A systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies of the antecedents and consequences of wellbeing among university students





Background and objectives: Wellbeing among university students is associated with better academic outcomes and diminished harm from mental illness. This study systematically reviews and meta-analyses longitudinal studies of the antecedents and consequences of wellbeing within this population, providing an overview which establishes a ‘natural history’ of wellbeing to form a background for intervention and policy.

Method: This study was a systematic review and meta-analysis of the peer-reviewed literature, based on a broad range of search terms across four journal databases in psychology, medicine and education. Studies were organised by the domain of their study variables (i.e., Self, Relationships, or Institutional Context) and variables relating to wellbeing were extracted. The incremental effect of study variables measured at baseline upon prospective wellbeing was calculated with semipartial correlation coefficients which controlled for baseline wellbeing. Meta-regressions were used to examine the effect of follow-up interval on effect sizes.

Results: Sixty-two longitudinal studies of university student cohorts were identified. In 57 studies, wellbeing was an outcome variable. Meta-analyses showed that effects were moderated by measurement interval between baseline and follow-up, becoming weaker with longer intervals, and that this was not an artifact of the measurement instrument. The study factors with the strongest positive effect sizes after controlling for baseline wellbeing were authenticity, self-esteem, self-support for autonomy, emotional repair, and ability to regulate distress and despondency; relationship commitment and group memberships; self-identification with the university and time pressure. Study factors with the strongest negative effect sizes were uncertainty regarding university, materialism, a belief in social complexity, depression, and stress. In five studies, wellbeing was an antecedent, showing positive associations with educational outcomes.

Conclusion: This review identified several antecedents of student wellbeing which could be targeted for interventions. These included self-relationship, emotion regulation, and interventions to decrease mental illness. Universities might also make it easier to establish and maintain groups (e.g., study cohorts, interest groups). Many variables which affect wellbeing are not amenable to study with experimental methods, but their study and use in wellbeing interventions should not be neglected. Because the antecedents of wellbeing are numerous and diverse, further research in the area should take advantage of research methods which maximise the variety of data collected and minimise respondent burden, such as passively collected and linked data.


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