Most university lecturers familiar with the on-line learning needs of their students adjust their subject design and learning resources for students with physical disabilities. This has traditionally been a request for additional written materials, or the inclusion of captions on videos. More recently it has also included alternative text and formats for learning materials to meet particular student needs. Less common however is the request to adjust learning materials for students with mental health and wellbeing issues.

Mental health issues are often considered “invisible” and even more so in the on-line learning space. Students with mental health issues, both on-line and on-campus, are much less likely to disclose their condition due to stigma, shame, or embarrassment. This means they are even less likely to have their learning needs considered in either the design of, or adjustment to, their subjects. Some students choose on-line because it means they can manage their study around their particular condition. Again, however, in most cases subjects would not be designed with these wellbeing needs in mind.

The launch of Orygen’s Australian University Mental Health Framework in late 2020 has focussed renewed attention on the mental health of university students. The Framework provides guidance on developing mentally healthy university settings that aim “to embed a response to student mental health and wellbeing across the whole university” (p. 10).

One aspect of such a whole-of-university response must be to assure that the design of on-line learning accommodates the needs of students with mental health issues. Well designed curriculum that lays the foundations for student mental wellbeing greatly reduces the need for individual adjustments and normalises support provision for all students, for both their studies and for health and wellbeing.

Using a variety of accessible learning design frameworks such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), we can better cater for the complex variety of student learning needs. This may include adopting strategies such as replacing high-pressure exams with assessments that are more reflective of clinical practice, ensuring students can build connections with each other, or reassessing assessment due dates to avoid clashes.

With COVID having led to a significant increase in levels of distress and mental health issues amongst  university students, we need to do more in online learning design to support student success for all students, including those with mental health and wellbeing issues.

Jacquie Tinkler, Lecturer in educational technologies, Charles Sturt University [email protected] @jacqsreport

Gene Hodgins, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology, Charles Sturt University [email protected] @genehodgins


Charles Sturt University, a member of CAULLT (Council of Australasian University Leaders in Learning and Teaching)



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