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Author: Asa D. Olson

When the pandemic began, I was teaching at a university in southern Arkansas. My courses were already online before the great pivot, yet I was conferencing, conversing with, and surveying my students enough to witness what many of them were beginning to experience: increased feelings of burnout, isolation, and stress. “Increased” is the operative word. Students struggled with many of these feelings before the pandemic, along with other common health concerns in a university setting, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and addiction. As a professor, I had too. Burnout and stress affected the way I taught, and I felt like it affected my quality of teaching. Likewise, my students’ struggles almost certainly affected their learning.

What I wanted at the time but wasn’t aware of was a pedagogy or framework that accounted for not only learning outcomes but also wellbeing: physical, mental, spiritual—all the above. I knew of positive education, which focuses on students’ mental health and incorporates positive psychology interventions toward that end. And later I attended a webinar on pedagogies of care—resources on student-centered practices and caring dispositions with the purpose of bringing about student wellbeing. Colleagues recommended contemplative pedagogy, which was relevant but not quite right either, and I had seen dozens of articles about mindfulness-based interventions; however, these interventions are usually adjacent to the course objectives. What I wanted were teaching strategies that address both wellbeing and learning. What I wanted was a model based on whole-person health, with a flexible framework that could help me discover multiple, actionable practices that fit my course and teaching style. I stumbled across it by coincidence.

My own health journey brought me from Arkansas to Minnesota, mid-pandemic. I left a tenure-track position for a role at the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing (CSH) at the University of Minnesota, where I was supporting instructors with instructional design and the use of academic technology. Here, I discovered a wealth of knowledge in the experience and expertise of instructors from various disciplines, among them nursing, medicine, psychology, social work, music, and education. To my surprise, I learned that the Bakken Center had developed its own teaching and learning framework six years before the pandemic began, a framework focused on students’ wellbeing. This model theorizes that student wellbeing has a positive relationship with academic performance, and it acknowledges the equal importance of instructor and staff wellbeing.

Now called the Wellbeing Enhances Learning (WEL) model, it first arose from focus groups with CSH instructors and experts about practices that they use in their classroom. These practices were then connected to scholarship and principles from transformative learning, contemplative pedagogy, and social-emotional and collaborative learning, among others. The suggested practices are usefully organized by their contribution to the six different dimensions of wellbeing that derive from the CSH model: environment, security, purpose, health, relationships, and community. As such, the model is fairly comprehensive.

The WEL model has six goals for instruction, each of which relates to a dimension of wellbeing. For each goal are several suggested practices that contribute toward that goal. These practices are descriptive rather than prescriptive, and instructors can incorporate them according to the needs, goals, and contexts of their courses. To help instructors implement these practices, the model suggests several strategies for each practice, and each strategy also has an example. Some strategies include mindfulness or movement-based interventions, but most connect existing teaching strategies to specific dimensions of wellbeing, such as the role of inquiry-based learning activities in discovering personal relevance and purpose.

As I started teaching again (albeit on the side now), I used the WEL model for my course. For my own purpose, I wrote a teaching philosophy in which I articulated why I valued wellbeing and my intentions for instructional practices that I planned to use in the course. I focused on strategies intended to promote students’ sense of security, purpose, and health, among which were increased course structure with frequent, low-stakes, reflective assignments; goal-setting activities; student-instructor feedback surveys; and flexible deadlines that don’t encroach on sleep. Furthermore, I tried to be transparent about policies for extensions and encouraged students to ask for them. I shared the philosophy on my LMS site and explained it to students on the first day of class.

I didn’t perform any formal evaluation of the course—no Likert scales or validated measures to test wellbeing—but I was still surprised by the positive feedback I received. As I supported faculty and spoke with colleagues across the university, I saw that students continued to struggle as the pandemic went on. If anything, students were struggling more than they were a year prior. None of this is to say that my students did not experience the same stressors that others did. Many of them disclosed challenges they faced in terms of mental and physical health, financial difficulties, and family conflict, for example. But several remarked to me that the course was helpful for them. It was a “supportive” and even “healing” space for them.

I received appreciative emails and verbal feedback from students about the due dates, the reflective nature of assignments and goals, the course structure and design, and the class community. I’m especially proud of this last component because we met synchronously only once every two weeks, yet multiple students mentioned how they felt that we had created, in their words, a “close,” “supportive,” “welcoming,” and “inclusive” community during a time when they felt isolated. I felt that my use of the WEL model contributed to the feedback I received, which was definitely different from prior years. The model helped me identify what I could reasonably do for students in my course and how to do it, and it gave me the language to articulate it to them. A few months after the course ended, the Center for Educational Innovation recognized me for my dedication to student learning. It was prompted by a thank-you note from a student who credited my instructional style for seeing their humanity before the grades.

Currently, the WEL model hasn’t spread very far beyond the CSH, where it is firmly established. It’s part of the CSH course proposal process, instructor onboarding and development, and an ongoing course consultation process. But the WEL Model continues to develop, and I am part of the learning resources group that now works on the model and its resources, hoping to expand its reach beyond the department and University of Minnesota. The pandemic has kindled greater interest in the model, and it has since undergone a renaissance. With feedback from faculty surveys and focus groups, the model’s structure and graphics have changed to meet the needs of instructors and to improve usability. It incorporates new practices and research too, including material related to Universal Design for Learning and anti-racist pedagogy.

I am glad to be a part of both the WEL model’s development and the privileged group who has been able to incorporate it into my teaching, and I am grateful for the wisdom of all the instructors and experts who came before me and contributed to the model. It is truly a community-built project, and I am hopeful that the community will soon expand beyond us at the CSH. Surely, it’s a teaching and learning model that is both timely and necessary, given our current state of affairs in higher education, and one that considers student, staff, and instructor wellbeing more comprehensively than the tips about student mental health that so many of us have received.

Asa D. Olson, PhD, is an instructor and academic technologist for the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He is a former assistant professor of modern languages at Southern Arkansas University whose work has been published in EDUCAUSE Review, The Teaching Professor, the Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, and Criticism.