This article appears in The Best of the 2023 Teaching Professor Conference (Magna Publications, 2023).
When I began researching the impact of mental health challenges on student learning, one of my first steps was to interview a couple of friends from the counseling center on campus. I asked them what kinds of things faculty members did that might inadvertently exacerbate students’ mental health issues. Without hesitation, they mentioned oral presentations.
This stung because I’d often required oral presentations in my general education courses—without any thought as to how they might affect the mental health of my students with anxiety. Perhaps that was because—not surprisingly for a professor—I had enjoyed doing oral presentations as a student myself. I simply hadn’t given much thought to how students who were naturally more introverted or experienced higher levels of anxiety would experience such an assignment.
By assigning oral presentations, I had failed to be intentional in my course design. That is, I had failed to make choices deliberately, after weighing costs, benefits, and consequences. In Improving Learning and Teaching in the College Classroom, Steve Hunsaker, Bonnie Moon, and I propose what you might call a formula for intentionality in the context of mental health—questions to guide an analysis of the pedagogical benefits and mental health costs of our course design and teaching choices. We suggest considering these four questions:
- What is the impact of this practice on students with mental health challenges?
- How central is it to my course outcomes?
- Are there any less agitating alternatives that could achieve the same outcomes equally well or even better?
- If not, are there some ways to knock off the rough edges of this practice?
In the case of oral presentations, my problem was that I had never considered the impact of requiring every student to stand before the entire class to give a presentation, regardless of their major, their circumstances, or their preferences. Nor was the practice particularly aligned with any of my outcomes in these courses, let alone central to them. Because I hadn’t considered the first two questions, it had not occurred to me to entertain alternatives—such as giving students multiple options for completing an assignment whose main purpose was just to develop and articulate a bit of expertise.
If I were really set on helping students cultivate oral communication skills in my course, I could have contemplated modifications that would still have required students to speak without necessarily having to do so live in front of the entire class. For example, some colleagues in one of the courses I taught stumbled on an alternative that undoubtedly decreased stress for many students—even though they weren’t even thinking of the mental health impacts of this assignment. Looking for ways to free up some valuable class time, they chose to have students record themselves narrating a slideshow of their presentation and then watch each other’s presentations outside of class, rather than have them present to the entire class. The result? When students could record their presentations multiple times in the privacy of their room, the quality of the presentations went up, even as stress levels almost certainly went down.
Intentionality in course design has always been important, but the stakes are even higher as we find ourselves in what a 2021 US Surgeon General’s Advisory called “a mental health pandemic” for teenagers and young adults (Office of the Surgeon General, 2021, p. 40). Steve, Bonnie, and I argue that if we are simply more intentional in the ways we design our courses and teach our students, we can simultaneously boost learning and decrease unnecessary student stress and discouragement that can lead to anxiety and depression. Designing courses with mental health impacts in mind can help create a college experience for our students that stretches their minds without crushing their souls.
We have examined a variety of course design decisions that can boost learning and decrease stress, including telegraphing flexibility in the syllabus, reconsidering draconian late policies, chunking assignments into smaller pieces, promoting more mastery learning, increasing student choice, and eliminating most timed tests. Here, I elaborate on just one strategy: simplifying course design.
I once revised one of my courses and was proud of how it was now laced with a variety of authentic, real-world learning experiences. But when I asked my teaching assistant for some feedback, she surprised me with this candid, incisive observation: “Too many moving parts.”
When we conducted focus groups with students with mental health challenges, several students talked about just how much this aspect of course design mattered to them. The simpler and more organized the course layout was—and the easier it was to navigate in the learning management system—the less they experienced what psychologists call extraneous load.
Susan Ambrose and her colleagues (2010, p. 106) describe extraneous load as “aspects of a task that make it difficult to complete but that are unrelated to what students need to learn.” The notion of underlying extraneous load is essentially that cognition is a zero-sum game, so every task that requires us to focus our intellectual efforts on one thing comes at the expense of being able to more fully focus on something else. Consequently, simplicity in course design frees up students to use their cognitive capacity on the target learning activity rather than on navigating the course and juggling deadlines.
It’s possible to create such simplicity without sacrificing academic rigor. For example, in my course with too many moving parts—multiple assignments with deadlines scattered throughout the semester with no discernible pattern—I converted those assignments into a single assignment: the weekly experiential learning assignment. Now students do a different kind of hands-on assignment each week of the semester while having to remember only that they have some kind of hands-on assignment due every Saturday night.
It was as if I’d been asking students to memorize a chain that included 48 letters arranged in a seemingly random way: ssertsyrassecennusecuderngisedesruocniyticilpmis. That task seems nearly impossible. But students can memorize those exact same letters quite easily if I simply reverse the order and add a few spaces: simplicity in course design reduces unnecessary stress.
Ironically, simplifying my course organization in this way has also led me to some unanticipated improvements in what was once a series of unrelated assignments. Drawing on the four components of the experiential learning cycle, I now use the same template for each of the assignments. As I focused on the unifying thread of experiential learning that ran through my assignments and learned more about that kind of learning activity, I developed a consistent approach to those assignments, one based on the four components of the experiential learning cycle.
Every week, students see the same diagram of the experiential learning cycle and read the same introduction:
Each week, you’ll get the opportunity to learn in a hands-on way. But experts on experiential learning teach us that experience alone isn’t enough. We learn even more when we reflect on our experience and think about it in a way that lets us glean lessons we can apply more broadly. When we then act and experiment on the lessons we’ve learned from our experience, it becomes a virtuous cycle of learning. So each week, you will not only do something but reflect on and write about what you have learned.
Now, in addition to having the same experiences they had before, my students understand that we learn more from our experiences in life when we process them, look for broadly applicable lessons, and act on our insights going forward.
Incidentally, such a discovery highlights a key finding of the work that Steve, Bonnie, and I have done: we don’t have to sacrifice true academic rigor to make life better for our students with mental health challenges. We’re fans of what Robert Bjork calls desirable difficulties in the learning process. But as Bjork himself acknowledges, not all difficulties we create for our students are desirable (LastingLearning.com, 2015). And when we are intentional, we can often discover modifications that not only reduce undesirable difficulties—especially for students coping with anxiety or depression—but actually lead to more learning for all our students.
In sum, a dose of intentionality in the way we design courses can be great preventive medicine in the battle against the mental health pandemic in which so many of our students find themselves. By designing our courses with our students’ wellness in mind, we can find ways to simultaneously reduce unnecessary stress and discouragement and boost learning for all our students.
Ambrose, S. A., Lovett, M., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. 2010. How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Jossey-Bass.
LastingLearning.com. (2015, October 27). Using desirable difficulties to enhance learning, Dr. Robert Bjork [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPllm-gtrMM
Office of the Surgeon General. (2021). Protecting youth mental health: The U.S. surgeon general’s advisory. US Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-youth-mental-health-advisory.pdf
Rob Eaton, JD, is currently a visiting teacher professor at BYU. He was previously a professor of religious education and an associate academic vice president at BYU–Idaho. He is the coauthor of Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom. Eaton earned a bachelor’s in international relations from BYU and a law degree from Stanford.