Opinion: Building student resilience

HOW DO we better prepare our students in the step up to higher education and the challenges of the world post-university? LITE fellow, Lydia Bleasdale-Hill, will explore in her research how we can enhance student resilience in the face of such tests.

If we listened to our intellect we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business because we’d be cynical…Well, that’s nonsense. You’re going to miss life. You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down, so said Ray Bradbury in 1990. But is it so easy to build resilience in the face of such barriers, and what does effective resilience actually look like?

Articles, books and blogs imploring people to ‘be more resilient’ in the face of an ever-changing world, and suggesting how this might be achieved, are common place.

Showing ‘grit’, ‘determination’, the ability to ‘build your wings on the way down’ is regarded as a necessary characteristic and quality, not least amongst the younger generation who will seemingly be in an increasingly competitive job market.

At the same time, the younger generation is popularly regarded as lacking in resilience – millennials who are quick to demand; slow to assume responsibility for their own failings; driven by a consumer ethos in their approach to their studies; and more familiar with being spoon-fed than with being asked to demonstrate original thought gained through independent research.

Students in the Laidlaw library, University of Leeds

Fresh perspective

Our research project intends to unpick these assumptions and generalisations, exploring the resilience of Undergraduate students across six University of Leeds schools and determining which interventions or innovations might help to support the resilience of those students, both during their time at university, and beyond.

The project’s starting point is that simply telling students they need to try to solve problems themselves before seeking help, to become more independent in their thinking and studying, or just generally to ‘buck their ideas up’ is of limited use.

This tells the students nothing of how to achieve those things and, crucially, assumes they arrive at university with the skills to adapt to the environment quickly. Whilst many will adapt quickly, others will be accustomed to a very different sort of educational experience, and indeed a very different sort of ‘student support’ environment.

Adapting to university, with its necessary emphasis on independent learning and time management, is naturally a challenge. This has been recognised in the creation of modules and co-curricular activities designed to help students to transition into university.

Exploring the issues

But how successful are such programmes in achieving their aims? And how else might students be supported, not only in that transition into university, but also into the post-university world of employment?

What roles, if any, do the messages students receive about employability and success play in their ability to be resilient in the face of post-graduation challenges? Could we encourage our students to take more risks during their degree, for example in branching out into new subject areas, or into new forms of assessment?

How might students better support themselves, and each other, within the communities they live and study in? How should we approach those students to whom ‘life happens’ – those students who exhibit little or no sense of autonomy or control over their current and future life course?

How might the resilience of students differ between disciplines and the educational environment they are in, and why?

The project explores these issues – which are necessarily wide-ranging – with a view to recommending ways in which we might enhance student resilience, so that students are able not only to ‘build their wings on the way down’, but to perhaps build them before they step into the unknown.

Click here for more information on Lydia’s LITE fellowship project.