In an increasingly student-centred higher education landscape, the concept of ‘student support’ includes so much more than pure attention to academics. Pastoral care, emotional support and improvement of students’ skills to deal with everyday life stressors have become part of many universities’ mission statement. Therefore, improving students’ well-being in universities seems to be more imperative than ever; it is consequently not a surprise that words like ‘resilience’ are used alongside students’ well-being, not only in daily discourses, but in research too.
Although a contested concept, resilience is viewed as the ability to face, overcome and be strengthened by the adversities of life. This ability is considered essential in university students, as as shown in a number of research.
University students might experience higher levels of psychological distress than their peers who do not attend university. Specifically, individuals who enter university undergo a significant number of environmental reconstructions in family, friends and wider social support systems, while encountering academic and personal pressures. Thus, university students are battling with an increased number of risk factors that may lead to the manifestation of mental health problems.
Researchers in the field have identified a number of factors that can affect someone’s resilience levels and also make a fundamental distinction between them: interpersonal (external) factors, like for example relationships between individuals and intrapersonal (internal) factors, like for example internal attributes of individuals.
Considering this distinction, our study focused on students’ own perceptions of the external factors that may promote the development of resilience.
Undergraduate students (both male and female, aged 18–22 years old) from two UK universities participated in this qualitative, exploratory study; we used semi-structured, in-depth interviews with individuals and focus groups in order to unearth deep data surrounding their experiences and perceptions. Data collected was analysed using thematic analysis.
Unsurprisingly, all students who participated in the study referred to their relationships with peers, friends, parents and family in general as the primary factor that helps them ‘cope with the real world’, as one of our participants put it. When asked about actions the university can take to help them develop resilience, the majority of participants did not mention the establishment of new policies or plans, as expected; instead, they focused on their relationships with their lecturers and how they contribute to their ‘sense of belonging’ to the institution.
Sense of belonging can be defined as the experience of being involved in an environment or a system so that one feels as an integral part of it. As such, it can have an effect on student retention rates and can be a good predictor of both psychological and academic adjustment.
In our study, students automatically linked belongingness with the interpersonal and professional characteristics of their lecturer. For example, they stated that they experience a higher sense of belonging to their institution, if their lecturer is approachable, friendly, interacts with them outside the classroom and shows interest in their personal lives. In fact, many participants admitted that when faced with life’s challenges, they are reluctant to visit the university’s counseling services and prefer opening up to the lecturer they feel closer to. This is because they feel more comfortable speaking to someone they know, rather than a stranger.
Inevitably, our discussions with students addressed the issue of academic achievement and failure and how it affects them. Again, our participants referred to their lecturers and the methods they employ. As some of them agreed, a lecturer who creates a positive and relaxing atmosphere in the classroom makes them feel more motivated to attend classes and wanting to do their best. This is also confirmed in another study done in 2018 where students highlighted that a positive, open relationship with lecturers enabled them to feel safe enough to take risks in the classroom and to learn from their mistakes. Some students who participated in our study mentioned that failure is manageable, as long as the lecturer provides constructive and detailed feedback or outlines strategies that can help them set goals for the future.
Having supportive relationships with lecturers is therefore considered a facilitator in the development of resilience among university students, suggesting that education is so much more than ‘academic achievement/failure’. However, research findings highlighting the role of academics in the well-being of students, may add additional pressure on them. This is because their workload is increasingly getting heavier and the time available for students is reduced. Therefore, the direct implications of this study are related to how management can provide academics with fairer working conditions and the support they need in their daily tasks; this will allow them to dedicate more quality time to their students, mentoring and guiding them.
Practices like the above, as suggested by our findings, increase students’ satisfaction rates, enhance their sense of belonging to the institution and can tackle student retention. If we listen to our students, we will not just create the conditions for the development of resilience; we will all become better educators, working for institutions able to produce confident and self-efficacious graduates.
Dr Annita Ventouris is a Lecturer at the University of West London. She holds a PhD in Psychology from UCL.
Georgios Argyros is a postgraduate psychology student at the University of Oxford. He is currently investigating the role of the mediodorsal thalamus on rapid learning.