Law students are likely experiencing many challenges at the moment. They or their loved ones might be suffering from COVID19 or they might be in a high-risk demographic or location. They may be recently unemployed or stranded far from support networks. They may have new responsibilities as they care for or home school family members. There is little doubt that these experiences have significant potential to affect their mental wellbeing. I am also mindful of the less obvious influences on mental wellbeing. Many of these have been discussed in the media over the past few months. Among others, there is the anxiety caused by the uncertainty surrounding the COVID19 pandemic (Bowden, 2020), and the effects of lockdown isolation (Landowski, 2020). Naturally, I am wondering what I can do to assist my students during my next teaching semester.
Law students report higher degrees of psychological distress than the wider population (Kelk, Luscombe, Medlow & Hickie, 2009). Of course, this distress will likely be exacerbated by COVID19 and the necessary but hasty transition to an online learning environment. The results of a study of students at an Australian university demonstrates that many students believe that approaches to learning and teaching contribute to their mental wellbeing (Baik, Larcombe & Brooker, 2019). While I may not be able to manage the impacts of COVID19 or avoid the transition to online teaching, I can support my students by reducing, within reason, subject-related anxieties (Baik et al, 2017). This approach is informed by the scholarship in the field, including the recommendations outlined in Enhancing Student Mental Wellbeing: A Handbook for Academic Educators (Baik et al, 2017). Following are a handful of the more practical measures that I am considering:
- Increasing subject organisation: Baik et al recommend that academics consider subject organisation in order to better contribute to student learning and foster mental wellbeing (Baik et al, 2017). I am considering how I might further organise my subject and tailor it to the online environment. This might be achieved by, for example, coordinating with my colleagues to ensure a more consistent user experience across subjects, organising content into smaller more digestible parts, providing earlier access to tasks and assessments, offering additional resources that emphasise hierarchies and relationships, orientating students to their new online learning environment by explaining the differences that they can expect to encounter and utilising online organisers such as class calendars, online booking systems, check lists and electronic reading lists.
- Being clearer about my expectations: Students report that clarity surrounding expectations impacts their wellbeing (Baik, Larcombe and Brooker, 2019). A student will feel more content learning in an environment where expectations are made clear.These rapidly changing circumstances provide me with an opportunity to revise my subject learning outcomes and rubrics to ensure that they are appropriately transparent. I will also ensure that they are suited to an online learning environment. While I believe that I already do so, I intend to focus on providing clear explanations of content, tasks and assessments. Further, I hope to provide additional examples, exemplars and feedback opportunities.
- Maintaining availability: Student concerns may be more readily addressed when academics are available to discuss those concerns. At the very least, most academics will maintain their current office hours in an online environment. I know many colleagues who are planning to host individual consultations that will run alongside more casual online group drop-in sessions. Of course, it is also important to considerhow one might accommodate the more organic and spontaneous learning needs of students. Students will still have those ‘seize the moment’ style questions that are typically asked during breaks and after class. Where students are happy to raise them for the benefit of or in front of the class, I can accommodate these questions through synchronous chat functions or on class discussion boards. For quick one-on-one questions, the ‘chat’ function in Microsoft Teams (or similar) might prove useful.
- Ensuring access to resources: Prior to the COVID19 restrictions, many of my students purchased physical textbooks or visited the library to access hard copies. This may still be possible for some. However, it presents a particular difficulty for those studying from overseas. Needless to say, one solution to this problem is to include eBook resources in the list of prescribed resources. However, I am mindful that some of my students may be living on reduced incomes and may not be able to afford to purchase these resources. Library eBook subscriptions might bridge this gap. However, this will be monitored. The Information Resources Team at Bond Universitymonitors the use of online library resources to identify ‘in demand’ resources to inform purchasing decisions. Further, I will investigate the licencing arrangements of prescribed eBooks to ensure that they are available outside Australia. In certain circumstances, I might also provide students with a range of alterative options that include open access resources or digitised resources from published works in accordance with statutory licence allowances.
- Reconsidering workload and assessment: Student wellbeing may be affected when academics misjudge student workload (Council of Australian Law Deans, 2013). These new circumstances provide me with an opportunity to consider the appropriateness of subject and assessment workloads. In particular, I am wary of the additional workload that might come with studying in an online environment. For example, it may be more time consuming for my students to compile a video than to present in person. I will also reflect on the nature of my assessments. High-stakes examinations tend to be a particular stressor for students (Baik et al, 2017). I am considering how I might reduce the weight of my final examination. Of course, this must be done in a way that retains academic rigor and will likely dictate other adjustments. One potential solution is to reduce the weighting of my end-of-semester examination by including a mid-semester examination. However, I am also mindful that promoting student autonomy may positively influence student wellbeing (Sheldon and Kreiger, 2007; Council of Australian Law Deans, 2013). Last semester, a number of my students vocalised a preference for my traditional assessments. Consequently, it may be useful if I present any variation as an option. So, instead of mandating it, students might be able to elect to participate in a mid-semester examination.
- Assisting students to develop competence: Baik et al recommend that we support students’ mental wellbeing by assisting them to develop competence (Baik et al, 2017). Like most academics, in order to support the development of competence, I plan for generative learning. I do this by intentionally using existing knowledge and skills to introduce new knowledge and skills. Additionally, I adjust the guidance provided so that it is increased and decreased at the appropriate times. I also provide numerous practice and feedback opportunities. These strategies may need to be reconsidered in order to accommodate the additional cognitive load that comes with adjusting to new circumstances. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that I will have the luxury of reducing the rate at which I introduce new skills and knowledge. However, I am considering reducing guidance more gradually and providing additional practice and feedback opportunities. I may also bring forward and extend my end-of-semester revision program for the benefit of those students who wish to take part. This might be done by dispersing voluntary revision opportunities throughout the semester. Finally, I will also support my students in developing online learning competence, including competence in the skills required to use and engage with the relevant technologies.
I hope that my plans are of assistance to my academic colleagues. There are, of course, numerous other strategies that may be used to promote student wellbeing. Many of these extend beyond reducing subject-related anxieties. For further information, academics may wish to consult the following resources:
- Enhancing Student Mental Wellbeing: A Handbook for Academic Educators (Baik et al, 2017); and
- Promoting Law Student Well-Being Good Practice Guidelines for Law Schools and the resources referred to within that document (Council of Australian Law Deans, 2013).
I would like to thank Professor Rachael Field for her comments and editorial suggestions. I would also like to thank our Library Services Manager, Ian Edwards, for the suggested wording used in the 4th practical measure.
Baik, C., Larcombe, W., & Brooker, A. (2019). How universities can enhance student mental wellbeing: The student perspective. Higher Education Research & Development, 38(4), 674–687.
Baik, C., Larcombe, W., Brooker A., Wyn, J., Allen, L., Brett, M., Field, R., James., R. (2017). Enhancing student mental wellbeing: a handbook for academic educators. Retrieved from https://melbourne-cshe.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/2408604/MCSHE-Student-Wellbeing-Handbook-FINAL.pdf
Bowden, T. (2020, April 27). Coping with anxiety brought on by loneliness, job loss and coronavirus uncertainty, ABC News. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-27/coronavirus-uncertainty-increasing-anxiety-mental-health/12182736
Council of Australian Law Deans (2013). Promoting law student well-being good practice guidelines for law schools. Retrieved from https://cald.asn.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Promoting-Law-Student-Well-Being-Good-Practice-Guidelines-for-Law-Schools.pdf
Kelk, N., Luscombe, G., Medlow, S. & Hickie, I. (2009). Courting the blues: Attitudes towards depression in Australian law students and lawyers. Brain & Mind Research Institute, University of Sydney.
Landowski, L. (2020, May 8). Coronavirus isolation affects your brain: A neuroscientist explains how and what to do about it, ABC News. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2020-05-08/neuroscience-of-isolation-coronavirus-pandemic/12200144
Sheldon, K., & Krieger, L. (2007). Understanding the Negative Effects of Legal Education on Law Students: A Longitudinal Test of Self-Determination Theory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(6), 883–897.