For Instructors

How can we design our courses for student flourishing?

Supporting Student Wellbeing in Higher Education Classrooms

In the videos below you’ll hear from some University of Toronto instructors about how they have built wellbeing into their courses, no matter the subject of the course. In this section you’ll also get some ideas about how to use the Windvane resources in your courses. Our Windvane contributors are working with various teaching methodologies that place student wellbeing at the centre of the learning experience. Many of us appreciate values and principles that align with the following components of “pedagogies of flourishing,” skillfully articulated by Dr. Karolyn Kinane at the University of Virginia’s Contemplative Sciences Center (shared here with permission).

You might be interested in pedagogies of flourishing if you:
  • Care about the wellbeing of your students more than you care about the content of your discipline
  • Recognize the whole student, including physical, mental, spiritual and emotional lives, personal history, social contexts, life experiences, etc.
  • Value process as much as (or perhaps more than) product
  • Aim to help students find their voices and build their sense of agency
  • Value the self as subject of inquiry (including noticing and discernment) in addition to course/disciplinary content
  • Honor interdependence
  • Challenge objective truth claims as forms of domination
  • Consider the relationships between awareness and action
  • Encourage collaboration rather than competition
  • Are comfortable with emergent outcomes
  • Use processes for intention-setting and reflection to book-end experiences
  • Teach students to apply concepts to their everyday lives
  • Recognize the power of education to cultivate dispositions in addition to delivering content and developing skills
  • Encourage students to use their learning process to transform society in socially just ways
  • Believe that education should be transformational

Pedagogical Methods for Supporting Student Wellbeing

Wellbeing is a collective issue and a collective responsibility. As University instructors, we can support students at the level of course design, course content, assignment and assessment design, and class community building. We can ground our teaching in the core values of trauma-sensitive pedagogy – safety, trustworthiness, choice and control, collaboration, and empowerment – and welcome multiple, culturally-sensitive and intersectionally-nuanced understandings of health and wellbeing.

Trauma-aware or trauma-sensitive frameworks can offer an equity lens to ” positive youth development” by especially emphasizing the creation of safety, empowerment, and autonomy through a range of strength-based (rather than deficit-focused) practices. Dr. Shawn Ginwright‘s approach to ” healing-centered engagement” helps us understand limitations in trauma-informed care, however. Although understanding the effects of trauma in ourselves and our societies is certainly important, his work suggests that it can sometimes focus too much attention on traumas experienced by isolated individuals, and not enough on the effects of collective harm. It may also focus too much on treatment of pathology, and not enough on fostering wellbeing.

Cultural awareness and cultural affirmation are also key components of these models. Place-responsive (also called place-based or land-based) pedagogies use project-based or experiential tasks to help students explore how historical, cultural, environmental, geographical and other aspects of place are interconnected. These approaches often center decolonizing and Indigenous perspectives on the land. Research shows that place-responsive education, when framed as a form of critical pedagogy oriented toward sustainability and equity, can enable transformative learning and shift perspectives towards decolonization.

Similarly, “regenerative sustainability” education recognizes the interconnectedness of human and environmental well-being via an ethic of restoration rather than harm reduction. Teaching “traditional” practices of interacting with place, such as making fire or walking the land, creates a connection to place that can instill in students a sense of responsibility toward local and global landscapes. Research emphasizes how this type of learning can transform human relations to the environment, bring forth Indigenous perspectives on relating to place and land, stimulate environmental ethics, and expand understanding of gender and decolonization. In addition, a large body of research emphasizes the effects of place-responsive programs to student wellness. Mental health benefits from such programs include positive changes to self-concept and self-esteem, compassion, cognitive autonomy, reduced absence from school, increased group cohesion, and prejudice reduction.

Using Windvane in Your Course

This project was designed to be used in a university or college classroom. These materials have been designed for students to explore with the aim of formulating their own understanding(s) of what it means to be well. A step-by-step path for students is outlined at Start Where We Are. Instructors could use these steps to frame an assignment, possibly with points of reflection throughout the semester, such as the examples below.

For additional reflection questions, be sure to check out the Reflect and Practice sections in each participant page for more specific questions that could be integrated into student work (for example, see Iehnhotonkwas Bonnie Jane Maracle‘s Reflect and Practice section). The Understanding Stress and Suffering, Explore Wellbeing and Cultivate Awareness pages also have Reflect and Practice sections with questions that could be used or adapted for coursework. These could be assigned as part of journal writing or group discussion. Many pages also have Learn More or References sections with additional resources.

Other ideas for incorporating teaching methods that support students’ wellbeing can be found in the videos below. The Principles and Practices to Enhance Classroom Emotional Safety, adapted from the University of Buffalo, explain how we can adapt the presentation of content in the classroom, the design of assignments and policies, the organization of classroom environment, and more. For more ideas, see also a bibliography on building communities of care in the classroom and on trauma-informed pedagogy, as well as additional resources at the bottom of this page.

One Model of a Course Assignment

In 2019, Dr. Frances Garrett started including a “self-care” assignment in her undergraduate courses in Buddhist Studies at the University of Toronto. The overwhelmingly positive feedback from students on that assignment inspired the creation of Windvane. Students in her courses used the University of Buffalo School of Social Work’s Self-Care Starter Kit to organize their work on this semester-long assignment, with three simple written reflections required throughout the semester. These were ungraded but mandatory surveys completed on the course Learning Management System. A sample of some questions asked in these surveys is below – you can see that they are short and simple, although many students wrote extensively in response to these questions. Students also wrote a concluding reflection on the overall process of engaging in this work throughout the semester and how they saw it to be related to or supportive of other course content or other courses they were taking. Course instructors and teaching assistants responded to each survey with care and attention. The assignment was “ungraded,” meaning that students offered their own concluding assessment of their work (see below for a video on the practice of ungrading).

Example survey questions

Survey #1 (beginning of the semester):

Describe which articles you read in the first steps of this assignment. What were some things you found most interesting? Did you learn anything new?

Discuss the process of completing all of the assessment forms for this project. You don’t have to tell me any specifics about yourself, if you’d like those to be private. But how was the experience of giving this material some serious thought? Does it feel valuable or important to you? (Or does it not?)

Do you have a good plan for keeping yourself accountable, in terms of your maintenance self-care plan? Would you like to find an accountability buddy from this class? If so, let me know and I’ll try to connect you with someone.

The emergency self-care plan suggests that you write your plan out on a 3×5 card. Maybe you don’t have access to that kind of card right now – but you could write it on a piece of paper and keep it on your desk, in your wallet, or in your backpack or purse. Which of these kinds of things have you done?

Survey #2 (mid-semester):

How are you doing at following your plan? If you’re having trouble, what’s making it challenging? Do you think you want to modify your plan at this point in the semester?

Survey #3 (end of semester):

How are you doing now at keeping up with your plan? If you’re having trouble, what’s making it challenging? Do you think you want to modify your plan?

Please discuss how you feel you’ve done with the self-care assignment in this course overall. Did you take it seriously and do your best to follow your plans? Did you give it thought throughout the semester and modify your plan as needed?

What “grade” do you think you deserve for this assignment, and why? (Please use letter grades, not numbers.)

Practicing Embodied and Decolonial Learning

Dr. Joseph describes a process of discovery in the education system where she learned that “this was not a system designed for me,” and she began to ask herself what would it mean to learn with her body. She talks about embodied learning, which integrates thinking, learning and moving, as a foundation for decolonial practice insofar as imaging something different from our current colonial, capitalist system of education. She also speaks to the value of movement practices and being in the body as a way to slow down and reflect, and the value of play and getting dirty.  

Incorporating Embodied Learning into Any Classroom

Dr. Richardson explains that teaching any subject can incorporate more hands-on learning, whether it’s through building models, mind-mapping on paper with a group, drawing, or even using Play-Doh. Physical manifestations of a topic can provide interesting points of discussion that might not be reached otherwise.  

How the ORID method supports critical thinking and inclusion

ORID stands for objective, reflective, interpretive, and decisional.  Dr. Richardson explains how these four stages lead us toward analytical thinking and how we can follow these steps in the classroom. By ensuring that all voices are heard, we can make this a collaborative process and lead students toward answering bigger questions. 

Building Community Through movement

Dr. Joseph talks about The Sister Insiders, a graduate student group comprised of racialized women who share an interest in sport, leisure and kinesiology as well as equity, anti-racism and feminism. She describes how she incorporates embodied learning in her classes, including challenges she has encountered in engaging students who are resistant to movement practices and/or who feel threatened by the high pressure, evaluative culture at the University of Toronto.  

Managing School Work and Projects with the Medicine Wheel

As students, we often feel pressure to complete our assignments as soon as possible, which can lead to anxiety and overwork.  Iehnhotonkwas discusses the importance of taking a broader perspective, organizing your time over the course of a week, in order to break up your work into manageable sections. The medicine wheel can be used in this process to ensure that you are making time to balance all aspects of yourself, and also can be used longer term as a framework for one’s development. Towards the end, Iehnhotonkwas also mentions the importance of experiential, hands-on learning.  

What is Trauma?

Dr. Hewitt explains that one of the most damaging aspects of trauma can be how the people around us respond to it. She talks about trauma as ‘laying down tracks’ in the body and consciousness. Religion, in its texts and traditions, can sometimes reinforce the harmful idea that trauma is something to be accepted. Dr. Hewitt also discusses the way in which the pandemic has traumatized us on a global scale. Now more than ever, it is important for educators to show deep care for their students.

Interconnections in Thinking and Learning

Dr. Miller outlines the connection between intuitive and rational thinking, and invites listeners to consider holistic approaches to learning, for example making connections between subjects and different kinds of knowledge. He emphasizes that the more students are able to be present and see the interconnectedness of all things, the more they are able to integrate this learning with every part of their life, resulting in someone who is comfortable being their authentic self. Holistic education, according Dr. Miller, is about joy and love , which he explores in more depth in his book, Love and Compassion: Exploring Their Role in Education. 

The Value of Making Art in Class

Dr. Richardson talks about the way in which she has combined the study of art with art-making in her classes. As students begin to embrace the process of creating art, they can better understand the art that they are analyzing and notice things that they could not see before. They can move beyond solely verbal communication to material communication. Not only does this process help students embody their learning, but it also helps them move through feelings of inadequacy around creativity, and fosters community in class.

Designing Classrooms to be inclusive and caring

Dr. Frances Garrett speaks about her experiences designing classroom experiences to prioritize inclusion and care for all students, especially in the age of a pandemic. Resources cited in this presentation can be found here.

Teaching with Kindness, Being Open to Joy and Connection

Dr. Richardson discusses the importance of understanding the stress that students are under and creating a learning environment that is playful. Feeling pressure to perform, to prove your intelligence, or worrying about not having finished the reading can create a mindset that is not receptive to real learning. Seeing this, Dr. Richardson hopes to take immediate judgment out of her classrooms, allowing time for students to try new skills without feeling like they already have to be perfect. 

Engaging with Students Ethically

Dr. Hewitt talks about the tricky boundaries of including the personal in one’s academic work and in the classroom. On the one hand, engaging with scholarship through your personal experience can help you engage more deeply with the authors, but there is also emotional risk in this. Dr. Hewitt emphasizes ‘generosity in scholarship’ – the willingness to see other points of view and be expansive in our thinking. Some might think that this is a quality only for the humanities, whereas science is objective. But it is always we, the thinkers, who are doing the thinking.

Can ungrading be a mainstay in assessment?

Dr. Jennifer Harris, Associate Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion, of the University of Toronto, speaks at EdTech Workshop 2021 on her work with “ungrading.”

a Course Assignment on “Flourishing”

Dr. Frances Garrett speaks to students about how a course assignment on “flourishing” or “self-care” will be conducted across their semester. This video is offered here as an example of how such an assignment could be framed for students, for other instructors interested in using Windvane resources in the classroom.

Selected resources for learning more

In “Embodied learning: how to bring movement into the classroom, and why it matters,” a November 2021 article in THE Campus, part of Times Higher Education, Susan Hrach offers practical advice on using physical activity and outdoor space to enhance learning.

Take your online teaching outside” is a 2020 THE Campus article by Aimée Little on how being outdoors can offer both students and teachers dozens of benefits, from improved learning outcomes to better mental health.

How & Why to Humanize Your Online Class, by Pacansky-Brock, explains how positive instructor-student relationships can be prioritized and serve “as the connective tissue between students, engagement, and rigor”.

The University of Colorado Boulder has a Coursera course called Health, Society, and Wellness in Covid-19 Times. Here, you can find many informative videos and articles.

One point of view on mental health among students in higher education is discussed by Dr. Wendy Ingram’s video, A Scientist’s Primer on Mental Health, published on STEMcognito, where she discusses mental health as a spectrum, and talks about mood disorders, anxiety, burn out, psychosis, substance use disorders, and more. Dr. Ingram is the Executive Director of Dragonfly Mental Health, an organization focused on mental health in academic settings.

Bedera N. 2021. Beyond Trigger Warnings: A Survivor-Centered Approach to Teaching on Sexual Violence and Avoiding Institutional Betrayal. Teaching Sociology 49 (3): 267-277: “This article critically examines the conventional advice to offer a trigger warning, which can interfere with student education (e.g., requiring survivors to miss out on a lesson) and does not adequately prepare instructors for the difficulties that may arise during discussions of sexual violence (e.g., managing victim-blaming comments). Using institutional betrayal as an alternative frame, this article builds a trauma-informed and survivor-centered pedagogy that offers specific examples and strategies of how to teach to survivors instead of around them.”

Bartholomay DJ. 2022. A Time to Adapt, Not “Return to Normal”: Lessons in Compassion and Accessibility from Teaching During COVID-19. Teaching Sociology 50(1):62-72: “COVID-19 drastically altered teaching and learning. The unprecedented public health crisis forced educators to transition courses online, to learn new technologies, and to embrace adaptability and flexibility. These pedagogical changes brought with them new challenges and stressors, causing many educators to long for a “return to normal” in education. In this conversation, I reflect on the transformative lessons we as educators can learn from teaching during the pandemic. I argue that teaching during COVID-19 has presented opportunities for educators to become more compassionate toward students. Some of the ways we restructured our courses may also make education more accessible to vulnerable groups. Examining the lessons I have learned in compassion and accessibility through teaching sociology during COVID-19, I suggest that now is a time to adapt, not return to normal.”

Beaumier T. 2022 Film Review: Medicating Normal. Teaching Sociology 50 (1): 90-92: A review and discussion of the film by Lynne Cunningham & Wendy Ractliffe, directors, Periscope Moving Pictures,