Supporting Student Success

November 23, 2022
Asa Olson and Kely MacPhail, and Bakken Center Learning Resources Group Through the Wellbeing Enhances Learning Model

Supporting student success

Find The WEL Model Toolkit

MUCH HAS CHANGED  in our world over the past few years. We’ve been living through a global pandemic as well as intense reckoning with racial injustice, human rights, and planetary health. Wellbeing has emerged as a top priority as individuals, organizations, and communities continue to navigate through these seismic shifts and experience increased levels of burnout, stress, and isolation.

In many ways, the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing was prescient in its focus on student wellbeing. Our faculty and staff have always recognized that student wellbeing is important and that it affects every aspect of their lives, including their learning. Dating back to 2013, our instructors collaborated to identify key instructional practices that could contribute to student wellbeing, aligning them with the six dimensions of the Center’s Wellbeing Model (health, relationships, security, purpose, community, and environment). Principles of transformative learning, contemplative pedagogy, and social/emotional and collaborative learning were all given consideration in this process. This effort resulted in the creation of a model called the Bakken Center’s Unifying Framework for Teaching and Learning. 

While we have been operationalizing this framework for nearly a decade, there are few projects like it, and the research has really only started to take off. Research on the workplace indicates that wellbeing can enhance engagement as well as productivity and less turnover (Gallup). Although the workplace is a different environment with different goals than an educational setting, the analog has always begged a valid question: how does wellbeing relate to student engagement, performance, learning, and retention?

Research is beginning to seek answers to this question in areas such as mindfulness-based interventions and positive education. The body of literature about the positive relationship between student wellbeing and academic performance is growing. One study identifies a reciprocal relationship between student wellbeing (i.e., a student’s health awareness and health behavior) and a student’s academic performance (El Ansari, Stock 2010), and a review on positive psychology interventions in higher ed highlights promising results, not only in terms of student wellbeing but also in terms of academic outcomes and teacher wellbeing (Shankland, Rosset 2017). There is also a substantial body of literature on specific teaching practices’ contribution to wellbeing. 

In Fall 2020, the Center’s Learning Resources Group (LRG) recognized the urgency to build on the existing Unifying Framework for Teaching and Learning and to incorporate the growing body of literature about wellbeing, engagement, and performance, along with new practices drawing from Universal Design guidelines and anti-racist pedagogy. We presented the revised framework to various University partners for feedback, and also conducted surveys and focus groups with our instructors to learn more about the ways they cultivate student wellbeing through their teaching and what additional practices would be useful for them to incorporate. Our conversations and our outreach were met with excitement, and helped the CSH Unifying Framework for Teaching and Learning blossom into its newest form, the Wellbeing Enhances Learning (WEL) Model. 

The WEL Model theorizes that student wellbeing improves engagement and learning. It identifies key goals toward enhancing student wellbeing and supplies a list of practices that contribute to each goal. These practices are descriptive rather than prescriptive, and instructors can adapt them based on the needs, aims, and contexts of their courses. To help instructors implement these practices, the WEL Model suggests several strategies for each practice, and each strategy also has an example. Some of the strategies include mindfulness or movement-based interventions, but most of them connect existing teaching strategies to specific dimensions of wellbeing, such as the role of inquiry-based learning activities in discovering personal relevance and purpose. Instructors can browse the Model for new practices, use it as a reflective tool, or follow the five steps that we suggest in the toolkit.

Based on the Center’s strategic plan to promote academic excellence and rigor through courses that promote accessibility and student success, the WEL Model has become one of the top initiatives for the LRG. We have presented it at local and international conferences, shared it with University partners, and hosted several trainings and workshops around it. We recognize that the Model’s positive reception is due in part to state of the world and the challenging times in which we live, and we are hopeful the WEL Model can have a positive impact in this context and beyond, in a world where the burdens of the pandemic, we hope, have lightened.


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