With the difficulties we are currently facing in education as a result of the global pandemic, issues of mental health and supporting learners through difficult times has taken on a new significance. In this post from our guest author Chloe Casey, perspectives are provided on the difficulties with measuring student wellbeing. Drawn from her doctoral research, the post highlights concerns regarding inconsistent approaches to measurement; and highlights a call for greater levels of validity and reliability, to improve comparable evidence for action.

Concerns about mental health, suicide rates and demand for counselling in higher education students have increased in recent years. In the UK, many initiatives have been investigating mental health at university and how to improve it, for example, The Student Mental Health Research Network (SMarTeN) and the University Mental Health Charter with Student Minds charity.

In psychological research, literature has shifted from an emphasis on mental health disorders and illness to a focus on wellbeing (Huppert et al, 2009). Also, many of the initiatives and interventions in higher education have focused on wellbeing too. Therefore, funding has been invested in population-based efforts to improve coping and self-care in students, not solely the referral and treatment of those experiencing mental health problems.

However, there is a big problem when it comes to blurring the terminology along the spectrum of mental health and wellbeing (Barkham, et al 2019). The World Health Organisation and prominent wellbeing researchers like Martin Seligman, provide similar definitions of wellbeing: a multi-faceted construct underpinned by a range of psychological dimensions such as positive emotion, engagement, autonomy, healthy relationships, self-acceptance and personal growth. Despite this, clearly defining wellbeing is problematic due to the many, inconsistent concepts like subjective wellbeing, emotional wellbeing, psychological wellbeing etc.

Picture of Wellbeing Space at Bournemouth University
Picture from Joe Flintham’s Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Take the example of measuring the wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers (PGRs); the problem is similar. To draw clear conclusions and prevalence rates from the literature, wellbeing needs to be clearly conceptualised and measured using the same valid and reliable tools (Scott and Takarangi, 2019). Studies researching the wellbeing PGRs tend to also measure similar constructs, such as anxiety, depression, stress, and emotional exhaustion. In assessing these symptoms there is usually a consensus in the measures used. For example, studies researching anxiety in PGRs tend to use the Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-item scale (Spitzer et al 2006). However, even within studies that have used the same measure of anxiety, the rates have varied from 18% (Bolotnyy et al, 2020) to as high as 41% (Evans et al 2018) in PGR samples. Similarly, in measuring stress in PGR students, the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) (Cohen et al 1994) is the consistent form of measurement. However, each author selected a different variation of the PSS (for instance the 10 or 14-item version, or just choosing 4 items from the scale). Therefore, it is impossible to combine the data or to make any assumptions about the prevalence of stress in PGR students.

Yet, the measurement of wellbeing is the most complicated of all. A review of the literature located 16 studies that assess the wellbeing of PGRs using quantitative measures. Within these studies NINE different scales were used to measure wellbeing. These scales include widely used measures such as the Scale of Positive and Negative Experience (Watson et al, 1988), the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (Tennant et al, 2007), and the Satisfaction with Life Scale (Diener et al, 1985). However, they also include measures that have been recently developed specifically for PGRs such as the Juniper PhD Wellbeing Scale (Juniper et al, 2011) or the Quality in PhD Processes Questionnaire (Herrmann and Winchmann-Hansen, 2017). A research team from Finland also created a called MED NORD, assessing the wellbeing of medical students. This was adapted to measure stress, exhaustion, anxiety, lack of interest and engagement in PGR study (Stubb et al, 2011) and has utilised in several studies since.

Picture of a Stressed Student
Picture from CollegeDegrees360’s Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As discussed, currently there are a multitude of survey-based studies using different measures, all reporting varying estimates of PGR wellbeing levels. There have been few attempts to combine the existing data. Three recent literature reviews have attempted this, stressing the problem of heterogeneity in PGR wellbeing measurement (Schmidt and Hansson 2018; Scott and Takarangi, 2019), to the extent that usual systematic review analyses cannot be used to combine the results (Hazell et al, 2020). This makes generalising and comparing these kinds of studies complicated, meaning there are no clear prevalence rates.

The imprecise terminology relating to wellbeing has hindered the field of student wellbeing research and may have led universities to implement actions without robust evidence (Barkham, et al 2019), wasting time and resources. Therefore, there is a call for a more comprehensive assessment of the wellbeing of different student groups using consistent, valid and reliable measures. If this were the case, and the data was reported in a consistent manner, data from different researchers could be easily aggregated and compared. From this, universities can implement evidence-based, tailored interventions and support provisions to improve student wellbeing, overall experience, and academic success.

Author Short Biography

Picture of Chloe Casey

Chloe Casey is a PhD student from Bournemouth University, researching the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate researcher students. She is particularly interested in coping, peer support, positive psychology, and mixed-methods research. You can contact Chloe via email: ccasey@bournemouth.ac.uk; or connect on Twitter: @ChloeCaraCasey.


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