the student”, adds Yasemin.

This article was written in collaboration with the Comenius Netwerk, a network of educational innovators in higher education founded in 2018. Comenius Netwerk stimulates and supports educational innovation at universities and colleges through knowledge exchange and opinion sharing around the themes of inclusion, student development and education, inclusion and transdisciplinary collaboration.

Marjolein and Yasemin