By Murray Drew, Professor, Department of Animal and Poultry Science
I am a member of a committee which is exploring whether there are teaching practices that support student mental wellbeing in the classroom. You are probably thinking that this means talking about mental health directly with students. That’s not what we are interested in. Instead, we want to find out how instructors can create a classroom environment that is more conducive to student mental wellbeing.
There has been some research in this area but it is a relatively new approach. In the few studies that have been published, several teaching strategies have been reported to improve student mental health. One of these factors is creating a sense of belonging and connectedness in students by promoting the development of positive relationships with fellow classmates, instructors and the university as a whole. I would like to tell you about something that I am trying this term to accomplish this.
This idea originated with Glorie Tebbutt who is a sessional lecture, teaching first year classes in English and Women’s and Gender Studies. I sat down with her one afternoon to discuss her take on effective teaching practices for student mental wellbeing. She gave me some amazing ideas that she has used in her own classes, including the one I am trying out. She contacts her students several weeks before the start of class and requests a selfie plus something they would like to share about themselves. She also asks two questions: 1) What do you need from me to be successful in class and 2) What do you need from each other to be successful in class. I thought this would be a great way of achieving the goal of building connectedness, even before students arrive at the U of S so I decided to try it in my own first year class.
I teach ANBI 110: Introduction to Animal Bioscience. The class has 67 students this year; over 90% are female and most of them are interested in becoming veterinarians. They know they will need excellent grades to be accepted into the vet med program so they are already under a great amount of self-imposed stress. It is also the only course they take that is delivered by our department in the first term. It is our one opportunity to connect students with our department and make them feel that they have an academic home. With these things in mind, I emailed this to the ANBI 110 students.
I am Murray Drew and I will be one of your instructors for ANBI 110: Introductory Animal Bioscience. I teach the laboratory component of the course and this is my favourite teaching activity. My main goal in sending you this email, before classes even start, is to find out more about you and what you need to be successful in my course, and at the U of S. I also want to build a community and help you feel connected to your classmates and instructors. One of the best things that you can do to be successful and happy at the U of S is to develop relationships with your classmates and professors. I want to start that before you even get here.
I have two requests.
First, please send me: 1) your name and a picture of yourself (with an animal if possible), 2) one interesting thing about yourself, 3) what you want to achieve at the U of S and 4) what you need from me to be successful. My email address is (address provided). Here’s an example of what I’m looking for.
This summer I went to Iceland and rode an Icelandic horse on a tour through a lava field. I am the world’s 2nd worst rider.
I want inspire students to love animal science and get them involved with animal research.
This is what I need from you. I need you to participate in class. Ask questions, challenge me, interact with your classmates. Take control of your education.
Second, please join the class Facebook page that I have set up. I hope to use this to stimulate a few conversations about the course. The group’s name is Animal Bioscience 110 for 2018.
Thanks for doing this. I look forward to seeing you next month.
In the week since I sent this, I have had 32 responses. Very thoughtful responses. Most students said that making myself available if they were having trouble with course material was very important to them. Some mentioned that they had ADHD or suffered from anxiety and that they hoped I would be understanding if they were having difficulty. Virtually all of them ended their email thanking me for contacting them and said it helped them feel a little less stressed about starting classes. I also have a class Facebook group and most students have joined it. I have posted a few questions and hope this will start some discussions and get students interacting with each other.
Of course, I know that doing this isn’t always going to be feasible. It would be almost impossible to do in classes with hundreds of students. ANBI 110, however, is a special case where this practice is workable. But, it remains to be seen if this will have a significantly beneficial effect on students. I’ll have to see what happens once the students get here.