Research has shown that as many as half of higher education students have experienced exhaustion, inadequacy and cynisism in their studies. New students struggle with the changes brought about by beginning their studies and the heavy demands of studying at university.
As an initial reaction, they may avoid situations that cause anxiety or procrastinate. However, distressing situations occur all the time, and studies do not progress if you are unable to get things done.
Henna Asikainen and Nina Katajavuori, senior lecturers in university pedagogy on Viikki Campus of University of Helsinki, have already been offering an online course for a couple of years in which students can, through various exercises, identify things that are important to them, learn to work in spite of stressful thoughts and, in this way, increase their wellbeing. The course is based on the development of psychological flexibility.
“Studies have demonstrated that psychological flexibility has a strong connection with wellbeing. In our research, we have also identified a strong link with the progress of studies, which is why we came to the conclusion that this must be promoted in one way or another,” says Henna Asikainen.
Psychological flexibility means that people are able to differentiate between their negative thoughts and their self. They are able to base their actions on their personal values and goals in spite of being anxious and stressed in certain situations.
Broad range of methods for improving personal wellbeing
Some 50 students of pharmacy registered for the inaugural course. The kick-off and final sessions were organised as contact teaching, but other course material and assignments were available online.
At the kick-off, Counselling Psychologist Kari Peltola provided strategies and tips for getting out of a range of mental ruts. Each week, the students were given new exercises where they focused on considering, for example, the important things in their lives. The students also submitted a brief weekly report on what they had accomplished and learnt. At the end of the course, they drew up a learning report.
The results and learning reports painted an unambiguous picture: the course had provided students with a broad range of methods for improving their personal wellbeing.
“Stress management was found to be a central factor. It’s been great reading, for example, how students talk about having been previously stressed and frustrated by studying, and having subsequently learnt to adopt an entirely different perspective on it. Every now and then I’ve even had to wipe a tear from my eye reading the learning reports,” Asikainen relates.
“What has been essential to grasp is that stress is part of life, something that doesn’t stop you from functioning. And that there are ways of dealing with, say, overwhelming anxiety,” Nina Katajavuori says.
However, the senior lecturers in university pedagogy point out that not everyone can be helped by a single course. If a person is really anxious or depressed, they will be unable to concentrate or complete the course exercises. Such students have always been referred to professional help.
From pilot to an online course
A version implemented entirely online was developed out of the first course for spring 2018, at which point it was completed by almost 200 students in Viikki and the City Centre Campus. Online group discussions as well as material related to studying and study skills were added. Another significant addition was the monitoring of time use.
“The students kept a record of the time spent on studying, other activities and sleeping. We asked them to keep tabs on their use of time and, when necessary, make changes to their schedule. This way, we wanted to support systematic studying,” Asikainen says.
A course for all University students in the pipeline
With the help of the digital leap in education funding granted to the project, Henna Asikainen and Nina Katajavuori aim to establish the course as an online offering available to all students of the University of Helsinki. Another goal is to add new material in order to provide a more comprehensive perspective on wellbeing.
“We already have notable professors of education involved, such as Minna Huotilainen, Katariina Salmela-Aro and Mari Tervaniemi. We could also add to the course information on the significance of sleep, exercise and nutrition for wellbeing, among other things. Still, the course focuses on psychological flexibility and related support,” Katajavuori outlines.
The development of the course is associated with WELLS, a more extensive research project. Last autumn, a case-control design was utilised in the organisation of the course, and research activities have also been carried out with the help of technical solutions.
Roughly 60 students have gained information on their wellbeing through a three-day Firstbeat measurement, both before and after the course. A handful of Oura and Moodmetric smart rings have also been used.
“Minna Huotilainen lent us the Firstbeat equipment. This kind of support is valuable in more ways than one, as the analysis would cost 200–300 euros bought from an external service provider. The students have been very eager participants. If the results continue to be as positive as in the previous courses and if we get the funding, we could at some point extend this to include doctoral students and even University staff,” Asikainen notes.