Preliminary Research Proposal


Minding Their Minds:

Adapting universal design for learning in support of student mental health, resilience and hope for the future


1.  Background and statement of the problem


In its Constitution, the World Health Organization inextricably includes mental health and wellness as integrated components and determinants of overall health: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO, 2013, p. 7). For its part, Canada’s working definition of mental health is “The capacities of each and all of us to feel, think, and act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face. It is a positive sense of emotional and spiritual well-being that respects the importance of culture, equity, social justice, interconnections, and personal dignity” (Canada, 2006, p. 2).


For those working in the field of education, especially those in post-secondary education, connections seem obvious between health, mental health, and the role of education in society (Canadian Association of College & University Student Services and Canadian Mental Health Association, 2013). Indeed, in an emergent knowledge society (UNESCO, 2005), colleges and universities have a pivotal role as the generators, sharers and implementers of research and knowledge in order to support, enhance and transform the life and health of global citizens and the communities in which they live (International Conference on Health Promoting Universities & Colleges, 2015).


There are barriers to success in achieving this aspiration. Some are systemic and deep-rooted organizational and operational challenges, while others arise in the form of external pressures on the organization. Because of the diversity of personal characteristics, beliefs, values, needs and expectations, challenges posed by people or groups of people can be among the most demanding. Arguably, the most critical of these is student academic success (International Conference on Health Promoting Universities & Colleges, 2015).


Academic success is challenged by a variety of matters, such as the transition into post-secondary life, new and overlapping deadlines and priorities, grades, financial considerations, and more (Gorczynski, 2018; Linden, u.d.). On their own or when combined with other stressors such as living away from home, peer pressure, and relationships, the toll these take on mental well-being can be daunting, intimidating and even paralyzing as they erode one’s resilience.


It is necessary, therefore, to problematize the factors and circumstances that, increasingly, inhibit academic success by adversely affecting the mental health, resilience and confidence of post-secondary students. It is incumbent on educators, academics and learning professionals, to experiment, explore and find new ways of helping students mitigate these challenges in order to focus on the goal of academic success.


Regardless of jurisdiction, institution, program, status, or any other factor, every student interacts with curriculum and the pedagogy that was used to create it. Much the same as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has been adopted as the defacto standard in instructional design, it has been adapted over the years to support student academic success in a variety of situations, such as in supporting the specific learning needs of indigenous students (Green, 2010), supporting the specific learning needs of first generation students (House, Neal & Kolb, 2019), and supporting the learning needs of newcomers and refugees (Stewart & Martin, 2018).


It is the purpose of this study, therefore, to examine and explore at the intersection of instructional design with student mental health. There is a potential opportunity to adapt UDL principles at the very core of what every student experiences – the curriculum – in order to be mindfully supportive of student mental health, thereby helping to mitigate the barriers to academic success that they create. The ultimate aim of this study is to determine the efficacy of supporting student mental health, indeed in fostering the resilience needed to navigate life, at the stages of curriculum development and instructional design, without sacrificing academic quality or rigour.

2.  Research question or hypothesis, aim and objectives


This study will examine the current state of literature regarding (a) the relationship between student mental health and academic success, and (b) the use and adaptation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles in supporting student academic success. Specifically, the study hopes to reveal some best practices in the use of UDL for this purpose and to determine whether they can be utilized to mindfully support student mental health, one of the primary and growing barriers to academic success. If so, the study seeks to propose new approaches to using UDL within the practice of instructional design in order to produce the more successful, active, informed and resilient citizens that society needs.


The following preliminary research question provides over-arching guidance and direction to the study:


Preliminary Question: How do students, educators (faculty, instructional designers and program managers) and mental health practitioners believe that UDL principles can most effectively be adapted in order to mitigate the barriers to academic success that can arise as a result of the mental health challenges that students are increasingly facing?


Subsidiary questions that will be explored and that are expected to help inform the preliminary question include:


Subsidiary Question 1: What is the relationship between student mental health and student academic success?


Subsidiary Question 2: In what situations have UDL principles been used or adapted to help overcome barriers that hinder student academic success and to what extent were these adaptations effective?


Subsidiary Question 3: What new, promising and best practices regarding student support were employed during effective UDL adaptations? Are these practices potentially transferable to supporting student mental health and to mitigating the effect it has on student academic success?


3.  Methodology


This study will adhere to all relevant policy statements regarding the ethical conduct of research that involves human participants. Specifically, this study will adhere to policy statements contained in the following:


  1. Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (2010)
    This policy statement governs the ethical conduct of research involving human participants. It is developed, interpreted and implemented by the Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics (PRE). PRE was created in 2001 by the Government of Canada as a collaboration between three federal research agencies: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). All human-centred research in Canada must conform to this policy statement.


  1. International Ethical Guidelines for Health-related Research Involving Humans (2016)
    In collaboration, the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS) and the World Health Organization (WHO) transformed the principles arising in the Declaration of Helsinki of the World Medical Association into applied practice. Unicaf University ascribes to these ethical guidelines.


In this study, two simultaneous literature reviews will be conducted. The first explores the relationship between student mental health and student academic success. The second seeks to determine what adaptations have been made to UDL principles in order to improve academic success. In associating and assessing both literature reviews, it is anticipated that the study will engage in a contextual discussion expected to inform the research design, participants and methods.


Data collected will primarily and necessarily be qualitative, augmented with quantitative data where practicable. Where possible, focus groups will be convened in order to collect data from participants. The study may also include personal interviews.


3.1 Participants


A full and thorough risk assessment will be conducted at the research design stage in order to ensure that research activities are low risk so as to protect and defend the health, safety and confidentiality of all persons connected with the research.


It is anticipated that this study will engage human subjects from a variety of backgrounds that align with one of three categories of participant: post-secondary students, faculty and mental health practitioners.


Following a formal disclosure statement regarding the study, as well as its risks and benefits, and consent process, all participants will understand that their engagement with the study is unconditionally voluntary, that they opt in freely and of their own volition, and that they may opt out from any portion of the study and/or from the study in its entirety at any point.


Participants’ identities will be protected by anonymizing responses through both data de-identification and data presentation in the aggregate. In any cases that require the identification of a participant, such as in the use of a quotation, a second process of consent will be conducted in which the participant agrees to be identified, indicates how they wish to be identified (i.e. full name, initials, or alias/avatar/pseudonym), and outlines any limits to that identification.


3.2 Methods


This study will rely predominantly on focus groups conducted with three groups of participants in order to acquire data and to determine whether patterns arise in participant feedback that could result in the potential of adapting UDL principles in order to mitigate the barriers to academic success posed by challenges to student mental health.


Discussion questions, all open-ended, will be drafted by the author and will be tailored to the anticipated relationship that focus group members have with the research question. It is anticipated that the criteria for capturing and including the data will be as broad as possible and that focus group participation will be managed through a purposeful sampling approach.


The focus of the study will be on post-secondary students and Canadian post-secondary institutions.

4.  Strengths and weaknesses of the study


While it is recognized that the prevalence of students facing challenges that affect their mental health and resilience to the extent that these become barriers to academic success is increasing, it is important to realize that not all students face the same challenges, that not all challenges affect students the same way, that not all students experience challenges to their mental health and, of those that do, that not all students self-disclose or seek support. This could be interpreted as a weakness of the study.


However, it is arguable that any potential adaptation of UDL best practices that help to mitigate barriers to academic success by promoting resilience and by being mindful of student mental health would be of benefit to all students.


A recent, as yet unpublished, study under the title “Understanding Post-Secondary Student Stress: A Qualitative Analysis” conducted by Linden (u.d.), a PhD Candidate at Queens University, identified stressors common to post-secondary students in Canada and proffered insights into the social context surrounding these stressors. By identifying source problems, Linden’s work provides a pre-validation for this study which is, necessarily, focused on achieving academic success by mitigating the impacts and influences of these problems that affect students’ mental health and resilience.



Canadian Association of College & University Student Services and Canadian Mental Health Association. (2013). Post-Secondary Student Mental Health: Guide to a Systemic Approach. Vancouver, BC: Author.


Gorczynski, P. (2018). More academics and students have mental health problems than ever before. The Conversation. Retrieved May 15, 2019 at


Government of Canada. (2006). The Human Face of Mental Health and Mental Illness in Canada 2006. Ottawa, ON: Author.


Green, B. L. (2010). Culture is treatment: Considering pedagogy in the care of aboriginal people. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 48(7):27-34.


House, l. A., Neal, C. & Kolb, J. (2019). Supporting the Mental Health Needs of First Generation College Students, Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, DOI: 10.1080/87568225.2019.1578940.


International Conference on Health Promoting Universities & Colleges. (7th: 2015: Kelowna, BC). Okanagan Charter: An International Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges. Retrieved May 15, 2019 at


Linden, B. (u.d.). Understanding Post-Secondary Student Stress: A Qualitative Analysis.


Stewart, S. & Martin, L. (2018). Bridging Two Worlds: Supporting Newcomer and Refugee Youth. Toronto, ON: CERIC.


UNESCO (2015). Towards Knowledge Societies. Paris: UNESCO.


World Health Organization (2013). Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020. Geneva: Author.

© 2019: L. A. White