Fostering Student Resilience in Courses
Resilience is defined in many ways, but typically includes the ability to bounce back after trauma or adversity and to cope effectively with stressors. Resilient students are more likely to adapt or revise their approach after poor performance on an exam or assignment, stay engaged despite difficult or changing circumstances, and get better at learning over time. While some components of resilience may be related to personality, genetics, and other factors, current models of resilience also include skills and mindsets that can be learned and developed over time (Leys et al., 2020), including in academic contexts. As instructors, we can help students learn resilience in many ways, including fostering a growth mindset, helping students focus on what they can control, and encouraging social support and belonging.
Foster a Growth Mindset
Work by Carol Dweck and colleagues recognizes a spectrum of beliefs about intelligence. At one end is a “fixed” belief that “people are born with a certain amount of intelligence or ability in a given domain and there’s not much they can do to change it.” At the other end is a belief in “growth,” or that “people can grow their intelligence or ability in a given domain with effort and practice” (Yeager & Dweck, 2012; Dweck, Chiu, & Hong, 1995). These mindsets are context or task-specific, rather than universal, and they can affect student performance in our courses. A student who subscribes to a “fixed mindset” in a course may seek to demonstrate or perform ability rather than learning or developing it; may place little value in seeking help, revising their strategy, or working harder; and may respond to increased challenge by giving up, with the consequence that their grades tend to decrease or remain low. On the other hand, a student who subscribes to a “growth mindset” believes that they can enhance their skill or ability in that domain; responds to challenge by working harder, seeking help, or adopting a new strategy; and is therefore more likely to improve their performance over time.
Everyday practices in our classrooms can reinforce and support students in developing a growth mindset:
- Explicitly discuss challenges in the course as an expected and normal part of the learning process (Robinson, 2017). You might describe your own struggles with the content or skills or note topics or assignments where former cohorts of students have tended to get stuck and what strategies they found effective.
- Frame critical feedback in ways that demonstrate confidence in the student’s ability and focuses on supporting them toward future improvement (Cohen et al., 1999). Conversely, be sure to praise effort and process (rather than ability) when giving positive feedback (Quadros Menella & Menella, 2017).
- Provide space in the classroom for students to set reasonable goals and track their progress toward them (Robinson, 2017). For example, you might ask students to set a goal for topics to master or tasks to complete toward a paper or project over a weekend, discuss those goals with a partner on Friday, and then reconnect with their partner on Monday to share how far they got and anything that supported or impeded their progress.
Help Students Focus on What They Can Control
Attributing outcomes to our own behaviors and actions, rather than to external factors we cannot control, is frequently associated with resilience (e.g., Heller et al., 1999; Capella & Weinstein, 2001; Cavazos et al., 2010). In the classroom, students with an internal locus of control tend to consider success or failure a result of their own choices, behaviors, and strategies, rather than external factors such as the professor’s mood or the weather. Similar to growth mindset, having an internal locus of control encourages students to adapt or revise their approach when necessary, rather than simply hoping their fortunes will change or continuing to struggle.
Exam or assignment wrappers can be helpful for encouraging students to attribute success or failure to their own approaches in the course. Wrappers typically take the form of structured worksheets or writing assignments that students complete after they receive feedback on an exam or major assignment.
- Wrappers ask students to evaluate the study or work strategies they applied, the amount of time they spent studying or working on the assignment, the distribution of practice or work over time, or even their understanding of relevant concepts (Root Kustritz & Clarkson, 2017).
- Based on that evaluation, students either note which behaviors or understandings were central to their success, or which might have diminished their performance.
- Wrapper activities then reinforce students’ sense of agency by inviting them to identify specific ways they might revise their approach ahead of the next assignment.
- A wrapper activity might end by cueing students to consider and commit to trying out campus resources that might be useful for different needs (such as the Writing Center or the Koenigsberger Learning Center).
- Subsequent wrapper activities during the semester might ask whether students followed through on making changes to their approach.
- If not, students might be asked to write a bit about what got in the way and how they might navigate those barriers in the future.
- If so, students might evaluate whether the changes they made were sufficient, or whether additional changes might also be needed.
Encourage Social Support and Belonging
Supportive interpersonal and social relationships are also associated with resilience in the research literature. As noted by the Elon Act-Belong-Commit initiative, caring relationships and sense of community belonging support mental and physical health, in part via their beneficial effects on our nervous and endocrine systems (Ozbay et al., 2007). Having others around us who can aid us in reflecting on our struggles and help us identify active coping strategies to manage them is another pathway by which social support may support resilience. Helping students develop social relationships within our courses provides the added benefit that students can support one another both in general terms and with learning and success in the course, increasing their resilience in both areas. These social connections may be especially valuable for students managing traumatic circumstances and events (Grüttner, 2019). Other strategies for developing a sense of belonging can help encourage all students to feel welcomed and valued in our disciplines and academia more generally and can be especially important for students from groups typically underrepresented in those context (Haussmann et al., 2007).
- Consider keeping students in the same groups or breakout rooms for in-class activities for a period of time (ranging from a few weeks to a month or more), so that students can develop stronger relationships with one another. You might also allow students to choose one or more of their group-mates.
- Explore structures such as rotating roles, community agreements, and self- and peer-evaluations that help groups work together effectively and create a sense of interdependence (Oakley et al., 2004; Elliott & Higgins, 2005).
- Invite students to design and discuss their own mentor maps that help them identify sources of support for the breadth of their needs.
- Rely on practices that demonstrate that you see your students as individuals, care about their learning and well-being, and value their contributions. Common approaches include learning and using students’ names, referring to their ideas from in-class or online discussion, and checking in via individual emails or conferences.
For further suggestions regarding ways to foster students’ sense of belonging, check out CATL’s page on Using Structure for Inclusive Teaching.
Conclusion: Transferring Resilience Across Contexts
Resilience can be contextual: Some students may have developed resilience skills and mindsets through challenging life circumstances but may struggle to apply that toolkit to academic contexts. Others may encounter trauma or adversity during their college years for which they are not yet equipped and would benefit from learning approaches for resilience in academic contexts. When done thoughtfully, teaching resilience can strengthen student learning both within and beyond our courses: when we include activities or practices for fostering resilience in our courses, students are more likely to explicitly associate these skills and mindsets with our content and discipline and are therefore more likely to apply them in that context (Perkins & Salomon, 1992). By framing those tools as broadly applicable across contexts, we increase the likelihood that students will deploy the skills they learn in our courses far more broadly, throughout the rest of their lives (Engle et al., 2012).
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