Developing Students’ Well-Being Through Integrative, Experiential Learning Courses

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM "Developing Students’ Well-Being Through Integrative, Experiential Learning Courses" ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE IN VOLUME 55, ISSUE 3 OF THE JOURNAL OF STUDENT AFFAIRS RESEARCH AND PRACTICE.

This study examined the effects of experiential learning courses on the well-being of undergraduate students (n = 76, 77.6% female, 67.1% White). A repeated-measures design was used to compare changes in resilience, mindfulness, emotional reappraisal, and social connectedness across three different course formats. All students saw increases in mind- fulness; social connectedness was particularly sensitive to the course format. Through integrating academic and experiential learning, students can experience steady increases in multiple components of well-being.

College is a time of both growth and stress: There are opportunities to succeed academically but also temptations that may lead to poor physical, mental, and emotional health outcomes (Ridner, Newton, Staten, Crawford, & Hall, 2016). The well-being of students— not just their academic achievement—is central to students’ lifelong success (Checkoway, 2011; Moses, Bradley, & O’Callaghan, 2016; Rockenbach, Mayhew, Davidson, Ofstein, & Clark Bush, 2015). Supporting students’ well-being matters because it aligns with the promise of higher education to promote holistic student development (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2009; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). The undergraduate years, in particular, present a ripe opportunity to support student learning and development (Astin, Astin, & Lindholm, 2011; Bowman, 2010; Lounsbury, Fisher, Levy, & Welsh, 2009); it involves the integration of academic, behavioral, psychological, social, and emotional aspects of campus life to help students complete their educational and personal goals (Frost, Strom, Downey, Schultz, & Holland, 2010; Kuh, 2009; Whitt et al., 2008). Many studies have already investigated interventions related to undergraduate students’ behavioral health outcomes (Ridner et al., 2016). Our study does not negate the importance of health behaviors to students’ well-being but rather attends to students’ psychological, social, and emotional experiences as these domains are documented to have an impact on college and post-college life satisfaction (Astin et al., 2011).

Student Well-Being: A Positive Psychology Approach

Enhancing students’ psychological, social, and emotional competencies is an essential element of positive psychology and has been linked to better learning outcomes (Lopez & Louis, 2009; Seligman, Ernst, Gillham, Reivich, & Linkins, 2009). A positive psychology approach to student well-being differs from other models of wellness by focusing on optimizing psychological func- tioning and experiences, rather than eliminating dysfunction (Keyes, 2007; Varlotta & Oliaro, 2011); rather than fixating on physical and mental health problems, positive psychology encourages researchers and practitioners to identify ways to build human strengths, virtues, and meaning and purpose in life (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). In higher education, scholars found that undergraduate students’ character strengths (Lounsbury et al., 2009; Soria & Stubblefield, 2015) and psychological well-being (Bowman, 2010) are associated with a greater sense of belonging, retention, and academic success. Given the promise of a positive psychology approach in higher education to support holistic student development (Mather, 2010), the goal of this study was to design and evaluate an integrated, classroom-based intervention to enhance the psychological, social, and emotional well-being of undergraduate students beyond the first year. The intervention draws from key tenets of positive psychology and high-impact practices (Seifert, Gillig, Hanson, Pascarella, & Blaich, 2014) to examine the kinds of curricular and cocurricular practices that are most likely to contribute to students’ well-being.

Current Practices to Support StudentsWell-Being

Most common in the literature are practices focused on improving students’ capacity to manage and cope with stress. There are robust connections between stress and psychological distress (Deckro et al., 2002; Houghton, Wu, Godwin, Neck, & Manz, 2011). Common approaches to reducing stress and promoting coping strategies in college students include cognitive behavioral training (Church, De Asis, & Brooks, 2012; Deckro et al., 2002; Regehr, Glancy, & Pitts, 2013) and mindfulness training (Regehr et al., 2013). Appearing often in the literature is the use of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs (Bergen-Cico, Possemato, & Cheon, 2013; Carmody & Baer, 2009; Shapiro, Oman, Thoresen, Plante, & Finders, 2008). This approach utilizes a structured group program, where participants engage in different forms of mindfulness practices such as meditation, mindful awareness, and yoga (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004). Other strategies include somatic practices (Caldwell, Harrison, Adams, Quin, & Greeson, 2010) and daily mindfulness practices or meditation (Sears & Kraus, 2009; Thompson & Waltz, 2008). Across the studies, meditation-based intervention approaches (including MBSR) are associated consistently with lower stress, anxiety, and depression, and better mood.

Where stress reduction and mindfulness interventions often focus on psychological and emotional well-being domains, interventions that focus on supporting the transition to college address social well-being. Social isolation and anxiety are common concerns among college students (Davies et al., 2000) and, yet, social belongingness is an important predictor of academic and personal success (Mattanah, Brooks, Brand, Quimby, & Ayers, 2012). To facilitate the college transition, universities have created college transition programs ranging from orientations and first-year experiences to interventions for targeted populations of students who may be more at- risk for maladjustment in college, such as first-generation students (Dennis, Phinney, & Chuateco, 2005; Robbins, Oh, Le, & Button, 2009). College can be a stressful time where students may experience disruptions in their social networks, along with psychological and emotional health, but increasing students’ social connections enhanced academic success (Mattanah et al., 2010, 2012; Robbins et al., 2009).

Research on and practices to support college students’ stress, emotional health, and mind- fulness builds a solid foundation for understanding how to cultivate resilience and academic success. However, approaches that integrate techniques and practices to promote multiple dimen- sions of students’ well-being are limited (Moses et al., 2016). For instance, stress reduction and/or mindfulness-based interventions often focus on reducing psychological problems such as anxiety and depression (Church et al., 2012; Deckro et al., 2002; Regehr et al., 2013). Most interventions are administered in group settings, and specific aspects of the social context or dynamics are often excluded as an outcome of interest. Conversely, interventions targeting college students’ social support focus primarily on academic performance, persistence, and retention and do not consider psychological health outcomes (Mattanah et al., 2012; Robbins et al., 2009). Clear overlaps exist between the various domains of well-being (Checkoway, 2011), which makes it crucial to create an integrated approach and determine whether there are differential effects of an integrated intervention on undergraduate students’ well-being.

Integrated, Experiential Learning and Students’ Well-Being

Supporting multiple domains of students’ well-being may be best facilitated by integrating students’ curricular and cocurricular experiences. Effective partnerships between academic affairs (curricular) and student affairs (extra/cocurricular) foster “seamless learning opportunities, environments, and experiences for students and encourage pedagogical innovation and experimentation” (Whitt et al., 2008, p. 240). When academic and student affairs professionals collaborate effectively, there are increased opportunities for participation in high-impact practices in and out of the classroom that support holistic student development (Kezar, 2003; Kuh, 2009). We extend this argument to envision ways that curricular and cocurricular experiences can support psychological, social, and emotional domains of student well-being.

Our study recognizes the promise of high-impact practices as pathways to student success; in particular, the role of experiential learning in promoting academic and personal development (Kilgo, Sheets, & Pascarella, 2014; Kuh, 2008). Kilgo et al. (2014) noted the consistently significant effect of active and collaborative learning on students’ learning such as critical thinking, intercultural effectiveness, and socially responsible leadership. Active, collaborative, and experiential learning is a pedagogical approach that emphasizes the process of learning and engagement with ideas, differences, and interpersonal relationships (Kolb & Kolb, 2005); compared to traditional classroom environments, the experiential learning space is more dynamic and student-centered and helps to “channel student effort toward more productive activities and deepen learning” (Kuh, 2009, p. 688). Experiential learning environments are optimally positioned to create opportunities for collaboration between academic (curricular) and student (cocurricular) affairs work to support student development and success (Cho & Sriram, 2016; Kezar, 2003).

With curricular/cocurricular programs and experiential learning in mind, we created three different learning experiences to determine what format offers the most meaningful and impactful experience on students’ well-being outcomes. Most interventions to develop students’ self-care practices or inner life are either highly structured and outside the norm of students’ daily experiences (Moses et al., 2016) or relegated to extra/cocurricular programming outlets (Rockenbach et al., 2015). Holistic student development may be best supported through experiential learning that combines curricular and cocurricular experiences. We developed our experiential approach and field research with the goal of developing everyday well-being practices emotional health, but increasing students’ social connections enhanced academic success (Mattanah et al., 2010, 2012; Robbins et al., 2009).

Research on and practices to support college students’ stress, emotional health, and mind- fulness builds a solid foundation for understanding how to cultivate resilience and academic success. However, approaches that integrate techniques and practices to promote multiple dimensions of students’ well-being are limited (Moses et al., 2016). For instance, stress reduction and/or mindfulness-based interventions often focus on reducing psychological problems such as anxiety and depression (Church et al., 2012; Deckro et al., 2002; Regehr et al., 2013). Most interventions are administered in group settings, and specific aspects of the social context or dynamics are often excluded as an outcome of interest. Conversely, interventions targeting college students’ social support focus primarily on academic performance, persistence, and retention and do not consider psychological health outcomes (Mattanah et al., 2012; Robbins et al., 2009). Clear overlaps exist between the various domains of well-being (Checkoway, 2011), which makes it crucial to create an integrated approach and determine whether there are differential effects of an integrated intervention on undergraduate students’ well-being.

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