Four ways to support student mental health in online learning

Natalie Frandsen

Better supporting students’ mental health in the classroom doesn’t have to be onerous. Natalie Frandsen says simple changes to course design can have big impacts on student learning.

An assistant teaching professor with the School of Public Health and Social Policy, Frandsen says data shows that one quarter of first-year university students in Canada self-declare that they have a disability, with mental-health-related disabilities the most common identified. 

Frandsen, whose PhD research at Simon Fraser University (SFU) focused on accessible and inclusive education for students with mental-health-related disabilities who are studying online, says Canadian universities can, and should, create more supportive spaces for all students. 

“You don’t have to redesign all your courses. You can do small things that don’t take a lot of extra time,” she says. 

Frandsen recently published an article in The Conversation Canada, called “Four ways all online university courses could promote student mental health.” As part of her PhD research, Frandsen asked students, “What advice would you give to your professors/instructors (teaching online courses) to facilitate inclusive and supportive learning environments for students with mental-health-related disorders?” 

Frandsen, who is being recognized with a Dean of Graduate Studies Convocation Medal from SFU in June, suggests the following:

  1. Use elements of universal design for learning to provide accessibility for all students while also promoting mental health. For example, recording lectures can improve student engagement by maximizing student autonomy.
  2. When possible, offer flexible due dates for assignments for all students.
  3. Show compassion when students need support.
  4. Learn about mental health literacy, including common mental illnesses and how mental health affects learning to help instructors use teaching methods that centre flexibility and accessibility.

Contrary to popular belief, Frandsen says online learning can be a supportive environment, with many students choosing online learning because it fits better with their schedules, commitments and lives. 

“It’s not about the modality, it’s about the way you use the tools at your disposable to make those courses good,” she says. “It’s not the fact it’s online or in-person that makes it better or worse.”

Frandsen has been part of working group established by Human and Social Development (HSD) Associate Dean Academic Maureen Ryan. In September, the working group received funding from BC Campus to strengthen mental health resources for HSD students. Three online sessions were held this year, including a panel which gave students the chance to share their experiences with current mental health and wellness supports. 

Given their long history of delivering online courses, and their commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion, Frandsen says HSD has the potential to be a leader in promoting student mental health in online learning environments,. 

“We should use our expertise around health, health promotion, wellness and community in the way that we teach. If we do that, we’re more likely to create learning environments that foster wellness,” she says. 

Need ideas to get started? Frandsen suggests instructors add flexibility to one assignment and see what happens. In terms of the course syllabus, she says to give students clear instructions about what they should do if they need extra time for an assignment.

“Are your materials in the first week demonstrating to students that you are approachable, friendly and interested in hearing from them?” Frandsen says. “Be intentional about showing students what your philosophy is.”

As the shift toward online teaching and learning continues, Frandsen says educators must better understand how to help all students reach their academic goals.