University Mental Health Day was an opportunity to reflect on a turbulent few years for college students. As workplace changes such as furloughs and remote working passed quickly through the government, students wondered how their college years would be permanently altered and whether educational and social changes would impact their their mental health.
The majority of universities have done everything possible to support students in this transition, but, as with any unprecedented event, this transition has not always been smooth. As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, research suggests that more needs to be done to determine how to improve student mental health at the higher education level.
Research on mental health in university students
Although BibliU found that 58% of UK tertiary students believe their university has improved their learning experience during the pandemic, UK student life satisfaction remained below average. British students scored 6.6, lower than the 16-29 year old average (6.9) and statistically significantly lower than the adult average (7.1). Also, a 2020 study concluded that 76% of students in the UK, US, Netherlands, France, Spain, Australia and the Nordics struggle to maintain their wellbeing, as do 73% of staff. A 2020 survey for the UK specifically found that 26% of higher education students felt lonely during the pandemic, a stark contrast to 8% of adults outside of education.
Many reasons outside of students’ learning experiences may have influenced these results, but BibliU research, conducted on 1000 UK students in 2020, shows there is plenty of room for improvement in student satisfaction. education, quality of resources and mental health.
First, almost half (49%) of students believed that lower prices for learning resources would improve the quality of their education. Similarly, 49% of respondents agreed that additional mental health support would improve the quality of their education.
In 2021, UCAS reported a 450% increased reporting of mental health issues in their apps over the past decade. Responding to this trend, 80% of senior leaders at 165 UK universities said mental health and wellbeing was a key strategic focus – 50% of leaders said student financial concerns were also a top concern. These concerns are well-founded and influence student behavior. Recent to research found that 70% of students at UK universities were not buying essential learning resources. 35% of respondents said they were not affordable, while 32% said the textbooks were not of a high enough quality to be worth it.
The correlation between mental health and the quality of resources
Almost half (46%) of students describing feelings of loneliness agreed that these could be partially reversed by reaching out to friends. Digital textbooks can contain social functions within them and BibliU does this in two ways. First, there is a chat function where students and scholars can discuss and critique course content. The second is the in-book edition, allowing students to annotate and source excerpts for remote debates.
Collaborative learning features within the resources allow students to engage with other students, facilitating the social elements in their learning. This is particularly useful for students with Special Educational Needs (SEN) who may find it difficult to physically access lessons, international students who may need more time to understand content written in English and who feel they cannot contribute in class, and those who suffer from social anxiety, as they can virtually contribute if they feel unable or uncomfortable to do so in class.
A lack of quality resources can lead to less understanding of course content and, therefore, lower grades. This is a key consideration for improving student mental health because academic performance, statistically correlative to greater happiness. Failure to provide adequate quality resources can therefore have an indirect effect on student mental health. Digital resources have many features that make learning much more effective than physical library textbooks.
BibliU Engage can serve as an example, containing pedagogical strategies and artificial intelligence (AI) to increase student engagement through content interactivity. Talk pages and in-book quizzes are two features of Engage. The latter uses AI learning to analyze students’ strengths and weaknesses on particular topics before automatically modifying end-of-chapter quizzes to help students recognize and target weaker areas of understanding.
Students all learn differently. Digital textbooks can be tailored to students’ learning preferences by enabling interactivity between words, images, infographics, and highlighting and sharing capabilities, meaning students can learn in the way that suits them best.
Financial stress emerges as a major concern for both students and institutions. As the cost of living rises, students also have to deal with tuition debt and student loans, as well as the hidden costs of education – textbooks being a driving factor. The average cost of textbooks – which has seen a 1,041% increase between 1977 and 2016 – is between £450 and £1,070 per student per year, an unsustainable figure for regular students and international students in particular, who pay often double the annual fee.
Some educational resource providers, like BibliU, remove the cost of academic resources from the student and instead partner directly with the university. This means that students’ access to high-quality resources is included in their standard university fees. When institutions offer this, they take a huge leap forward in removing hidden costs from students so they can focus more on their education and less on their finances.
Better quality, affordable textbooks that facilitate social functions can help reduce student anxiety and encourage better, collaborative peer-to-peer learning. As the evidence suggests, these aspects need to be widely addressed if we are to improve student mental health. Educational resources are well placed to help with this resolution. In the future, resources should push for innovation, emphasizing the quality of learning and the collaborative aspects to foster student interactivity and understanding.
Dave Sherwood, CEO and Founder of BibliU
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