Building Student Mental Wellbeing through Curriculum Design

Whilst we are all familiar with the term “curriculum”, how much thought do we put into its impact on student mental wellbeing, both positive and negative?

As Hughes et al (2018) point out, the curriculum is the one guaranteed point of contact a student has with the university. So, clearly a curriculum designed to support student wellbeing would be of benefit. Indeed, you may already think/believe your curriculum incorporates all aspects of student wellbeing, because it demonstrates:

  • Coherent, structured and scaffolded curriculum which makes clear links with future learning
  • Modes of assessment and methods of assessment which help students develop a learning focused approach to study – Assessment for Learning, no less!
  • Development of safe classroom environments, where errors are not punished or mocked.

But, and there is always a but… the story doesn’t end there.   
Even if we get all the above right, the risk is that without curriculum coherence across modules, student wellbeing may still be jeopardised. For example, poor planning can lead to assessment bunching, which can quickly counteract any benefit to students. This can lead to learning environments which foster unhealthy behaviours; lack of sleep, unhealthy eating and long hours in front of a screen. 

We have been talking about this for many years and we know that these issues can be overcome with sound pedagogy and good curriculum design. The toolkit offers a timely reminder and sense check.

The Education for Mental Health toolkit can help new colleagues, and experienced colleagues, consider their curriculum.  It unravels the terminology around mental wellbeing and breaks down the myths which cause barriers to curriculum change. It provides accessible, straight talking, evidence informed guidance on developing curriculum which stimulates learning.

Meanwhile, for those supporting curriculum design, the ”Curriculum design for mental health and wellbeing” offers tried and tested activities which can be used to help colleagues consider changes to their curriculum which will in turn help student mental wellbeing.

Utilising the resources, and considering the student perspective, can transform the curriculum; ensuring our HE institutions are safe, nurturing and encouraging places to learn, and work. So, let us continue to strive to design curriculum which enables students to thrive and flourish.


Hughes G, Panjwani M, Tulcidas P, Byrom N. (2018) Student mental health: The role and responsibilities of academics. Oxford: Student Minds.

Hughes, G, Upsher, R, Nobili, A, Kirkman, A, Wilson, C, Bowers Brown, T, Foster, J, Bradley, S and Byrom, N (2022) Education for Mental Health. Online: Advance HE

For more information and resources to support student mental wellbeing and the curriculum go to  “Education for Mental Health: Enhancing Student Mental Health through Curriculum and Pedagogy”. and “Curriculum design for mental health and wellbeing: guidance and resources for learning and teaching development programmes in higher education”.  This project was developed as a partnership between the University of Derby, King’s College London, Aston University, Student Minds and Advance HE. It was funded by the Office for Students via a Challenge Competition.

Professor Sally Bradley is an Honorary Professor at Sheffield Hallam University where she worked for 15 years prior to joining Advance HE (formerly the HEA). She recently retired from Advance HE , where she was a Senior Adviser (Professional Learning and Development), having initially been appointed as Academic Lead for Fellowships and UKPSF at the HEA. She is a motivational speaker and qualified Executive Coach. She continues to work as an Associate for Advance HE, primarily working with strategic leaders of learning and teaching. She is also an Advisor to the Joint Training Requirements Authority, Defence Academy of the UK and a member of the Steering Committee of the Technician Commitment.  She holds a Senior Fellowship of SEDA (SFSEDA) and a Principal Fellowship (PFHEA).

With acknowledgement to Elizabeth Mullenger, reading Public Health and Community Studies and Coventry University Curriculum Change Intern, for her invaluable comments.

Help! There’s a cat in the Transition to HE course!

Durham University has a history of offering Transition to HE pre-arrival courses. The first was launched in 2016. Since then, various iterations have supported students, from foundation to postgraduate. We developed our recent pre-arrival course in the Durham Centre for Academic Development (DCAD) where many of the staff involved have a real passion for widening participation and inclusivity. A common thread in all iterations has been our focus on building a sense of belonging.

Re-developing the Transition to Higher Education course, which is a dream job for me, gave me the opportunity to support students starting their university journey. I don’t work alone on this project; I work alongside Dr Malcolm Murray who is just as passionate about working with students and creating opportunities for students as I am. This partnership and this project provided a fantastic opportunity for me to build cross-institution connections, as I worked with colleagues from a variety of departments to ensure the information being given to students aligned with university-wide induction and would support students beyond the initial contact point. You could say that this enabled me to develop a sense of belonging as well.

One of the greatest pleasures of leading the development of this course, has been the opportunity to work with our incredible students. Last year, we hired a wonderful student who had just finished their undergraduate degree. With their input we were able to shift parts of the course from a list of things to do, to a much more conversational series of suggestions that may be useful to think about. One thing we achieved really well, and this came through in the feedback we gathered, was reducing incoming students’ anxiety about starting university. This was a key priority for me. It’s so important to remember where students are at when they start and how nerve wrecking starting university can be.

The priority this year has been to shift the tone of the course, making sure it’s relevant for incoming students. This year we recruited two student developers who have just completed their first year (and the Transition to HE course) and this has made an incredible difference. One of our student developers has put a lot of work into making engaging informational videos. The other has focussed on graphic design, writing content, and making sure the tone is right.

My student developers were really keen and clear that we needed to do more with this course from an inclusivity perspective, so a lot of work has gone into creating choice and different ways of accessing information, including captioned videos, transcripts and downloadable audio files. We have also addressed restrictive linearity and added downloadable summaries after each section. This enables students to dip in and out as they please.

An unexpected hero of Transition to HE has been Freddie Meowcury. We have a legend within DCAD that there is a cat that lives in the building: a cat bowl, toys and collar periodically move around the department… obviously the cat just comes out to play at night. Last year, I introduced the idea that the DCAD cat had been meddling in the Transition to HE course and had scattered pictures of his accomplices around the course. Students had to find how many cats were in the course and submit their answer. We found that students spent twice as long on this activity than they did on completing feedback and we ended up with feedback such as ‘I stayed for the cat’, ‘Fred [the cat] was my favourite accomplice’. One of the students named him Freddie Meowcury and we are in conversation with Freddie to see what his disruptive plans are this year, so watch this space! It’s fun working with a cat, but he has a lot of demands, so if you two are planning a cat-based-partnership make sure you set the terms early on!

There are two big successes of the Durham Transition to HE course. Firstly, it has brought departments together and ensured we deliver much more joined up support for students. This focus has meant that we can make sure there is no misinformation or gaps and that students can find information they need in a way that works for them. The second, and most important, success is having a body of students access the course and hopefully feel more prepared, and less anxious about starting university. We are very fortunate to have incredible students at Durham, and I am proud to be able to work with them on projects such as this.

Author Bio: Hi I’m Rachelle O’Brien. I lead Durham Universities institution wide academic pre-arrival Transition to Higher Education (HE) course (wow, that’s a mouthful!). I started my career working in student support, having come into university as a widening participation student myself. For me, completing a degree was a real catalyst for me wanting to work with other students, especially those in similar positions as me, to show them that if I can do it, anybody can!

Repurposing hackathons to engage students as partners

We, as institutions, are brilliant at listening to students and engaging them in conversations about their teaching, learning and general experience of university. However, when it comes to finding fresh and innovative ways to improve the student experience, it is often left to committees, boards and senior management.

Here at the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching we’ve decided to try a new, playful, student-centred approach, allowing us to get real, in-depth, authentic feedback from students.

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Learning from the pandemic to embed empathy in students-as-partners practice

Overnight the pandemic levelled the experiences of students and staff like no other development in students-as-partners (SaP) practice.  While some existing inequities were exacerbated, and some new ones emerged during the pandemic, we all found ourselves going through a collectively-shared trauma and checking in on, and caring for each other, from our isolated bedrooms and kitchen tables.  At the same time, we found ourselves working with tools and approaches that were new to many of us.  This unprecedented and sudden change to the daily running of mass Higher Education created different kinds of dialogues between students and staff, which were fundamentally underpinned by empathy.

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The practical wisdom of… students? Co-creating a practical resource for HE teachers with students as partners

In 2020, shortly before the pandemic and the UK lockdowns, the Oxford Centre for Staff Learning and Development (OCSLD) at Oxford Brookes University began a project to develop and publish the practical wisdom of teaching in HE for our staff and readers internationally. We invited HE teachers to complete an online survey which investigated what resources they currently used—and also wished they had—to inform their teaching practice. Our respondents were mostly UK-based colleagues, but a few were based in China, Italy and New Zealand. Respondents had a wide range of HE teaching experience, reporting between 5 and 50 years with an average of 19.97 years (SD = 9.99). Most respondents were from humanities and social sciences disciplines, with a smaller number from STEM disciplines.

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