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How Can We Build Academic Resilience?

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In psychology, we can define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, whether this is adversity in a personal situation (such as the change of a relationship) or adversity in a job role. Resilience can also be applied to educational settings and this can explain how and why some students may be better equipped adapting to different educational environments than other students. This type of resilience, the one applied in an academic setting, can be defined as academic resilience.

In academia, resilience can often be measured by how students perform in assessments despite having adverse circumstances that could heavily influence how they have revised material and ultimately performed in such assessments.  Research has suggested that a student’s resilience can be linked to their self-efficacy. Self-efficacy, as discussed by Albert Bandura, can be seen as an individual’s belief in their own capabilities and this, in turn, will have control over how the individual may function in and around events in their lives. An individual who is seen to have high self-efficacy would think that they are capable of dealing with adverse situations and, in turn, that would make them highly resilient in difficult and unpredicted situations.

Academic resilience has recently been demonstrated by students who are studying during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has led to a change in the way universities teach and support students, with a large proportion of teaching and learning now being in an online environment. In 2020, students had to gain an understanding of what an online learning environment was and, alongside university staff, had to engage with materials online rather than in the previously delivered face-to-face environments. Students who are seen to have high self-efficacy will likely be comfortable with such changes and will have adapted to the situational changes well, continuing with their studies with little impact. However, students with lower self-efficacy may have been less resilient and adaptable to such teaching and learning changes, meaning that this could have had a larger impact on their academic studies.  

I have recently read an interesting paper which discussed a study that looked at how academic resilience is linked to self-efficacy in undergraduate students. The researchers in the study surveyed university students with the General Academic Self-Efficacy Scale and the Academic Resilience Scale-30. The students in the study were also divided into two groups. In the first group, students were asked to complete the questionnaires as if they were facing personal adversity themselves whereas in the second, students were asked to complete the questionnaires as if a fellow student was facing adversity ( also known as vicarious adversity). The research found that self-efficacy in relation to academic achievements was positively correlated with academic resilience, meaning that those students who showed high self-efficacy also showed high academic resilience. It was also found that students who completed the questionnaires in relation to their own personal adversity demonstrated that there were greater influences of self-efficacy on academic resilience  (so the students found it difficult to judge someone else’s resilience). 

This does suggest that students are quite good at reporting their own resilience in comparison to estimating the resilience of someone else and this could be because unconsciously, people tend to judge their own resilience on a daily basis by how well they are functioning. The study looked specifically at psychology students, with a high intake of females so it would be good to see if results would be the same in more mechanical or chemical engineering degrees where more males may be present. 

So, one of the questions that now remains is how can we prepare and support students for the ever-changing environment that currently faces higher education?

Often, schools will implement a pyramid of needs similar to that of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, whereby a child will have certain hierarchical criteria (or needs) that they need to meet to be successful within the educational setting that they are in. Within this pyramid of needs, a child’s most important educational needs will be identified alongside any possible risk factors inside and outside of school, and this will then allow the school to implement extra tutor support where needed. A child may need extra support with attendance or behaviour, and these are things which could influence a child’s engagement with their school education.

In a university system, the process is a little more complicated. As undergraduate students are adults, often with their own independence and accommodation, it’s often difficult to pinpoint the exact needs of the students without the students having an input. The student must themselves have an idea of what they would like support with before locating the appropriate sources of support at university. When teaching and supporting students, especially in difficult circumstances, there are three key tasks that I try to do to help build resilience in my students.

  • Provide positive reinforcement. This is often in the form of feedback from activities in the classes or giving feedback on a piece of coursework. Praising for the good things is just as important as stating improvements.
  • Maintain perspective. When students lose focus on why they are facing challenging times, remind them of the end goals. For example, hard work at the minute will result in earning a degree.
  • Choose your response. Remind students that they are the only individuals who can decide how to respond to a situation. They always can walk away but it is always their decision to face the adverse situation when it’s presented. Often the response of the staff member is also important. If a staff member can show a positive attitude, it’s often reflected within the student too. 

These three tasks aim to support resilience building and aim to support students in understanding that they can face challenges and complete them. Obviously, each student will have their own individual needs and these needs could require support, so I tend to use the three tasks as guidance rather than set in stone support. 

Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. 



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