The pivotal role of lecturers in student wellbeing

“I must say, what contributed to my wellbeing is that the lectures are good and they (lecturers) are very well prepared when coming to lecture us…”

The words of an 18-year-old undergraduate Biological Sciences student

black man helping friend to climb up
Photo by Kamaji Ogino on

When considering student wellbeing, we often think of innovative interventions, the quality of psychological student support services and the need for positive message framing in this critical life phase of young tertiary students. We agitate for awareness campaigns on mental health and wellbeing and suggest preventative measures to address the multitude of societal challenges that young people have to deal with on a daily basis. Since we care deeply about the skillset that will equip students for the world of work as well as for taking care of their own personal wellbeing, universities worldwide are prioritising student wellbeing.

Universities are harnessing new technologies to support students and create platforms where wellbeing knowledge and experience can be accessed and shared. They develop centres that can support students during times of adversity and that will play a critical role in overall student mental health. However, student numbers in tertiary education have grown exponentially almost everywhere, and the demands to support and understand the complexities of student wellbeing have consequently multiplied.

In our work on student wellbeing, we wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the factors that support student wellbeing at university. What do students find supportive? And how is their wellbeing supported during their years of study? We thought that the best way to understand student wellbeing would be to hear their own voices. So we asked a group of students from the helping professions to act as fieldworkers, to walk around on campus and just ask other students a simple question: What supports your wellbeing at university?

In our new article in Teaching in Higher Education, we share the insights gained from this research. In the study, a sample of 335 undergraduate student participants from a wide variety of scientific disciplines at a large, urban residential university in the Gauteng province of South Africa indicated a multitude of factors that support their wellbeing at university.

Their responses were interesting for several reasons. First, they foregrounded the critical role of lecturers in the wellbeing of students, even though this is often a fairly muted theme in student wellbeing literature. Second, students did not necessarily expect lecturers to provide quasi-psychological support. Benevolence and a caring attitude, yes, but not psychological support. Students knew where to find those services when needed. However, students were saying that a well-prepared lecturer who communicates regularly and who uses technology effectively improves their wellbeing. They also took note of lecturers’ positive attitude towards their own work. In short, while students were saying that the relationship between themselves and the lecturer was of vital importance, they indicated that the lecturers’ own work approach also supported their wellbeing as students.    

Specifically, these students highlighted the following dimensions of lecturer support that enhanced their wellbeing:

  • Benevolence. Students stated that lecturers with a caring attitude, who listen attentively and who engage with students, support their wellbeing.
  • Lecturer competence. Lecturers who teach well and are able to explain complex concepts in articulate ways, support student wellbeing.
  • Lecturer availability. Students considered this a critical factor and felt that their wellbeing was supported when they knew that lecturers were accessible and available, through either open-door policies or regular consultation hours.
  • Interaction. Personal interactions with lecturers supported student wellbeing.
  • The lecturers’ attitude towards their own teaching work. Lecturers who are enthusiastic and passionate about their own work support student wellbeing.

The above provides evidence that lecturers played a central role in the wellbeing of the students in our study. Although many lecturers would tell you that they are already overburdened and cannot be responsible for student wellbeing as well, our study shows that even the intrinsic aspects of an excellent lecturer unwittingly supported the wellbeing of their students in various ways.

Irma Eloff, Sumari O’Neil and Herbert Kanengoni (University of Pretoria)