Wellbeing in the University Context: The Role of Assessment

About the Author: Madeline Nichols is a doctoral student in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University. Studying in the Human Development and Family Studies program, her research broadly focuses on how older adults and adults in midlife understand, process, and regulate their emotions, and how those emotional competencies intersect with sociocultural factors, such as race or gender. This post is part of our series of Research Advancing Pedagogy (RAP) blogs, designed to share pedagogical research from across the disciplines in a pragmatic format.

Psychological wellbeing is especially important in the university context, with the relationship between learning and mental health proving to be bidirectional – that is, students’ learning impacts their mental health, and student’s mental health impacts future learning (Pascoe et al., 2020). Higher education relies on the assessment of that learning (QAA, 2018) and the consideration for the wellbeing of students should include an examination of how wellbeing is impacted by assessment as well as how wellbeing impacts assessment itself (Pascoe et al., 2020). Jones and colleagues met with students and staff at universities across the UK to consider this relationship between assessment and wellbeing and to make staff- and student-informed recommendations for considerations in assessment design.

What did they do? This qualitative study used focus groups of university staff and student panels. University staff contributed their perceptions of the balance between student learning and wellbeing at their university, while students were asked about the culture and environment of their university as well as mental health. In total, 33 staff members and 65 students participated.

What did they find? Conversations with students and staff highlighted five tensions that may arise in assessment design and implementation.

1.   Challenge versus threat in assessment: The nature of assessment is to be challenging, to encourage critical thinking so as to evoke higher levels of learning. However, this challenge comes with a cost: subjective perceptions of assessments as threat instead of challenge can negatively impact their wellbeing, evidenced by one student’s contribution: “Doing badly in one exam [felt like] … the end of the world … [it] was terrifying.”

2.   Traditional versus novel assessment: Traditional forms of assessment, like structured exams, were seen as both too restrictive and anxiety-producing. One student said, “they tell you what to do… [and] there’s no opportunity to have your own initiative on anything.” However, both students and staff also acknowledged the higher faculty burden in creating more novel assessments, as well as the increased stress that may be associated with these forms of assessment depending on a student’s prior exposure to similar assessment types.

3.   Collaborative versus individual assessment: While traditional individual assessment may feel isolating, feedback suggests collaborative assessment brings its own challenges alongside its strengths. While some students find the skills assessed during collaboration to be more applicable to their future job, staff members “sometimes find that groupwork ups the pressure, because if they’re in incompatible groups or there are issues going on, somebody’s not attending, it puts more strain on the others.”

4.   Ideal versus practical assessment: Both students and staff agree that practical assessments may not always be ideal, but that a university-focus on creating ideal assessments negatively affect staff wellbeing. One faculty member noted that they’d “seen the stress levels with the staff go up,” and students recognized that ““in practice, it’s really difficult.”

5.   Giving feedback versus receiving criticism: Giving personalized, detailed feedback is ideal, but can be tricky to accomplish depending on student: instructor ratios. It’s when this feedback crosses the line to criticism that students note a problem: “Sometimes [the feedback is] not constructive, it’s just criticism … and I think that affects people’s mental health.”

What does that mean for us? It seems like there’s no happy medium, right? Not necessarily – although there’s not one solution for everyone, Jones and colleagues’ work highlights the importance of considering staff and student experiences, as well as the factors of familiarity and feedback, in assessment design to minimize its negative effects on students’ mental health. Knowing these key tensions, though, can help inform future approaches to assessment design that may be more protective of the mental health of students, but these designs will need to be critiqued by students and staff alike to examine their functionality within individual contexts.

References

Jones, E., Priestly, M., Brewster, L., Wilbraham, S.J., Hughes, G., & Spanner, L. (2021). Student wellbeing and assessment in higher education: the balancing act. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 46(3), 438-450. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2020.1782344

Pascoe, M., Hetrick, S. & Parker, A. (2020). “The impact of stress on students in secondary school and higher education.” International Journal of Adolescence and Youth 25 (1): 104–112. https://doi.org/10.1080/02673843.2019.1596823. QAA [Quality Assurance Alliance] (2018).

UK Quality Code, Advice and Guidance: Assessment. https://www.qaa.ac.uk/en/quality-code/advice-and-guidance/assessment

 

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