UT Faculty Supporting Student Well-being

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October 1, 2020

By Thea Woodruff, PhD


As Dr. Jen Moon states, we are all human beings. Not only do students bring cognitive factors to your class, but they also bring emotional, motivational, social, and other noncognitive factors. Trying to ignore these factors to focus on the content alone works against us as faculty. As Immordino-Yang and Damasio (2007) state, “...neurobiological evidence suggests that the aspects of cognition that we recruit most heavily in schools, namely learning, attention, memory…are both profoundly affected by and subsumed within the processes of emotion” (p. 3). They go on to say, “When we educators fail to appreciate the importance of students’ emotions, we fail to appreciate a critical force in students’ learning. One could argue, in fact, that we fail to appreciate the very reason the students learn at all” (p. 9).

Let’s listen further to Dr. Moon, an associate professor and assistant dean in the College of Natural Sciences, discuss how it feels to teach while taking into consideration student emotion in the classroom.

What does this mean for us as higher education faculty? We must take seriously the role we play in supporting students’ emotional, motivational, and social health just as we take seriously the role we play in students’ cognitive growth and learning. 

Dr. Jim Cox, a professor in the English Department, shares his perspective on one role faculty often play for students.

Psychological wellness and academic learning cannot be completely disentangled. How can students learn if they are not well – both physically and mentally? In fact, research demonstrates this relationship over and over (Eisenberg, Golberstein, & Hunt, 2009; El Ansari & Stock, 2010; Keyes et al., 2012; Renshaw, Eklund, Bolognino, & Adodo, 2016). Additionally, interventions designed to target affective domains such as reducing stress and increasing motivation consistently demonstrate positive impacts on academic outcomes as well, e.g., social connections (Allen et al., 2008), mindfulness (Bonamo, Legerski, & Thomas, 2015; Kerrigan et al., 2017), growth mindset (Bostwick et al., 2017; Dweck, 2006).

Given that we work at an R1 University, it seems logical that UT faculty would utilize instructional practices that research demonstrates supports students’ learning and academic achievement. If experts tell us that student wellness is a key component to their academic success, then isn’t it incumbent upon faculty to support their wellness? 

Here’s Dr. Kirsten Bradbury, an assistant professor of instruction in the Psychology Department, sharing her perspective on the science behind wellness.

The good news is supporting student wellness doesn’t have to take a lot of time or planning on the part of faculty. All it takes is shifting our mindset a bit about what our role is as university faculty and then implementing simple techniques to support student well-being. In focus groups conducted here on campus, both faculty and students identified easy things faculty can do to positively impact students’ emotional and motivational wellness. A few examples are:

  • Be compassionate and flexible in accommodating students’ lives outside of class.
  • Smile and take time to get to know students.
  • Reach out to students when you notice they’re struggling.
  • Provide activities and time for students to get to know each other and you (cooperative learning groups, check-ins, opening class rituals, etc.).
  • Talk with students about the importance of self-care and share ways they can take care of themselves outside of class.

Let’s listen to a few faculty who have incorporated wellness practices into their courses share what they have found to be successful. Notice how simple their ideas are.

The Well-being in Learning Environments project (aka, Texas Well-being) provides faculty with ideas and support for embedding wellness practices in their courses and classrooms through several resources, including a guidebook, website, and Canvas course. The guidebook and website describe dozens of strategies and techniques UT faculty have used in their classrooms and other learning environments to support students’ mental and emotional health. The Canvas course contains multiple resources for faculty to use in their own courses – whether in-person or online. One resource faculty have found especially helpful are the Canvas modules, including:

  • “For Faculty” modules that provide up-to-date information and ideas for faculty supporting student wellness; and
  • “In Commons” modules built for faculty to import into their own Canvas courses to support student well-being. As the name implies, these modules have been put in the Canvas Commons for faculty to easily upload into their own courses. Module topics include self-care, growth mindset, impostor syndrome, making failure okay, and many others.

Texas Well-being staff also collaborate with faculty, administrators, and staff to plan and implement wellness programs in individual courses or entire departments, colleges, or organizations. If you’re interested in becoming a collaborator on the project or in just learning more about Texas Well-being and how you can support student wellness, visit the websiteCanvas course, or email the project coordinator, Thea Woodruff



Allen, J., Robbins, S. B., Casillas, A., & Oh, I.-S. (2008). Third-year college retention and transfer: Effects of academic performance, motivation, and social connectedness. Research in Higher Education, 49(7), 647-664. doi.org/10.1007/s11162-008-9098-3

Bonamo, K. K., Legerski, J.-P., & Thomas, K. B. (2015). The influence of a brief mindfulness exercise on encoding of novel words in female college students. Mindfulness, 6(3), 535-544. doi.org/10.1007/s12671-014-0285-3

Bostwick, K. C. P., Collie, R. J., Martin, A. J., & Durksen, T. L. (2017). Students’ growth mindsets, goals, and academic outcomes in mathematics. Zeitschrift Für Psychologie, 225(2), 107-116. doi.org/10.1027/2151-2604/a000287

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.

Eisenberg, D., Golberstein E., & Hunt, J. B. (2009). Mental health and academic success in college. B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy, 9(1), Article 40.

El Ansari, W., & Stock, C. (2010). Is the health and wellbeing of university students associated with their academic performance? Cross sectional findings from the United Kingdom. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 7, 509-527.

Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1), 3-10.

Kerrigan, D., Chau, V., King, M., Holman, E., Joffe, A., & Sibinga, E. (2017). There is no performance, there is just this moment: The role of mindfulness instruction in promoting health and well-being among students at a highly-ranked university in the United States. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 22(4), 909-918. doi.org/10.1177/2156587217719787

Keyes, C. L. M., Eisenberg, D., Geraldine S., Perry, R., Shanta, R., Dube, M., Kroenke, K., & Dhingra, S. S. (2012). The relationship of level of positive mental health with current mental disorders in predicting suicidal behavior and academic impairment in college students. Journal of American College Health, 60(2), 126-133. doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2011.608393

Renshaw, T. L., Eklund, K. R., Bolognino, S. J., & Adodo, I. (2016). Bidimensional emotional health in college students: A comparison of categorical and continuous analytic approaches. Journal of Psychopathological Behavior Assessment, 38, 681-694. doi.org/10.1007/s10862-016-9558-6 


Photo of Althea Woodruff

Thea Woodruff, PhD

Thea Woodruff leads the Well-Being in Learning Environments program at UT’s Longhorn Wellness Center at the Counseling and Mental Health Center. On this project, Thea works with faculty to embed wellness practices in their classrooms, office hours, and other learning contexts. She also lectures in the College of Education and works at the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk. She has worked as a school district administrator and consultant supporting state-, district-, and campus-level learning initiatives.

Contact: thea.woodruff@austin.utexas.edu