This article is more than 1 year old

Supporting student resilience is about moving from surviving to thriving

Amy Irwin and colleagues discuss the intervention they've been trialling to help students adapt successfully to periods of adversity
This article is more than 1 year old

Amy Irwin is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Aberdeen

Ceri Trevethan is a lecturer in Psychology at the University of Aberdeen

Heather Branigan is a lecturer in Psychology at the University of Aberdeen

Joy Perkins is Educational & Employability Development Adviser at the University of Aberdeen

It’s not always clear what resilience means.

Too often the focus is on the individual in isolation, where in fact resilience is a complex, and broad, concept that encompasses the individual, their social network, and their environment.

Our recent scoping review offers clarification on the conceptualization of student resilience in higher education, defining it as:

a dynamic process of positive adaptation in the face of adversity or challenge. This process involves the capacity to negotiate for, and draw upon, psychological, social, cultural, and environmental resources” .

This highlights the role resilience plays in enabling students to adapt successfully to periods of adversity, and ideally, allowing students to not only survive these periods, but to grow, learn and further develop skills and resilience into the future.

How can we support resilience?

The concept of student resilience is thought to encompass multiple behavioural and psychological components related to both mental health and self-management.

Enhancing resilience thus requires a broad approach – encompassing a range of cognitive, emotional and behavioural factors – such as internal factors (e.g., self-esteem, psychological wellbeing), psychoeducation, practical coping strategies and behavioural responses.

The good news is that the dynamic nature of resilience indicates it is a skill that can be improved via training in constructive methods of thinking, acting and coping. For example, metacognition (i.e., thinking about and managing one’s own thinking) has been identified as a key resilience tool for students, encouraging individuals to be more aware of their experiences and regulate thoughts and feelings in the face of stressors.

There has been a call for resilience to be embedded at the curricular, or co-curricular level within higher education. Given this call, a group of academics came together with thoughts turning naturally towards the idea of a resilience course.

Developing a resilience course

After spending a bit of time reviewing resilience interventions and training approaches (primarily in the workplace, but also within higher education) we determined that our course should cover five core areas:

  • Introduction to resilience. Covering models of resilience, why resilience is important, and resilience self-assessment to encourage awareness of strengths and areas where further support might be needed.
  • Adversity impacts everyone. Shared student experiences of dealing with adversity, models of mental health, recognising symptoms of mental distress. Knowing when to ask for help, and where to find support.
  • Building resilience. Including metacognition strategies, self-care, and physical wellbeing.
  • Social connections. Interactive activities with peers, shared tasks, resilience walks – all designed to help build community.
  • Reflection and study-life balance. Looking back on the resilience journey, assessing which activities were most useful, comparative self-assessment of resilience. Thinking about achieving study-life-work balance.

Once we had determined what we wanted to include we set about gathering student input and insight via a series of focus groups. We asked students a series of questions about the course and our approach, with some enlightening responses that we then fed into the course.

Students were enthusiastic about the idea of a resilience course but felt the approach should be distinct from standard courses and classes. This meant junking the lecture as the main method of delivery and instead utilising a range of podcasts and more informal videos to present concepts and ideas, while also helping students consider adversity and self-care in university life.

Students wanted to hear from their peers. They felt that getting information from staff was important but would be more hard hitting if this was combined with information from other students. We had already intended to include some student generated content, but this insight led us to increase the level of student involvement so that student co-created content featured within every week of the course.

The focus groups highlighted their favourite aspect of the course was the interactive activities. They felt that “learning by doing” was the best approach for this type of material. We focused this element of the course into a “resilience journal” with specific detailed activities each week for the students to complete, and then reflect on.

We developed a five-week micro-credential course, with a certificate of completion awarded to all students who complete five resilience journal entries. We launched the course in September 2022 – and we look forward to evaluating the results via student and stakeholder feedback.

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