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Wellbeing and academic skills
Episode 104th December 2023 • Leeds Beckett University: Skills for Learning • Skills for Learning team @ Leeds Beckett University
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Wellbeing Practitioner Richard Newman and Specialist Mentor Team Manager Matt Graham talk to Skills for Learning tutor Miles Mitchard about wellbeing and academic skills.


Mitchard, Miles 0:09

Hello and welcome back to the Skills for Learning podcast. Today, we're going to be talking about wellbeing and learning. I'm Dr Miles Mitchard and I'm joined by two Leeds Beckett University colleagues. I'll let them introduce themselves and explain their roles.

Newman, Richard 0:24

Hi, Miles. Yes. My name's Richard. I am a School-Based Wellbeing Practitioner and I work in the Student Wellbeing team.

Graham, Matt 0:32

Hi, I'm Matt. I'm Specialist Mentor, also in the Wellbeing team. Um, I also do a few skills for learning workshops on occasion. Um, I guess me and Rich have been working together in a few kind of guises recently, but we started working together doing some collaborative sessions on wellbeing and academic skills, which I guess like we've been thinking about more and kind of led us to do in this really. And so I guess what we are thinking about today is kind of an expansion of what we've been talking about for a number of weeks and kind of recontextualising some of that.

Mitchard, Miles 1:20

Thank you both. Richard. You're a Wellbeing Practitioner. So, the first question from me is what is wellbeing and can you say a little bit about how it might link to learning?

Newman, Richard 1:33

Yeah, sure. There are lots of different definitions and models of wellbeing, which I'm not going to bore you with right now, but I think it can be helpful to explain what we're talking about here. So we often use terms like mental health, mental illness and wellbeing interchangeably, but they don't quite mean the same thing. So, mental health describes that full spectrum of experience, ranging from good mental health to poor mental health, or what sometimes people call mental illness. And mental illness is a maybe a condition or an experience involving thoughts, feelings and behaviours that that might cause distress and reduce our ability to function the way that we'd like to. And this might at times negatively impact on our day-to-day experience and may even you know be eligible to receive a clinical diagnosis.

Just as an aside, I think much of what we think of as mental illness is probably better thought of as an understandable response to difficult life circumstances, and I think mental health diagnoses can sometimes be stigmatising, but that's probably a conversation for another time. And then the third term used there, wellbeing, I think wellbeing is kind of part of a wider framework of which mental health is an integral part, but it also includes our physical health and our social health. And I often deliver sessions to cohorts of students. And I always start by asking students, what is wellbeing? And I think the best definition that often comes up is, wellbeing equals being well. And I quite like that. It's just really simple.

Mitchard, Miles 3:12


Newman, Richard 3:13

And like I said, wellbeing is a broad term. And although it encompasses mental health, the two aren't necessarily tied to each other. So let me explain what I mean by that and. I think it's quite possible to experience high levels of mental wellbeing, even if you've been diagnosed with a mental health issue. If you take the necessary steps to look after yourself so that could be getting exercise, getting daylight, eating healthily, socialising with friends. If you take those steps, then we can all experience good wellbeing and, conversely, it's also possible to experience really low levels of wellbeing, even without any history of mental health problems. If we don't take the necessary, you know, the proactive steps to look after ourselves. And so just to use a personal example, I know I sometimes feel anxious. I've never been diagnosed with anxiety or given any medication, but if I know that if I don't, you know, yeah, take time to unwind and to do some meditation or get some exercise, then I can find my own anxiety levels increasing. So I think self-awareness and self-care are really important in all of this.

To answer the second part of your question about how wellbeing relates to learning. I'll quote a guy called Gareth Hughes who says that academic performance does not happen in isolation, but it's directly influenced by our physical health, our psychological health. So that's our mental wellbeing and our social health, our friendships, our family relationships. In terms of the psychological side of things, if we're constantly feeling stressed or overwhelmed, and if we're in that fight or flight state, then it's really hard for us to focus, to take in and remember new information. If our physical health is poor, if we're sleep deprived, if we're dehydrated, if our diet is really poor, this can have a negative impact on our ability to stay focused, to concentrate and to learn. And similarly if we're really socially isolated, if we're feeling lonely. If our relationships are under constant strain, then this can have an impact on our academic performance. And I think it's helpful to think of this as a sort of a bidirectional relationship. So, good wellbeing and has a positive impact on our academic performance, but also doing well academically can improve these other areas of our wellbeing, can make us feel good about ourselves. It can increase our sense of self efficacy.

Mitchard, Miles 5:43

Thank you. That was all absolutely fascinating. And we hear a lot, don't we, about mental health these days? I wanted to ask, has there been an increase in the number of students experiencing challenges with their mental health?

Newman, Richard 6:01

Yeah, I think so. Um, over the last 10 years or so there's been a big increase in the number of students seeking support around their mental wellbeing, particularly for things like anxiety and low mood. And there are lots of good reasons for this. You know, if you look around us, we know we're living in an increasingly divided and unequal society and the environment’s in a mess, the economy's in a mess. So these are things that can affect all of us. But if you add on top of that the academic stress and the academic pressures that students face, then it's not surprising that people will be feeling that that stress, students particularly. And I would say that, you know, we are seeing increasing numbers in students seeking help year on year, and that definitely increased around the time of the pandemic, unsurprisingly, but we also see sharp increases in the number of self-referrals around assessment periods. And I think in most cases, this is probably related to academic stress, so you know stress, I think offers an external trigger. And in in this case, academic pressure and not necessarily mental illness.

And it's important to acknowledge that some students are experiencing poor mental health, and I know that the Mental Health Foundation say that 75% of mental health problems are first experienced before the age of 24, which is comparable to the typical age profile of an undergraduate university student. So I'm not minimising this and saying that, you know, it's all just a case of a bit of academic stress. But you know, in most cases this is definitely a factor. And you know, I think the important thing for people to be aware of is that there is support available and we have, you know, an amazing student wellbeing service who offer counselling and mental health support, psychoeducation. We've got a Specialist Mentors like Matt, who can offer students, you know, ongoing support around their mental health so that they can do as well as they are capable of doing at university. But I think it's also, as well as accessing support when we when we need it, it's also important for us all to think about the things we can do for ourselves. So being proactive in maintaining our wellbeing is a key skill for academic success. And do you want to say a little bit about your role, Matt, and how that sort of links in with this?

Graham, Matt 8:27

Sure, yeah. I think it's really interesting in relation to what you are saying really, the idea that like, people kind of appearing in your remit, who are maybe stressed and come into kind of Wellbeing with that, like, but that's maybe separate from their mental health condition in a number of instances. I guess in my role I work a lot, predominantly even, with students with kind of, diagnosed mental health conditions, but I see even within that, like in a number of instances, poor academic skills at times can really contribute to kind of the exacerbation of certain symptoms that students might experience. And, you know, on a certain level that is something that I guess academic skills are things that all students are learning, but it can have kind of an additional impact in some instances. So, and I guess part of what I see with that is, like, maybe experiences that anyone would find stressful but then have like a significant impact. So I think about things like dissertations a lot. One thing that really comes up is dissertations because, you know, being the biggest project and kind of a bit of a known unknown for undergraduate students, it becomes kind of this unruly beast of how to manage it and how to kind of like make time for it and things and that can be stressful in itself, but can really kind of instigate kind of feelings of being overwhelmed.

And I guess it also kind of feeds into other patterns of kind of working and academic skills that I see across the board with students really where kind of like, maybe, more challenging circumstances are created by academic skill choices. So, I think me and me and you Rich were talking the other day about maybe kind of like myths and the idea of these myths that we see in ways that students maybe work sometimes. And it was really interesting actually to think about, because I think one thing that I see quite a lot is this kind of myth that I work better under pressure, with students. And that's a really interesting one to me, like this idea that we can kind of really normalise working under pressure and it feels like it's maybe a choice, and that like I work better and focus better, but actually is it that choice has been removed and you actually working under a set of conditions where, a bit like an exam, you just have to work for that hour or two hours, three hours or a night for an essay perhaps. But those conditions don't need to exist for an essay, like you could do that in a nicer way, and I think this is kind of one challenge I often experience as things like this. How can we kind of establish different patterns of validation really for how you work? Because either you can avoid something and then you feel validated because, like, you didn't have to experience the stress and overwhelmed, like, anxiety of dealing with the essay so it gets postponed until you actually have to deal with it, and then you've dealt with it all in one go and you get the validation it’s submitted and you feel great and, you know, those kind of patterns can then become entrenched, I guess, and like thinking about how to really address those and make life a bit less stressful because you not going through these perpetual cycles of peaks and troughs where you've got an extended period of not working and procrastinating and avoiding the work and not really enjoying that. But then also these really intense periods of work then are really hard to manage and stressful, followed by a need to kind of rest which then, like, disengages you from work again. And then, like the cycle begins and it could become really difficult, you know, to try and imagine how to do things differently. But I think it's really important.

And I guess similarly, another myth that comes a lot, like I don't need to plan an essay. Like, but then that’s kind of hard because like, what do you do? How do you, how do you build the skills to actually sit down and work on an essay and not feel like you multitasking all the time and not feel like you have to do everything at once? It just seems really difficult, it’s like not a jam, I guess, it's not an open, free jazz kind of moment. It could be something a lot less kind of intense. And I think it puts a lot of conditions and expectations upon you and pressure to kind of work in a way that is maybe expecting you to always perform me best, when actually, I think sometimes by rethinking how we can look at academic skills, it’s not just that it becomes less stressful because you split it over a longer period of time or you know, you do it, but actually it kind of like takes the pressure of having to be right. You can just be kind of perpetually a bit wrong with it and not really know what you're doing, but you've kind of got the time and space to kind of deal with that, I guess. So, I suppose that's one thing that I find really important, that comes up for me. It's like, how do we kind of address these academic skills that can kind of really support and establish good ways of working that can create better environments? That's good for students’ wellbeing.

Mitchard, Miles:

Really important points there from you both. Thank you. You were talking in a way there about how the skill, so to speak, of maintaining wellbeing, is inseparable from what we perhaps more commonly refer to as academic skills. I was wondering if the two of you could say anything more about wellbeing or maintaining wellbeing as an academic skill.

Newman, Richard:

Yeah, sure. Um, I like to think of maintaining wellbeing as a key study skill that can be learned. So alongside things like time management, learning how to read and make notes effectively, critical thinking, referencing, I think if we can figure out how to plan our lives in such a way that enables us to thrive with regards to our wellbeing, then I believe that we'll see improvements in our academic performance too. And I think it's important to say that that, you know, experiencing poor wellbeing at uni is not inevitable. But having said that, I think it is normal to experience some level of study-related stress at times. You know, you're doing something challenging, you're doing something new and you want to do well, it matters to you. So there will, you know, be times when you might feel some of that stress, but it's important to learn how to manage that, so it doesn't become overwhelming. And, you know, without going into detail, I think if we're feeling really stressed, really overwhelmed, you know, it's almost like that fight or flight sort of mechanism kicks in and we, you know, it switches off the cognitive part, the thinking part, of our brain and we, you know, makes it hard to makes it hard for us to think clearly and to plan and to be, you know, as effective as possible. And that sort of ties in with what Matt was saying about that idea of – and I used to do this when I did my first degree – I used to, yeah, often not start until 24 hours before the hand-in date, then it was never my best work, because I didn't have time to sort of revise it. But I, you know, maybe I'm one of those people have to learn the hard way.

I think short doses of low-level stress can actually give us an edge, but it can be counterproductive. When it's extreme, you know, like I said, when you when you are feeling overwhelmed or when it becomes chronic, when it just becomes constant. And I think you know, recognising that the physical and psychological signs of stress is important. And you know these symptoms or emotions that are information; they're telling us that this is something that's important to us. And it's, I guess, that draws our attention to it so that we can take action. And there's a really good TED talk by a lady called Kelly McGonigal, and she talks about the measurable impact of reframing the symptoms of stress. So, for example, thinking about, thinking of your increased heart rate or your respiration rate as your body preparing you for a challenge, so quite like that idea. So basically what I'm saying is, it's OK for there to be some level of stress, and it could even give you an edge, but when it becomes too much then it can detract, it can, you know, make us less effective in our learning.

Graham, Matt:

Yeah, I totally agree with all that. Rich um, I think you know, even though maybe I'm working with students with kind of registered mental health conditions are or neurological conditions like, I think, you know, does the stuff that kind of I think about in the non-academic skills, non-subject specific academic skills kind of way, and this really helps me with kind of my studies, has not been something that's kind of exclusively, exclusively works, in that remit, but kind of can be kind of ways of thinking about how academic skills can be conducive to good wellbeing. You know, and I think like some of the things I think would be like you, Rich have been dealt with from doing it wrong and kind of with hindsight thinking about well, how could that have been better? I think that's when the most useful things have emerged for me, like from doing it wrong. And then working out what was wrong with that and like what could be done differently. And some of it seems like, with hindsight, seems like, you know, like almost pleasantly simple, which is kind of reassuring.

But you know, so I guess like some of the things that I think about a lot with students are, um, time management and how we can, how we can deal with being overwhelmed, you know, like how, how does that impact your motivation and how we can kind of really change, reframe, what workload feels like. So like I was talking to someone like fairly recently about dissertations and you know the idea of like 10,000 words been a big project. And we started thinking, well, what happens if we break it down? You know, what does, what does it feel like to write 300 words a week? And then how does that build up over time, you know? Does that mean you can write kind of like a chapter over the course of a semester? How long does it take you to write 300 words? Is that kind of like a couple of hours a week? Like, so what does this dissertation look like when we actually map it out of your whole kind of two semesters? And when we adapt that for different periods, like January when maybe you've got more downtime, you can do more than two hours a week. Like, how does the kind of like distribution of a task, over a longer period of time, enable you to not have to be that motivated with it, in some ways, you know? You don’t have to want to do it for hours. You just turn up and you do it for a bit in the same way you do shopping every week – like, nobody wants to go shopping. But like it's nice to eat. So it's just with those things and I think the more we can kind of like break it down into areas where it's like a tolerable level of discomfort, a bit like what you were saying really.

Because then, like those things cannot just mean you make gains on the project, but I guess it can also be a way of kind of like then thinking about how we can avoid multitasking. And you know, I think one thing I find with students, like – what did someone call it the other day, like the blank screen of death or something? – I think this idea of like, open the Word document, it becoming really ominous and having to write an essay that you don't know where to start with. And you know, being able to break it down. You know, maybe you're not ready to write if you if you don't feel like you – maybe, that's not where you need to be. Maybe breaking things into like, have I done the reading? Have I done the planning? Like, have I even done the admin that enables me to have the research to do the reading and then the planning, you know? So I guess that's kind of like a lot of ways that I guess I think about routine and organisation and time management as kind of ways that can really make unpleasant tasks more kind of sustainable within someone's kind of like week. And how that can kind of be sequenced? I guess like between the different tasks and built over time, so that it's not this mystical mystery of how to do a dissertation, but it's just that I'm just going to spend two hours a week writing, I'm going to work on these paragraphs first. Therefore I need to do this research. Need to plan this section, and then then will write that. And I think, you know, uh, it's been really helpful for me as someone who's continued studying and working alongside it to think about how to make that's sustainable because we can't create extra hours in day or extra days in a week. But we still have, like all the stuff we need to do so actually like it's been something I've I found really useful to kind of try and, like apply to the way that I work to make it possible to manage those competing tasks, really.

Newman, Richard:

Just hearing you talking, that made me think of there's a guy called James Clear who wrote a book called Atomic Habits, and he talks about the importance of consistency over intensity. And I really like that idea. It’s just, yeah, like you said, just chipping away at these things, getting organised and then just chipping away at these things on a regular basis rather than leaving it and then this really intense sort of period of work. And maybe that does work for some people; I'm not saying it doesn't. But for me, yeah, being consistent and having a routine and sticking with that tends to work better with me. And yeah, sorry to interrupt.

Graham, Matt:

Oh no, I totally agree. I think it's really cool because it means that I'm able to be wrong. So like I'll sit down and try and write something and I'll get halfway through the paragraph. I'm just like, man, this is going terribly. And why is it going terribly? Because I only researched the first half of it. Now I'm just making stuff up about something. And so like that is now an action point. I need to go and research about, I don't know, 60s American counterculture and its relationship to advertising or something. Like maybe that, but that kind of inability to know it creates an action point. I can then go and do that, and that can be my research task for the week.

And when I sit down the following Friday afternoon or whatever to do another two hours of writing, I can then realise that and that can be done in a fulfilling way, rather than, I don't know, the night before when you kind of like desperately trying to find, I don't know, the resources – they're all out in the library are some alternative PDF version – not really knowing what chapters need to read, not having the time to read them anyway. Like it's really high pressure like I think, yeah, it can just be nicer.

Like no one's going to make dissertation writing nice, but I think we can make it more pleasant, at least some of the tasks.

Mitchard, Miles:

Thank you both. Yeah, really important points in there. That idea of breaking things down is absolutely central, isn't it? And I've realised as you're talking, I need to take that advice myself with regards to, you know, daunting things or challenges at work that can seem quite daunting. But if you do that technique of break it down, be logical, work through a sequence of more manageable steps, then things suddenly can become achievable. So lovely advice there. Thank you. There's that idea out there, I suppose, isn't there, that being stressed is part of uni life and you've said a fair bit on that topic already, but is there anything more you'd want to say? I'm guessing against that sort of myth, that sort of statement that we should simply expect to be stressed.

Newman, Richard:

Yeah, I think you're right, Miles, to call it a myth, because although it's common it, it doesn't have to be the case. And like I said earlier, I think, yeah, there are inevitably going to be times when there's a bit more pressure on you there, when there's more expected of you. But I think it's quite helpful to think of this as sort of stress versus stretch. So when we're stressed, we often find it difficult to sort of think clearly and to plan our time and to be effective, where really the whole purpose of coming to uni is to be stretched, is to learn new things, is to be, yeah, to have more kind of asked of us maybe than we've than we've had before. But that can actually be really good for our wellbeing, being stretched, being asked to do something that's just outside of our comfort zone. Actually, when we achieve that thing, it can make us feel really good about ourselves. It can improve our wellbeing and our academic sort of performance at the same time. And something I often talk to students about is this idea of desirable difficulty. It's a phrase coined by Robert and Elizabeth Bjork, I think, where they talk about, yeah, when we can stretch ourselves to something that that is difficult, but actually when we achieve that, like I said it, it can feel really good. It's like lifting weights for example, it can feel quite difficult, or doing any form of exercise for that matter. It can feel difficult at the time, but actually it helps us grow. So I think that's, yeah, for me anyway that's a helpful way of thinking about it.

Mitchard, Miles:

Hmm. Thank you.

Graham, Matt:

I guess as well like, to kind of build on that, it might be also about thinking like to the future too, like what. I think because we get so busy in academia thinking of it in these ivory tower terms of like, you know, everything's kind of like the life we have here. And we don't know what's the application to my career afterwards, because a lot of students are kind of passing through here. They here for three years and this is kind of like getting somewhere else, and this is a stepping stone to something. And a bit like those discussions you hear about people talking about their GCSEs like, how's algebra teaching me to do like taxes and stuff in the future? What does this have to my real world application? But I think like, you know, these academic skills in the in a kind of odd way can actually be really useful for that kind of future development. You know, thinking about kind of the challenges that we experience, that university, as like potential learning outcomes can be a really useful way of reframing them maybe and sort of viewing, valuing them, past the actual assignment itself.

I mean one thing that comes up for me, like, group dynamics is difficult for students. But these are kind of like working environments that we all move into. You know we all have to work with people generally. And we all have to manage competing deadlines. We all have to balance different tasks. And projects, you know, there are a lot of kind of like transferable skills here that can be really beneficial to kind of work out in a safe environment like university: what to do about these? Because you can kind of troubleshoot the things here and then kind of learn something about kind of yourself and your approaches and how to take that forward to the professional world, in a comparable sense, I guess, to like how, it's quite safe to be wrong in a seminar about ideas, and you can say any daft thing because you’re being marked on it generally and then you put the better thing that you learned from that experience into your essay. And in some ways, university can be a little bit like that. You've got a really good environment and a great set of opportunities to really engage with like these skill developments. And so I guess like one aspect for me about, like, academic skills is like what it kind of offers as a future prospect beyond just like an academic career, really.

Mitchard, Miles:

Fabulous. Thank you again for that year. Really important points, going beyond the course itself. The final question from me then: is wellbeing just a student’s responsibility?

Newman, Richard:

I think student wellbeing is everyone's responsibility in higher education and I think, yes, students can do things to help improve their wellbeing. But I think it's, like I say, it's the responsibility of the whole institution and we've recently been going through an audit process, something called the University Mental Health Charter, which looks at every aspect of the institution. So it's looking at support services, yes, but also, the curriculum design, how the teaching is done, the built environment, accommodation and basically every aspect of what we do. Which I think has been really helpful, because it's sort of pushed us to think beyond just what support we offer to students when they're struggling. I think it's taking a more proactive kind of approach, and what we describe as a whole university approach. So rather than identifying the problem, locating it within the person who's struggling, actually thinking about the overall environment and how it, you know, how it affects us all. And we have, you know, I mentioned support services. You know we have a student Wellbeing team, you know where student, can access counselling or mental health advice, but we also have things like the Money Advice team, we have Academic Advisers within the course teams and Disability Advice. There's a number of different support services within Leeds Beckett. Matt do you want to add anything to that?

Graham, Matt:

Yeah, yeah, sure. I guess like you say, there is quite a good infrastructure within Leeds Beckett. Um, I think of, like, the mentor and study skills tutor drop-ins as kind of two opportunities to really think about some of the kind of opportunities that support can offer really and sort of similarly, you know, in a kind of more explicitly academic way, some of the Skills for Learning workshops and drop-ins that are run by the Library team too, you know. There’s does quite a lot of opportunities to touch base with staff who have experience with different areas that can all support students really and support their wellbeing in the kind of ways we've been talking about today. Additionally, as well, there's quite a range of services outside in the community like the Leeds Crisis Cards are a really good, kind of, collation of those different services, so even outside of the institution itself, I think there's quite a lot of opportunities to engage with places that can support students’ wellbeing and mental health.

Mitchard, Miles:

Fantastic. So, just to just to add to that in terms of the Skills for Learning end of it, so to speak, if students visit the Skills for Learning website, they'll see the Open Workshop Programme is advertised on there. They'll see various resources covering a wide range of academic skills that they can download, interactive things and so on. And we also offer one-to-one appointments via the ‘Get Help’ tab on the site. So just another mention there of some extra support with regards to some of the skills that we've been speaking about today. And thank you both so much for coming in to talk to us. It's been absolutely fascinating and I think it will be really useful.

Graham, Matt:

Thanks Miles.




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