why this study
Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States of America, once noted that “nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent”.
Whilst he might have been slightly over-egging the importance of resilience, the desire to help students improve these skills is probably more popular now than ever. But is this something that can be learnt and developed?
Resilience, originally studied in young children suffering major traumatic events, has since been researched in both sport and business. A recent study by Sarah Holdsworth, Michelle Turner and Christina Scott-Young from RMIT University in Australia has now turned the focus to resilience in education. Through interviews with students, they identified three key attributes that lead to resilient learners, as well as what academic institutions can do to help facilitate this.
the main findings
A sense of perspective
This was defined as the ability to manage one’s emotions, concentrating on the things that you can control and that matter, and choosing the correct strategy for any given situation. Central to maintaining a sense of perspective was the importance of self-reflection, which allowed students to manage new or uncomfortable situations. Other skills that helped keep a sense of perspective included a mixture of both short-term and long-term goals, as this helped maintain focus and motivation after a setback.
Being physically and mentally healthy helped students respond well under pressure and during adversity. Ways to achieve this included doing physical activity as well as taking part in team sports, which allowed for social interactions and self-reflection. Identifying and celebrating your successes and adopting helpful and constructive self-talk helped improve mental wellbeing.
The more someone isolates themselves, the more likely they are to brood over bad decisions. Maintaining good relationships with friends, family and teachers helps students either feel better about their setbacks or provides suggestions on how to overcome them.
Finally, the study looked at what academic institutions could do to help foster resilient environments for students. They found that helping them experience and learn from failures in a safe environment, providing high quality feedback that focuses on strategies and next steps, as well as access to extra-curricular activities, helped.
This study supports existing research that has found that resilience is something that can be developed by the individual as well as facilitated by their environment.
A recent overview by leading resilience researchers highlighted that, for an environment to facilitate resilience, it needs to be both high in challenge and support. Too much challenge and no support results in excessive stress, burnout and isolation. Too much support but not enough challenge can lead to complacency and boredom.
Other strategies that have been found to help improve resilience include being open to new experiences, being optimistic, viewing decisions as active choices not as sacrifices, and focusing on developing your skills instead of comparing yourself to others. Viewing setbacks as opportunities for learning as well as taking personal responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings will help.
Research has also demonstrated that setbacks are not always a bad thing. Those who have experienced some adversity tend to perform better under pressure in the future than those who have been wrapped in cotton wool. Experiencing failure has also been associated with higher levels of empathy, motivation and determination.
The authors of this study note that “failure is a central part of learning, but its associated connotations need to be reconceptualised as a learning opportunity”. Many students feel that mistakes = bad = avoid at all costs. Helping them understand that mistakes and setbacks at some stage are inevitable, and then providing them with strategies about how to capitalise on them, will help us develop resilient learners.
Taking time to talk to students about how to improve both their physical and mental well-being will help equip them with the energy and skills needed to navigate tough times. Likewise, teaching students skills such as self-reflection and how to set appropriate goals will benefit them. PHSE, assemblies and student workshops should help with this.
This study is from our latest book, "The Science of Learning: 99 studies that every teacher needs to know".
Reference: Holdsworth et al, 2017, Studies in Higher Education