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Building Resilience in Higher Education

May 3, 2022

In the wake of the events of the last two years, it’s no surprise that resilience is the quality that Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are highlighting as crucial to their recovery post-pandemic. We’re seeing this need for flexibility, sustainability, and growth being recognised at an organisational and cultural level, but it’s crucial that universities and colleges look at building resilience in their students too. So how are HIEs supporting students to navigate continuing change and uncertainty? What does a student-centred approach to resilience look like in practice? To answer that question, we must look past any buzzy, box-ticking associations and think about what we really mean when we talk about shaping successful, resilient students.

‘Generation Resilient’

Resilience – the ability to ‘bounce back’ from challenging situations, failures or trauma – is on the rise as an in-demand quality in both education and the workplace. Gen Z have been nicknamed “Generation Resilient” because of the tenacity they have shown in the face of incredible social and personal upheaval during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to leading learning company Pearson, Gen Z are more motivated, creative and engaged in activism because of the adversity they have faced. “Despite all their setbacks during the pandemic,” explained Laura Howe, Senior Vice President of Global Communications, “they’re still eager to move forward with their education to drive change.” 

In their recent Global Learning Survey, Pearson found that 68% of students saw more value in continuing their studies, and 75% reported a ‘new sense of urgency’ to complete their education. These are encouraging statistics and a strong foundation for developing ever-greater resilience amongst students. HEIs have a responsibility to all students (not just Generation Resilient) to create a learning environment that seizes on this positive outlook and fosters successful graduates.

What does student resilience look like?

In 2018, the Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education (AMOSSHE) published its Resilience Toolkit, an online resource bank and best practice guide for HEIs looking to make student resilience a priority. The Toolkit pools research and case studies from universities and colleges around the world to build a case for why resilient students are more personally fulfilled and academically successful. It also offers frameworks for putting this theory into practice.

According to AMOSSHE, there are three key facets to student resilience: self-management, emotional control and social connection. While the third aspect is largely dictated by students’ existing social networks, proximity to family and home life, the first two can be more directly impacted by the actions of staff and the systems institutions have in place. Let’s look at self-management and emotional control in more detail and see what HEIs can do to develop them in students – and staff.

There is a fairly huge caveat to mention here, and that is that some students have grown up with adversity and learned themselves to develop the self-same resilience we are talking about here. They do not need more conversations about how to actually foster it, but perhaps we might support them in understanding it better. Coping mechanisms developed under stress and adversity are not always perceived as strengths, when we learned them by necessity and not by choice. Conversations around this can truly help learners to engage with such mechanisms on their own terms, and to learn the inherent strength that can come from reflection on lived experience.

And yes, resilience itself can be a very subjective concept, and often used in place of support. If you find yourself saying students don't need more support, they need to develop resilience then it may be time to do some serious reflection on who benefits from such thinking. Students need and deserve support, mentoring and opportunities, and can learn to develop resilience in a healthier, more positive environment. This is not Lord of The Flies.

Self-management for resilience

Self-management covers a range of behaviours and habits, including goal setting, perseverance and self-reflection. It’s about being able to prioritise tasks, recognise when you need the help and support of others, and developing essential healthy habits like getting enough sleep and eating a balanced diet. For students who are feeling stressed and burnt out after two years of constant change and uncertainty, it’s easy for these routine behaviours to slip.

For Dena, a lecturer and subject of a case study by Leeds Metropolitan University about promoting ‘resilient thinking’ in students, being able to access staff and services easily and regularly is key to students’ self-management. Dena’s approach to teaching is personal, often working with students one-on-one or in small groups, to offer extra support in a discreet and sensitive way. By working in this way, Dena is better able to help her students ‘understand what is expected of them academically and, more importantly, how to go about achieving this, for example showing students how to break up assignments into manageable tasks and adapting resources for students who need more support.’ Having students work regularly with the same tutors helps them to build trusting, meaningful relationships, ensuring students feel connected and supported through their academic career. For Dena, ‘staff accessibility is important in allowing students to open up about difficulties without feeling criticised or challenged in an unconstructive manner.’ Students are less likely to shrink away from challenges if they have a trusted other to work things through with, both on an academic and personal level.

Of course, this personal approach will be more or less viable depending on cohort and class sizes. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways that HEIs can help. Providing workshops and seminars (online and offline) that focus on skills like problem-solving, positive thinking and health and wellbeing should be carried on into the academic year and not just reserved for induction and orientation weeks. Creating an online resource bank (like the AMOSSHE Resilience Toolkit) and signposting it well is an accessible and longer-term way to offer support. Having designated ‘contact hours’ for key staff members, even over video call, is another way to show students that the faculty is there to help.

Encouraging emotional control 

Despite its clinical-sounding name, emotional control is simply about dealing constructively with negative emotions and experiences. For students already struggling under the weight of poor mental health and wellbeing however, this might be easier said than done. So what can institutions do to help?

The Think Positive initiative from the National Union of Students in Scotland set out the different factors impacting student and staff mental health and what could be done to improve things. Looking at the case studies reported on, stressors including everything from academic workload and pressure from parents, to juggling childcare commitments and managing physical and mental health problems. While some solutions were external, the report highlighted that a lot could be remedied internally by the HEIs.

Making sure students are connected with course advisors and are aware of on-campus mentoring or counselling services was highlighted as crucial in a number of cases. Moreover, these services must be easily and obviously accessible to all, be they online or in person. In fact, ensuring ease communication seems to be key to building emotional resilience in students. Research from the InHolland University of Applied Sciences in Haarlem, Netherlands, looked at how an open dialogue between staff and students was key to enhancing student wellbeing and resilience post-pandemic. The findings emphasised the importance of focusing on perceptions of workload, expectations around study, time management and relieving stress. From the students’ perspective, increased awareness of services and how to access them, as well as improving the range and quality of offerings was top priority.

For students, ‘feeling useful’ is also important. As faculty member Adam, whose experience was also studied by Leeds Metropolitan University, points out, higher education is in danger of become a transactional experience. For students to flourish, more emphasis needs to be put on the ‘...broader question of [students’] engagement with society.’ Students need the tools to be ‘committed and active and engaged citizens...’ so they can ‘maximize the opportunities that are available to them’. This means increasing opportunities for volunteering, work-based learning and involvement in social and political movements. ‘In Adam’s judgment, a key aspect of resilience is the capacity of students to self-organise, build a community and facilitate their own common spaces.’ Ensuring academic achievement isn’t enough to build resilience; students must be valued and seen as people too.

Building resilience and finding your own way

Ultimately, building resilience in students is about equipping them for life outside of higher education. This is true whether a student is from Gen Z and the first in their family to go to university, or they are returning to their studies after many years in the workplace. Higher Education Institutions are places of academic learning but should also be an arena for personal development and growth. ‘College is about trying new things,’ said Marvin Krislov, president of Pace University in New York, in an article for Forbes. ‘It can lead to wonderful triumphs – and sometimes to stumbles. When they stumble, students need to know how to brush themselves off and keep going. Everyone finds their own best way of doing that. That’s ultimately what resilience is all about.’ And if higher education institutions can be the ones there to offer a helping hand to get back up, so much the better.

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