I had prepared some materials on the topic of ‘wellbeing for academic success’ for O’guide training.
I thought it made a lot of sense to share that material on the blog as well. Enjoy 🙂
Warning: it is fairly long, so strap yourself in.
What do students want?
When Flinders conducted the Student Success Survey in 2018, they discovered that students essentially wanted the following: “‘Getting a degree and graduating with a wealth of knowledge, hands on experience and a job. Being happy, healthy and socially fulfilled while studying, with access to services to foster that success and studying in an inclusive environment that serves your needs.’
Now for some of those things to happen, it is the responsibility of the university. We need to provide high quality education content and the necessary services to support students to engage with their studies. We need to provide the best learning and social environment we can.
But being ‘happy, healthy and socially fulfilled’ (which as a psychologist I would call ‘wellbeing’) and academically successful is your responsibility also. Individuals need to take some responsibility for their own wellbeing and success.
The question is then ‘how does one do that?’.
I’ve been lucky that my profession (psychology) and my position at the university (in the Health, Counselling and Disability Team) allows me to explore this question on a daily basis. I have a central interest in how an individual can build wellbeing and productivity. I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned along the way in this post.
What do we mean by wellbeing?
I’d love to tell you that there is a single universally agreed-upon definition of wellbeing. However, it is more the case that the term wellbeing is used to encapsulate a number of concepts, all of which represent different domains or aspects of wellbeing.
How we feel
Today, as I write this, I feel happy and relaxed. If someone asked, I’d rate my ‘wellbeing’ as high. Tomorrow I might feel very different. How we feel in the moment strongly influences how we view and report on our life in general.
The absence or management of physical or mental illness
Coping with physical and/or mental illness can be taxing and have an impact on our overall wellbeing. Whilst having illness doesn’t necessarily prevent us working on other aspects of our wellbeing (e.g. a person can have diabetes, but still work on getting fitter by lifting weights), the impacts of illness will affect how we rate our wellbeing.
Our subjective assessment of how we are doing in different domains of our life
You can take the average life and divide it into different areas/domains: work, study, family, friends, hobbies, etc. You can then assess how you think you are doing in each of those domains. If a person is doing well in the domains that are important to them, they’ll tend to rate their wellbeing more highly. Conversely, if they don’t feel they are doing well in domains that are important to them, they’ll rate their wellbeing lower. The takeaway message from this is that one way to build wellbeing is to invest time and effort into those domains of your life that are important, but aren’t working as you’d like.
Whether we have the necessary conditions for a happy healthy life
We need some things in place in our lives to provide a basis or foundation on which to build up the different areas of our life. Things like stable housing, stable income, access to support services and such. The extent to which those foundational elements are in place, not surprisingly, affects our wellbeing. For some students, the best path to wellbeing is getting some stability in things like housing and income. Often that is where somewhere like FUSA (https://fusa.edu.au/) plays a role.
Healthy functioning of the groups to which a person belongs (e.g. family, community)
Wellbeing isn’t always about the outcomes for the individual. A large part of our wellbeing can be determined by the extent to which we feel we belong and are connected to others, and the health and wellbeing of those people. For example, if a family member of yours is unwell, your concern and connection to them will manifest as shifts in your own level of wellbeing. It doesn’t just have to be those closest to us either. We’ve seen how people’s concern about the environment and the negative impacts of climate change on humanity can translate into significant anxiety and poor wellbeing in individuals (known as climate change anxiety). Thus the wellbeing of those around us, influences our wellbeing.
How resilient we feel
Resilience is the extent to which we feel capable of dealing with setbacks and adversity. It is influenced by our coping strategies and the resources available to us. For example, a student might feel capable of dealing with unexpected unemployment because they have put aside savings. Another student might feel capable of dealing with an unexpected negative academic outcome (e.g. failed exam) because they’ve dealt with it before and know what to do.
It is possible to have high levels of general wellbeing but still not feel particularly confident at being able to deal with a significant setback. So when we talk about wellbeing, it is important to include what preparation a person is taking for future setbacks and difficulties.
Having meaning and purpose
When you know what it is you are working towards and why it is important to you, you can often better weather the setbacks that occur along the way. For example, I know that I want to spend the rest of my career better understanding and teaching on the topics of wellbeing and productivity, and that knowledge helps keep me centred when I experience frustrations along the way (e.g. failures in programs I develop or presentations I give). So, an important aspect of wellbeing is knowing where you are headed – what are your goals, who do you want to be, what do you want your life to be life?
Having a strong sense of identity and consistency between that identity and our behaviour
Similar to having a sense of meaning and purpose, having an understanding of who you are (strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, values, goals) and living your life as best you can consistent with those parameters is an aspect of wellbeing. When we aren’t living the life we want to live, or aren’t living a life consistent with how we see ourselves, we experience a hit to our wellbeing. This is why self-understanding/ self-knowledge can be valuable in enhancing one’s wellbeing, because we can align who we are, with what we do and how we behave.
The fact that there are many facets to wellbeing means there are many entry points to building wellbeing in our lives. For example, even if we have a significant physical or mental illness, it doesn’t mean we can’t work on other domains of wellbeing (e.g. the quality of our relationships or our resilience). The fact that wellbeing is a broad and inclusive construct means choice and options and different pathways for each person to build wellbeing in their lives.
What do we mean by academic success?
In the same way as it is not helpful to limit the concept of wellbeing to a single idea, it is also not helpful to limit the concept of ‘academic success’ to a single metric.
For many, the main indicator of academic success is their grades and GPA. The higher their GPA, the more academically successful they are. Now I won’t argue that this is a reasonable and decent metric for assessing one’s academic success. But it isn’t the only one. There are other ways to view academic success.
There is a subjective aspect to the university experience as well. Am I enjoying my degree? Do I feel like I fit in? Am I making friends? Am I enjoying my time at the university? Am I getting from my degree what I hoped to get from it? Many students have a great university experience, even in the presence of fairly average grades, because they get a lot more from it than just the learning component. Conversely, some students get great grades but aren’t enjoying the experience at all.
Another place where grades/GPA don’t quite hold up as a metric is where students are feeling like they are acquiring valuable and desired skills and competencies, which may or may not be getting captured in the grading process. Perhaps you pick up some cool laboratory skills or get far better at working in groups. Maybe you get way better at writing essays. Yes, these will probably be somewhat captured in your grades, but sometimes when we focus on our performance in exams/assignments we lose track of the practical skills we are getting along the way.
Some students find early on that university is harder than they expected. Their early grades aren’t great. For many of those students ‘academic success’ is persisting with study, working through the challenges and improving over time. Their final grades might not look amazing, but the student was ‘successful’ because they stuck at it, showing improvement over time and persisting through to the end of the degree.
For many students, their degree is a pathway to a career. If their degree leads them to that career, it doesn’t necessarily matter what their final GPA was. I also hear of students (often through placements) getting work during their degree. In this case, it was simply doing the degree that opened up the opportunities. So, career and work success are very much a metric of academic success.
The takeaway point here (if it isn’t already obvious) is that academic success comes in a variety of guises. It is totally OK to be interested in getting good grades, but remember that there is more to the experience than just that.
How are wellbeing and academic success related?
My colleagues at Health, Counselling and Disability Services tell me (based on years of accumulated experience working with students) that these two concepts are intertwined.
Healthy students tend to be more productive students. Conversely, students who are doing well at their studies also tend to report higher wellbeing.
This makes sense when you think about it. When we are physically and mentally healthy, we have the capacity to do the hard work that reaps the academic rewards. When we experience success at study, that feeds into a strong sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy which improves our sense of who we are and what we can achieve (the positive identity element of wellbeing).
The fact that these two concepts are intertwined means that investments we make in either improving our wellbeing or improving our productivity are going to have flow-on effects to the other. If I invest some time and effort in improving my physical fitness, it will likely improve how productive I am. If I invest some time and effort in being more efficient at my studies, I will feel more capable and have a better mood.
Now to be clear, they aren’t perfectly related. So improving your health by 100% isn’t going to translate necessarily to a 100% improvement in your academic performance (or vice versa), but the two are intertwined and so positive shifts on one will likely translate to positive shifts in the other.
How do you build wellbeing and/or academic success?
Conveniently, wellbeing and academic success are built in the same way, namely the development of good habits and routines (to be fair, habits and routines aren’t the only things impacting wellbeing, but they are ones that are within your control).
If you take any domain of wellbeing, you’ll generally find habits and routines that attach to those areas:
- Emotional – regular acts of emotional expression (e.g. journalling)
- Social/relational – expressing gratitude, nice acts
- Spiritual – prayer/meditation
- Intellectual – reading, writing, learning
- Financial – saving and investing
- Physical – exercise, sleep and good nutrition
- Environmental – tidying, cleaning, nurturing
- Academic success – study habits
What are habits and routines?
A habit is a simple behaviour that is performed regularly and mostly automatically. An example is brushing your teeth.
A routine is more complex chain of behaviours (some of them habits) that we’ve managed to build into our everyday lives. For example, brushing your teeth is part of a bigger morning ‘getting ready in the morning’ routine.
The more habits and routines you can get in place that help build or maintain wellbeing and/or productivity (getting them on ‘auto-pilot’), the more resilient you’ll be to setbacks and the more physical and mental energy you can devote to the things that are most important to you.
How do you build habits and routines?
I really like the habit formation model outlined by BJ Fogg from Stanford University called Tiny Habits – https://www.tinyhabits.com/.
Central to his model is a stepped process you can work through to start building habits and routines in small pieces (hence the ‘tiny’ in the title).
- Clarify aspiration – work out what your bigger goal is (e.g. get healthier, improve my relationships, increase my happiness)
- Explore behaviour options – brainstorm as many things you could do that might help you move towards those aspirations (e.g. if getting fitter is your goal you could take up a sport, go running, do yoga, eat better etc). Try to come up with as many as possible (e.g. 15+)
- Match behaviours to aspiration – identify which of the behaviours in your brainstormed list are most likely to help you achieve your aspirations AND that you think you are most likely to do. Pick one to start with.
- Start tiny – take the behaviour you’ve chosen and scale it back to the smallest meaningful change you can think of. For example, if you’ve chosen to take up meditation, aim to do just 2 minutes a day. Making it tiny increases the chance you will do it, even when motivation wanes.
- Find good prompts – find a way to remind yourself to engage in the behaviour. This might be using an alarm or notification on your phone or attaching the behaviour to something you already do (e.g. every time I go to the fridge, I will do 5 squats).
- Celebrate successes – whenever you successfully engage in the behaviour, make sure to celebrate. This can be as simple as a little fist pump or saying ‘nice work’ to yourself. We develop habits in the context of feeling good, so the celebration is intended to elicit a sense of pride, happiness and excitement.
- Create recipes – recipes are simple descriptions of the new habits you are trying to create that include the behaviour you want to do, how you will remind yourself to do it (anchor moment) and how you will celebrate. A recipe card is included below.
- Troubleshoot – while building habits in small pieces will lead to more success than when trying to build complex routines in a single go, there will still be failures. Troubleshoot those failures by looking back over this stepped process and asking yourself:
- Did I pick a genuine aspiration?
- Did I pick the right behaviour to move me towards that aspiration?
- Did I make it tiny enough so that I could reliably engage in the behaviour?
- Did I choose a good way to remind myself to engage in the behaviour?
- Have I implemented a suitable celebration that marks me engaging in the behaviour with positive emotion?
- Iterate, expand, stack and multiply – as you start to successfully establish new small habits, you’ll get more confident in your ability to make changes and will start expanding them naturally:
- Iterate – take a habit you’ve established and modify it to be a better version (e.g. go from mindful walking to mindfulness meditation)
- Expand – take a habit you’ve established and increase it (e.g. 5 squats becomes 25 squats)
- Stack – take a habit you’ve established and add a new habit on top of it (25 squats, then 5 minutes of meditation)
- Multiple – inspired to create more habits at different times of the day
What sort of habits and routines should you be developing?
Let’s start with the obvious one: your study habits and routine. You want good study habits (e.g. scheduling, planning, attending lectures and tutorials, reading, taking notes, self-testing, starting assignments early, tackling procrastination etc) set in place so that the academic part of your university experience is somewhat on auto-pilot. Don’t aim for perfection (I submitted many assignments at the last minute) but you want habits in place that mean you aren’t always chasing your own tail.
Then you want to slowly and deliberately refine the other main areas of your life:
Exercise – are you getting some kind of physical activity on a regular basis?
Sleep – do you have a fairly well established sleep schedule?
Nutrition – are you eating nutritious healthy food?
Work/finance – are you spending less than you earn, so you can save money for the future?
Social – are you spending time with the most important people in your life?
I don’t expect that you’ll get all of these areas of your life working perfectly. I certainly haven’t. But you can be looking at ways to make small improvements in each of these areas and those small improvements will start to add up in terms of your wellbeing and productivity.
How do you help others build habits and routines?
Flinders is a community of people: staff and students. It isn’t just our own individual wellbeing that is important. It is the wellbeing of us as a community as well.
All of us have the capacity to be a role model to others, and inspire other people to invest time and effort in their wellbeing and productivity. It doesn’t mean you need to be perfect or get everything right. It just means that your capacity to help and assist other members of the Flinders community will be higher if you are also investing time in your own wellbeing.
When I started working at Flinders back in 2017, and I started writing about wellbeing and productivity, I knew that I needed to be working on my own wellbeing and productivity, so I started experimenting with making changes in my own life, so I could better explain the underlying ideas to others.
Helping others build good habits and routines is often simply about modelling the behaviour. When you are talking to peers (and where it is appropriate) let them know about any good habits you have developed or are trying to develop.
Point them towards the Tiny Habits model, this blog post, or other good books on habits like Atomic Habits by James Clear. Assist them in understanding how to build habits so they have success in making some small changes in their lives (familiarise yourself with the model).
Direct them towards resources like the Student Health and Wellbeing Blog https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-health-and-well-being/ where myself and others are writing about wellbeing and productivity on an ongoing basis. Or maybe share our Self-Care guide which is full of tips on wellbeing and productivity – https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-health-and-well-being/2019/06/20/self-care-mega-guide/
If it is more academic issues than wellbeing ones, we have a good guide on Evidence Based Study and Exam Preparation Tips –https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-health-and-well-being/2020/03/10/the-study-and-exam-preparation-strategies-that-successful-students-use/.
Wellbeing and academic success are the two primary goals of students studying at university.
However, these concepts are complex and not just a case of ‘being happy’ or ‘high grades’.
The good news is that wellbeing and academic success are multi-faceted and interconnected, which means students can enhance one or both of these with a wide variety of changes in their lives.
To build wellbeing and academic success requires the development of healthy and productive habits and routines. The Tiny Habits model from BJ Fogg is a great starting point for learning how to build new habits.
The Tiny Habits model emphasises building habits and routines in small chunks (hence the ‘Tiny’). Doing so increases your confidence in your ability to make meaningful changes. The stepped process outlined in this article shows you how.
As for what kinds of changes to make, well that is up to you. But consider looking at our Self-care and Evidence-based Study Tips guides to find inspiration.
And if you want to hear me give this blog post as a presentation, Join Oasis Online and watch the lecture I recorded from home 🙂 – https://flo.flinders.edu.au/mod/page/view.php?id=2870118
Take care everyone 🙂