How a kindness assignment in an undergraduate course impacted student perceptions of themselves, their peers and their campus

Hurray, my students are coming back to the campus this week. Next week I’ll be teaching again on campus. At the same time, we know that there are still a lot of students who aren’t feeling that ok. Maybe it’s true and a small act of kindness can go a long way? This study does suggest it can help.

From the press release:

Dr. John-Tyler Binfet, associate professor in the School of Education and Dr. Sally Stewart, associate professor of teaching in the School of Health and Exercise Sciences recently published a study that explores how the inclusion of a kindness assignment in an undergraduate course impacted student perceptions of themselves, their peers and their campus.

While there have been several studies that have assessed the effects of kindness on wellbeing, there has been limited research into how university-aged students understand and enact kindness, says Dr. Binfet.

Thousands of university students returned to class across Canada in September, and Dr. Binfet notes that while living in the times of COVID-19 every act of kindness goes a long way.

“We know being kind yields a number of wellbeing benefits, such as stress reduction, happiness and peer acceptance, and we know mental health impacts learning,” says Dr. Binfet. “The post-secondary environment is often the last training ground to prepare students for life so we want to understand how we can prepare students for optimal mental health as adults.”

For the study, volunteer students provided self-reports to determine the extent they see themselves as kind in online and face-to-face interactions, and how connected they felt to their peers and the campus. The students were then asked to plan and complete five kind acts for one week.

The participants completed 353 kind acts with the main themes of helping others, giving, demonstrating appreciation and communicating. Students that completed at least three of the five planned acts of kindness self-reported significantly higher scores of in-person kindness and peer connectedness.

“This research can help students realize that there is evidence behind how and why people are kind, and that kindness does impact health and wellbeing,” says Dr. Stewart. “It also has an incredible impact for teaching in higher education as it provides insight into where students are at with their practice and understanding of kindness in order to build the groundwork for inclusion of this topic within educational practices and course content areas.”

While there are on-campus wellbeing resources available to students at most post-secondary schools, this research demonstrates that by including wellbeing initiatives into coursework, it’s easier for more students to engage in those activities and receive benefits without added effort. The study also demonstrated that a curriculum-based kindness intervention would be well received by students.

“We found that the students loved the assignment,” says Dr. Stewart. “For some, it helped them realize that kindness is a skill that they can learn to do better and that there are many ways to be kind. For others, it helped them realize that they already do kind things. It reinforced their desire and intention of doing more kind acts.”

For years, Dr. Binfet’s research has focused on elevating the discussion of kindness, and he has previously completed studies on how children and adolescents perceive and enact kindness.

“With this research, we now see alignment in how university students and school-age participants define kindness — to them it means actions that can improve the lives of others. Often, it’s simple things such as being polite and helping others,” says Dr. Binfet.

Abstract of the study:

Attending university can present a host of challenges for undergraduate students and the mental health of students has increasingly become a concern as students struggle to meet the demands of new academic and social expectations. Despite several studies assessing the effects of being kind on well-being, there remains a dearth of research identifying how students understand and enact kindness. The aims of this study were to integrate a kindness assignment into undergraduate coursework, to explore how students define and enact kindness, and to examine how being kind impacted students’ perceptions of themselves, their peers, and their campus. Students were asked to complete a series of five kind acts and administered a series of pre- and post-assignment measures and open-ended prompts. Consistent with our hypotheses, participants who completed at least 3 of the 5 planned acts of kindness reported significantly higher scores on measures of in-person kindness (d = 0.46, p = .04) and peer connectedness (d = 0.46, p = .04). Participants did not, however, report significantly higher scores on measures of self-perceived online kindness (d = 0.12, p = .59) or on their perception of the kindness of their campus community (d = 0.09, p = .68). Participants in this study planned a total of 492 acts, which were coded using content analysis. The salient themes in kind acts were Helping Others, Giving, Demonstrating Appreciation, and Communicating. This study demonstrated that a curriculum-based kindness intervention was well received by students and resulted in students performing varied acts of kindness that positively impacted their self-ratings of kindness and peer connectedness.

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