Why Resilience Matters
Resilience enables us to recover from, adapt, and thrive in the face of challenging situations, for example when things don’t always go as expected. It is therefore particularly useful, for example, when students make the transition from home and school to university and may face new challenges and uncertainties – academic, financial and in their relationships.
Here I explore how a number of universities are seeking to encourage student resilience.
Examples of Current University Initiatives
Edinburgh University offers information and resources to support students to adapt well and get the most out their experience while at University.1 This includes videos on reframing situations and highlighting the importance of resilience when they go on to become employed. Experiences and successes from employees who have learned to adapt when searching for work are shared.
Similarly, Bath University provides resilience resources on sub-topics such as life basics, belonging, learning, coping and core self, as well as building resilience whilst a student.2 Individuals are invited to self-reflect, identify worries, change their mindset and embrace vulnerability.
Imperial College London implements a Kind Mind series, where weekly videos are shared.3 With a focus on the pandemic, the building resilience week's resource discussed why it is so important for positive wellbeing, and how it can be developed.
In 2018, the Student Services organisation, AMOSSHE, (Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education) developed resources for Student Services professionals to help students using publicly available material.4,5 The three key approaches stemming from research into student resilience by Unite Students are:
- Emotional Control (helping students control responses to negative experiences encountered academically or socially);
- Self-management (resources to help them deal with stress, anxiety and pressures of higher education);
- Social integration (where students can be supported to develop social networks and relationships, as well as access communities and activities).
AMOSSHE and Unite Students report that education providers can foster a supportive culture for their students by making improvements to their environment and advocate a positive, proactive approach to resilience, rather than a deficit model (where the term can label or place negative judgements or limitations on their abilities).
Undergraduate Resilience Research at Leeds University
The University of Leeds published a report in 2018, which focused on students' existing levels of resilience and how it may be supported within their institutions.6 55 second year undergraduates studying Biological Sciences, Geography, Law, Mechanical Engineering, Medicine or Music, and 35 staff members were interviewed. In addition, 185 students were invited to complete a survey measuring their existing levels of resilience.
The researchers concluded that there are opportunities for students themselves as well as their education institutions to support resilience using a whole institution approach, during and post-university. This can be achieved through recognition of the importance of relationships, communities and opportunities for failure.
Linking to the earlier section about AMOSSHE, relationships with Student Services are also recognised as having particular importance for the resilience of the students. Generally, students seek these services frequently for assistance around timetabling matters, mitigating circumstances, personal problems, employability advice, accommodation and studying. Another recommendation includes students being encouraged to have multiple identities or interests, as this may support an individual’s resilience. Healthy diet and regular exercise were also recommended to increase wellbeing.
The research also suggests that there is a need for universities to consider how best to support students requiring specialist support, such as around drug awareness, for those with mental health needs, or individuals from diverse communities. Perhaps employing specialist staff who may represent certain groups better or have lived experience can build better resilience in those with such needs that are not currently met using conventional approaches.
Mindfulness – A Cambridge University study
Recognising the increasing demand for student mental health services, research was conducted to see if mindfulness courses would improve student resilience. In 2017, Cambridge University students were randomly assigned to either an 8-week mindfulness course adapted for students plus mental health support as usual, or mental health support as usual alone.7 The findings indicated that mindfulness training could be a successful student mental health strategy; Students who completed at least half of the mindfulness course had reduced distress scores during the examination period in comparison with the control group. 57% of the control group had distress scores above an accepted clinical threshold, compared to 37% of participants in the mindfulness group. These outcomes are consistent with the idea that mindfulness may be effective in building psychological resilience to academic stress.
Outdoor Adventure – A Leeds Becket University study
Although research is currently limited, Outdoor Adventure (OA) residential programmes have helped students at one university to acquire skills associated with resilience. In 2019, researchers at Leeds Beckett University analysed multivariate data from 2,500 individuals to assess the efficacy of an OA programme.8 They found that those inducted onto a 1-week OA residential programme which included experiences such as mastering new skills and forming new relationships had a 6.29% increase in resilience compared to students who were simply inducted at University, and also reported increased self-perception and interpersonal relationships. The researchers suggested that these adventure-based meaningful challenges may support students to grow and persevere.
What do students think?
A 2017 semi-structured interview study of 38 undergraduate and postgraduate students sought to understand what resilience meant from their perspective, which strategies they used and how Universities can help.9 Students reported key attributes linked to resilience included maintaining perspective, staying healthy, and developing support networks.
The data revealed a different level of understanding of resilience between early and later year undergraduate students. Unsurprisingly, the more life experience the students had, the more complex their understanding of resilience was, whereas first year students tended to have a more simplistic understanding. Interviewees identified three core relationships central to their resilience; the environment where learning occurs; curriculum construction and delivery; and the relationship between the learner and the educator. These findings are consistent with the earlier subtopics in this blog, where supportive relationships with University staff are potentially important when developing and strengthening a student's resilience.
The limited research available on student resilience opportunities prior to the last five years suggests that it has only become more of a focus at Universities recently. Perhaps this increase correlates with the number of students seeking support, coupled with how conversations around mental health and struggling are more commonplace and less stigmatised in today's society. I personally do not recall there being anything available around developing resilience as a student myself, although Student Services and the Student Union was always a port of call for myself and peers when requiring assistance, so it is promising that these integral relationships are being enriched in other ways.
It appears that only a limited number of Universities have resilience building material available on their websites. However, other Universities may have resources accessible on their private intranet. Resilience is important for self-preservation, as well as processing and overcoming challenges. Where University life can sometimes be chaotic and unpredictable, institutions need to cohesively incorporate support programmes alongside their educational focus. This will provide a better quality of life for their learners, maintain student retention, and encourage improved academic and wellbeing outcomes.
Sophie Izzard July 2022
1. Edinburgh University Resources - Adapting Well
2. Bath University - Building Resilience
3. Imperial College London - The Kind Mind Series
4. Developing resilience in higher education: a new toolkit for Student Services
5. Resilience Toolkit - AMOSSHE
6. Undergraduate Resilience Research Project - Leeds University
7. Cambridge University Mindfulness Study
8. Outdoor Adventure Builds Resilient Learners for Higher Education
9. Resilience and University: A Student Perspective