Basic psychological needs central to university students’ wellbeing in the pandemic

The pandemic is punishing university students, with little capacity for coping left among nearly all students after a year of distance learning. Professor Katariina Salmela-Aro and her Austrian colleagues have investigated and compared the mental health of university students in Finland and Austria.

According to UNESCO, schools and higher education institutions were closed in 178 countries by the end of April 2020, which had an effect on some 1.3 billion pupils and students around the globe. As a result, they have been put into an entirely new situation in their studies and lives as a whole. 

Lockdowns, restrictions on movement, physical distancing, restrictions on social interaction and the lack of traditional learning methods have increased stress, anxiety and mental health problems among students worldwide.  All in all, the pandemic and its repercussions have engendered major challenges to psychological wellbeing. To avoid negative trends, resources must be found to foster resilience in crises. This is why the researchers have attempted to identify resources that support the psychological wellbeing of university students.

Austria and Finland – differences in restrictions and students?

A lockdown in Austria, the restrictions on movement in both countries (the Uusimaa lockdown in spring 2020 in Finland), physical distancing, restrictions on social interaction and the transition from traditional learning methods to digital methods have posed challenges to students. 

“Basic psychological needs which protect people from stress in times of crisis are important and they also need to be met in distance learning,” says Professor of Education Katariina Salmela-Aro  from the University of Helsinki. 

In the new study, Salmela-Aro and her Austrian colleagues examined the educational context and wellbeing of university students in the pandemic. They investigated to what extent the fulfilment of basic psychological needs serves to buffer students' wellbeing in the circumstances. 

“Wellbeing is composed of hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing, which is why we explored student wellbeing on the basis of both positive emotions and learning motivation.” 

A total of 6,071 higher education students in Austria and 1,653 University of Helsinki students participated in the study. 

Experiences of competence important

The more competent the students felt, the more positive emotions they had.

“The fact that relatedness, competence and autonomy, all three basic psychological needs, were predictors of learning motivation in Finland was an important find. In Finland, autonomy and relatedness were significant predictors of learning motivation,” says Salmela-Aro. “In Austria, competence had the greatest effect on psychological wellbeing.” 

Salmela-Aro says that all three basic needs and self-regulation can be promoted at universities in distance learning, with positive emotions increasing optimism about the future. 

In both countries, intrinsic learning motivation was influenced by competence and autonomy, and, in Finland, also by social contact. Salmela-Aro believes lockdowns deprive students of opportunities to have an impact, or autonomy, and relatedness. The Austrian lockdown can have extremely serious consequences for students.

Austrian universities discontinued contact instruction on 16 March 2020, in addition to which the government announced a lockdown, with people only permitted to travel to work, shop for groceries or exercise outdoors on their own or in small groups. In April, a requirement to wear protective face masks in stores and public transport was introduced. Universities provided instruction remotely throughout the data collection period, which encompassed the month of April.

In Finland, where data was collected from April to June 2020, universities transferred from contact instruction to remote instruction on 18 March. The premises of the University of Helsinki were closed throughout the data collection period. Now, the universities have been closed for a year. 

High-quality distance learning is beneficial and can be designed by taking into account students’ basic psychological needs 

Higher education in itself can improve the quality of life in many ways. In addition to disseminating knowledge, the role of higher education institutions in the European Union includes educating students by providing opportunities for personal growth and success. For students to become successful and flexible members of society, universities promote, among other things, complex and autonomous thinking, creativity, and effective communication. In addition, universities offer social spaces that enable social interaction and bring about a sense of identity and a sense of belonging to the academic community. 

“In other words, the university lockdowns caused by the pandemic are an unprecedented challenge to students’ wellbeing and success.”

To promote self-regulated learning, universities should teach students to construct and plan their learning consciously. In addition to being a significant short-term goal in the current distance learning circumstances, promoting the use of learning strategies based on self-regulation is also beneficial for lifelong learning.

Salmela-Aro says that the study demonstrated the importance of basic psychological needs to student wellbeing, as well as how social contact, even over distances, helps maintain intrinsic learning motivation. The results can be utilised in helping students make it through another coronavirus spring. To this end, universities must plan distance learning and remote instruction so that distances do not matter. Competence can be attained through individual learning techniques that support autonomy and by taking into account students’ individual strengths and weaknesses. 

“Success can be promoted further by setting interim goals, in addition to which there should be room for personal feedback. More attention should be paid to students’ views.” 

Decisions pertaining to students should be increasingly made by also listening to the students. Autonomy is, after all, one of the three basic psychological needs. 

“The findings show how reduced autonomy is markedly reflected in students’ negative feelings.” 

The article entitled ‘Higher Education in Times of COVID-19: University Students’ Basic Need Satisfaction, Self-Regulated Learning, and Well-Being’ was published in the distinguished AERA Open journal.

The project was funded by the Academy of Finland.

Further information

Katariina Salmela-Aro, +358 50 415 5283,