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You are reading: NCSEHE Student Equity Snapshots Forum — Supporting students’ mental wellbeing: Mature-aged students in regional and remote Australia say teaching and learning makes such a difference!

The NCSEHE hosted series of lightning talks and online discussions presented by the 2019/20 Equity Fellows on 26–30 October 2020.

In this lightning talk, Dr Nicole Crawford shares a snapshot of her NCSEHE Equity Fellowship, which focused on how we (staff and universities) can proactively support the mental wellbeing of mature-aged university students in regional and remote Australia.

Nicole was joined by guest facilitators Professor Maria Raciti (USC) and Professor Sally Kift.

Lightning talk

Webinar recording (including Q and A)

Full transcript (including Q and A)


#NCSEHE_Snapshots publication

Lightning talk transcript

“In this lightning talk, I’m going to give you a little taste of my NCSEHE equity fellowship research, in which I looked at how we can proactively support university students’ mental wellbeing, in particular, my focus was on mature-aged students in regional and remote Australia.

The pressure and stress experienced by university students and its effect on their mental wellbeing is signalled by the striking finding that 47.7 per cent (n=883) of the survey respondents in my research project considered withdrawing or deferring from their studies, with the top two reasons being ‘stress’ and ‘feeling overwhelmed with their university study-load’.

In Australia and internationally, university students’ mental wellbeing is increasingly ‘on the radar’. There is a shift from viewing mental health and wellbeing as an individual student’s so-called ‘problem’ or as the sole responsibility of university counselling units to viewing it as ‘everyone’s business’! — which means it’s everyone’s responsibility in all parts of the university and at all levels—teaching and support staff, staff in library, staff in high-level management positions—yes, so, all levels and institution-wide.

For this short talk, though, I’m going to focus on lecturers, tutors and support staff. What can we do to support students’ mental wellbeing? To help them manage the ‘normal’ stresses of uni life and to be productive and fulfilled?

I’ve been wondering about these questions for many years and thinking about what I can do differently in my classes, as a lecturer and a tutor. And, I’ve tried out various ideas.

My fellowship research, though, has enabled me to hear from a couple of thousand students—mature-aged student in and from regional and remote Australia—about what they think we can do better.

And, a major finding has been the importance of teaching and learning. Basically, I found that students’ everyday interactions with their course—that is, with the course content, with their assessment tasks, with their lecturers and tutors, and with their peers—are really important! It’s these small daily interactions (that take place on-campus or online) that impact on students’ mental wellbeing. Students want the nuts and bolts of teaching and learning to be done well. They are not asking for extra bells and whistles or extra mental health and wellbeing events.

Let’s look at these daily interactions through the experiences of two students who I interviewed — I’ll refer to them by the pseudonyms, Tracy and Olivia.

They had a few things in common.

They were both enrolled as online/distance students in an undergrad course. They both lived hundreds of kilometres away from the major city. They were both mature-aged students. Both of them had thought long and hard about embarking upon uni studies. It was the right time for them; it was now their time to study. They were both determined and dedicated. They both juggled other commitments with uni, and they carved out time for their studies early in the morning or late at night to fit it in around work and/or children. That’s about where their similarities ended.

Now for some of their differences.

First to Tracy.

Tracy studied online through a university that is based in a major city far away from where she lives and works. Pretty much from the beginning of her first semester, she was lost and alone. The campus was too far away for her to attend the orientation. She didn’t know how to navigate her uni website or the learning management system (LMS), which, for a fully online student, is paramount!

In many ways, she didn’t know what she didn’t know. For example, she was unaware of the availability of learning skills advisors, who could have helped her so much with the fundamentals of academic skills and literacies.

She had endless difficulties in getting assistance with her studies and with getting answers to her questions.

Because she was an online student, she relied on email and discussion boards for answers to her questions. She would wait days and days to get responses to urgent posts she put on discussion boards — they were often about assessment tasks with impending due dates. She didn’t know any of her peers. She didn’t know any staff at the university. She felt invisible and ignored. And she felt she was an annoyance and that she didn’t belong.

Exams were stressful: As Tracy explained to me:

Like, I’d be sitting their [in] online exams and it [the internet] would cut out on me. Like, I remember doing the law, I think it was, in my second year, one of the units. And it just dropped every time I went to do my law exam. I felt so bad. and I didn’t pass that on the first attempt. … I think that was just due to it was so stressful with the internet not working properly. And I just couldn’t concentrate.

Yes, that sounds stressful.

Fortunately, Tracy did have support from her colleagues in the company where she worked full-time. Several of her colleagues had studied online previously or were studying at the same time as Tracy at different universities, and it was thanks to this group of people that she gradually got a sense of what services should be available to her. They also generously helped her with the course content and assignments.

While Tracy had this support from her workmates, and while she was so determined and organised and hard-working, to say study for Tracy was a struggle is an understatement. It was disheartening and disempowering as she encountered endless barriers.

Listening to Tracy made my heart sink. Study is hard enough at the best of times.

It shouldn’t be this way.

Now to Olivia’s story.

Olivia juggled her uni studies with life on a farm with young children and commitments in her rural community. Finances and the internet were an issue — she chewed through her Internet quota in no time plus it was hit and miss, so she’d drive to nearby towns for a study space and Internet, but this regular driving added to petrol costs. She and her family made sacrifices—especially around finances and time not spent with her children—in order for her to study.

Olivia was well prepared. She studied in a university preparation program, so by the time she commenced her degree, she knew how her institution operated; its expectations of her; and she’d developed the necessary academic literacies to find information, to write academic essays and reports, as well as how to communicate with her lecturers, tutors and peers. She also knew how to seek assistance at university.

Although she was enrolled as an online student, she had access to two physical spaces. One was a tiny public library in a small town that she’d frequent when her youngest child was in play group. The other was located in a town further away—it’s what’s known as a Regional University Centre—that’s a study hub where she could use computers (with the latest software) and access free and fast WiFi. And she had the support of staff there and she met other students.

Olivia raved about having this physical space where she could get f2f support.

She noted

I felt academically and emotionally supported and seen. I just felt seen … I have generally the same four or five or six tutors for the different units over the last couple of years. And so, I feel really, yeah, known. They emotionally support me if I’m going through a tough time.

Olivia felt known by staff located at the university, even though it was hundreds of kilometres away. She had actually met some of them face-to-face in her local Regional University Centre.

I’m not saying Olivia’s studies were easy — she certainly had her challenges and she had to sacrifice a lot and rely on family and friends to help out with her children when she was on prac. for weeks and living away from home. However, she had a variety of supports in place.

Like Tracy, Olivia was determined, driven, and well organised.

Unlike Tracy, she got timely answers from staff to her questions. She had connections with staff and peers. She had academic and emotional support. She felt known and valued.

She was visible and she felt she belonged. For Olivia, uni was empowering and transformative as she became enthralled with learning.

Listening to Olivia’s story was uplifting.

This is how it can and should be!

So, back to that earlier question:

What can we—lecturers, tutors, support staff—actually do to support students’ mental wellbeing?

Well, from Tracy and Olivia’s stories — the answer is LOTS!

What worked for Olivia?

  1. Staff knew her
  2. She felt connected with peers and staff and that she belonged to her course and uni (she received academic and emotional support)
  3. She was prepared for uni
  4. Her assessment tasks were tailored to her interests and location – it made them meaningful and relevant
  5. She got timely answers to pressing questions
  6. She could access free WiFi and computers at in a local library and in a Regional University Centre
  7. She was aware of the supports provided by her uni.

Lots of relatively small human empathic actions can make a big difference.

And, the good news is that the negative impacts experienced by Tracy are all fixable—it doesn’t have to be this way—we can see that from Olivia’s experience.

With such proactive approaches, students like Tracy would be known and their needs catered to. They’d be visible and ‘on the radar’, which every student deserves!”

Lightning talk slides (accessible)