Academic Wellbeing at MIT

Academic Wellbeing at MIT

MIT Open Learning

Faculty convene to consider research and active steps to improve student outcomes beyond grades

Photo: Gretchen Ertl

A recent retreat brought together MIT faculty and administrators to explore an inclusive and research-based approach to help the whole community prioritize wellbeing on both individual and group levels. Experts in neuroscience, learning science, and mental health joined with faculty from across the Institute because they want MIT to be a place where students thrive holistically, where academic rigor and excellence is supported by student wellbeing.

The academic wellbeing retreat sought answers to three questions:

1. How can we maintain MIT’s academic rigor and excellence, but also change the academic environment so that it is supportive of student wellbeing?
2. How can faculty and instructors successfully promote a culture of wellbeing in academics?
3. How do we engage a wide range of faculty in this work?

“Wellbeing” encompasses mental wellness, physical wellness, social relationships, and sense of purpose. Beyond academic success and mental health, students also need help in addressing imposter syndrome, mindfulness, sleep, workforce preparedness, and social emotional health. Self care isn’t intuitive and students need to know that it takes training. Students need to learn about wellbeing to understand why it’s important, how to affect it, and why it works.

David Randall, senior associate dean, Student Support and Wellbeing (SSAW) at MIT shared a conversation with an MIT alum who wanted the Institute to throw down the gauntlet with regard to wellbeing.

“From the highest levels of the administration, wellbeing should be as important as learning about science, math, engineering, and humanities. MIT should provide an excellent education and prioritize students’ minds, bodies, and sense of purpose.”

Ongoing wellbeing efforts at MIT

The retreat built on work that has been underway at MIT for years: most notably, the launch of MindHandHeart under Cynthia Barnhart, new Division of Student Life (DSL) and Office of the Vice Chancellor leadership, and the creation of the Office of Student Wellbeing.

MIT Vice Chancellor and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson says,

“We need to look at the whole system to make a profound impact. We believe that students will be more successful in academics when we support the whole student.”

The Chancellor’s team at MIT SSAW and DSL defines “whole student” as someone who prioritizes their wellbeing; fosters and feels a sense of belonging and community; is open-minded and respectful; and is an engaged and purposeful citizen of the world. MIT’s Institutional Research team helped identify four predictors of wellbeing at MIT, which reinforce these principles through research, speaking with members in the MIT community, and data from the 2017 Student Quality of Life surveys.

Graphic text says “Our Vision and Approach: Doing Well = healthy habits + support.” Below the text are 4 illustrations. First, a group of people represents “Providing world-class student support.” Second, a profile view of a head and brain represents “Promote and educate about health.” Third, a stack of books represents “influence the academic environment.” Fourth, city buildings represent “creating physical spaces that promote wellbeing.” Logo for MIT Student Support & Wellbeing in the corner.
Image courtesy of MIT Division of Student Life

To foster an environment where whole students can thrive, SSAW developed the formula: Doing Well = Healthy Habits + Support. In addition to providing support systems designed for students whose wellbeing has already been negatively impacted, educating and supporting the whole student should include proactive approaches, such as promoting and educating about health; influencing the academic environment; and creating physical spaces that promote wellbeing.

Sharing and normalizing best practices

At the retreat, Jimmy Doan, associate dean and head of the Office of Student Wellbeing in MIT DSL shared some effective practices that promote academic wellbeing:

Treating students as whole human beings (ex. knowing names, checking in regularly); normalizing and encouraging help seeking; sharing their own faculty challenges so that students don’t get a false image of faculty as flawless people; asking for feedback on effectiveness of information dissemination and incorporating student feedback into future lesson plans; helping students discover purpose and meaning; and building community and promoting a sense of belonging.

These practices were identified by DSL over time through research about belonging and student success plus what students have told DSL anecdotally over time. Other retreat participants discussed anecdotally how student imposter syndrome might be lessened if faculty share their failures in addition to their successes.

To move forward with implementing these practices across MIT, the academic wellbeing retreat participants discussed building a faculty coalition, using assessment, data, and research, and developing and sharing effective practices across campus and beyond.

Graphic text says “So, how can we do this at MIT?” An illustration of 3 concentric circles represent three layers of approach. First, build a faculty coalition. Second, use assessment, data, and research. Third, develop and share best practices. Logo for MIT Student Support and Wellbeing in the corner.
Image courtesy of MIT Division of Student Life

MIT-specific research

Professor Pawan Sinha, from Brain and Cognitive Sciences, presented his forthcoming research project with co-PI John Gabrieli, “Promoting Student Wellbeing in Our Classrooms: A quasi-RCT.” Their hypothesis is, “Empowering MIT faculty with knowledge about how to promote wellbeing in the classroom will enhance students’ mental wellness.” The PIs plan to recruit MIT faculty to participate in this study with pseudo-randomization of teachers/courses based on course properties (type of content, class size, etc.).

Faculty will be divided into three groups: 1) Receives brief, direct, personal instruction on what kinds of measures can be taken to promote student wellbeing; 2) only receives written instruction; and 3) receives no instruction. Throughout the Fall semester, the PIs will run student focus group to understand their stressors (i.e. What do students find helpful for wellness support? What are some of the current classroom practices of their professors that students already find effective?) They plan to collect data throughout the Spring 2023 semester. Then during summer 2023, they’ll perform data analyses and write a paper to share their findings.

Key takeaways

Students aren’t the only focus of academic wellbeing at MIT; faculty can and should be included as well. In addition to addressing the simultaneous burnout crisis happening at the faculty level, wide faculty involvement will be key to success at the student level. Students need to see that a healthy work-life balance is possible in their future careers. Faculty won’t just promoting wellbeing, but living well themselves.

“This is not just a knowledge change, but a behavior change.” — Rosalind Picard, faculty chair of MIT MindHandHeart

In order to engage a wider range of faculty, resources need to reflect the already-high teaching and research demands on faculty time. If the MIT-specific data from co-PIs Sinha’s and Gabrieli’s forthcoming research project supports the hypothesis that MIT faculty can enhance students’ mental wellness, the Institute will be poised to reach the needed faculty-wide consensus about the proven benefits of training, promoting, and living a culture of academic wellness at MIT.

Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering and then-VP of Open Learning Sanjay Sarma said,

“This is not something that you do on the side. Wellness is a state of being and we have an opportunity to explore that.”

Academic Wellbeing at MIT was originally published in MIT Open Learning on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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