A Toolbox to Enhance Student Resilience and Success
Alisa Beyer (Chandler-Gilbert Community College)
Providing college students with resources in resiliency may play an important role in student success and persistence. Pre-COVID completion rates were less than 30% for 2- year colleges, 62% completion rate for bachelor’s degrees within 6-years from entry (Causey et al, 2022). Going through college can feel like a marathon, yet we strengthen student stamina by building resilience. I wanted to make sure course content builds in not just academic assistance, but holistically helps students get through college and beyond. For this project, I added online modules that target academic resilience and mental health to an introduction to psychology class.
Before sharing more about the modules, I wanted to highlight factors that go into teaching resilience. Davis (1999) identified seven empirically-based factors correlated with resilience: good health and an easy temperament; basic trust in others; interpersonal competence; emotional and cognitive competence (e.g., emotion regulation, executive functioning), social connections, and finding purpose and meaning including moral regard for others. Similar to Davis, Ginsberg (2011) put together the seven C’s of resilience (e.g., confidence, character, connectedness, coping, and control). Aubrey (2020) created Psychological & Emotional Resilience Training (PERT) and a resilience course for college students which included (1) Self-regulation skills for academic, career, and personal success, (2) Mental flexibility/psychological reframing, (3) Use of positive psychological strengths for success (academic, personal, career), (4) Use of interpersonal connections, (5) Self-directed motivation and goal setting, and (6) Self-care and revitalization.
One aspect of resilience building is the role of character strengths in coping with challenging situations (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Character strengths, defined as positive, morally valued personality traits, connect an individual's self-perception to core values and are known as Values in Action (VIA) (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Values help foster mental health and well-being and buffer physiological and psychological stress (Schutte & Malouff, 2019; Cresswell et al, 2005). Seligman and colleagues developed 24 values connected to six overarching virtues (e.g., humanity, justice, and wisdom) (Dahlsgaard et al, 2005). Having strong self-resources along with value affirmation reduces the perception of stress (Cresswell et al, 2005; Taylor et al, 2003; Swann et al, 1987). Meta-analysis has shown strength in character values are associated with an increase in happiness, decrease in depression, and life satisfaction (Schutte & Malouff, 2019).
I also wanted to include self-management resources for stress as practical, everyday skills include being able to effectively function to meet the demands of the environment (college and otherwise). Students may bring additional challenges into the classroom, including anxieties about college and an inability to self-regulate. An important self-management skill includes self-regulation coping skills to deal with stress, problem solving and decision making to face the adversities that may appear. When appraising stress, our mind and bodies react, activating the sympathetic nervous system. Experiencing stress can impact our attention, affect, motivation, and physiology (Crum, Handley-Miner, & Smith, 2021). Having a stress-is-enhancing mindset can decrease anxiety and depression, improve performance, and decrease physiological functions associated with stress appraisal (Crun et al, 2013; Crum et al, 2017). In a recent meta-analysis, psychoeducation was the most effective for interventions for mental health literacy and cognitive skills (ps < 0.001; de Pablo et al, 2020). This portion of the lesson teaches students more about the mind, body, and stress and sharing ways they can regulate.
In building resilience training, I focused on character strengths along with self-management strategies for stress. The modules were intended to build general knowledge and offer students an opportunity for self-discovery. All materials were presented in an asynchronous online modality. I have shared these modules in the Canvas Commons (Beyer, 2022).
The first intervention was strengths-based training adapted from work of Peterson and Seligman (2004) and Dilbeck et al. (2018). Peterson and Seligman (2004) set out to establish a universal framework to describe and measure the strengths. The result was the VIA (Values-In-Action) classification of strengths, a universally valid classification system devised of 24 character strengths. Students who took the VIA survey received individualized feedback and focused on creating images and explaining their top five strengths. They were then asked to use one of these top strengths when faced with a stressor. The learning objective for the module was to identify their top five values after taking a values survey and then reflect on their values in action during a challenging situation.
I include value check-ins throughout the semester. I share with students that many values (except humility) correlate with resilience (Matinez-Marti & Ruch, 2017). Values such as prudence and self-regulation help moderate behavior and emotions which may help buffer the body’s stress response, humor can help with adaptive coping and decrease stress, vitality adds energy, and hope gives a positive outlook (Creswell et al., 2005; Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Martinez-Marti et al., 2021; Ruch & Hofmann, 2017).
Several weeks later, and after learning about the brain and stress, students participated in a mind toolbox. In this module, students learned about resilience, stress and the brain, and then were given three challenges. The lesson included videos on building resilience, controlling behavior and connecting the brain systems, and anxiety and the brain. These videos were from YouTube (e.g., Doris & Masters, 2019). The assignment taught students about recognizing and being aware that you are getting upset or stressed along with some techniques for self-regulation (Keng et al, 2016). Students learned about mindful reappraisal and mindful acceptance adapted from Keng et al. Students were given guidance and an opportunity to try these techniques out.
As an aside, I attempted to complete comparisons between sections with these modules and those without adding in pre-post measures connected to stress, wellbeing, and resilience. Unfortunately, of the 220 students, many students did not provide enough data to be matched and the final sample size for the pre-test was 80 (intervention = 29) and 61 for the post-test (intervention = 17). For the pre-test, the intervention group was higher for General Well-being, (t(78) = -2.83, [-5.3, -.92], p = .006, d=.66). The General Well-being scores evened out in the post-test with no significant findings. The only significant finding for the post-test was the Brief Resilience Coping Scale with the intervention group having higher scores (t(59) = -2.09, [-3.55, -.07], p = .04, d=.60). I also compared overall GPA and course grades and there were no significant differences between the intervention and control groups.
I encourage colleagues to adapt more interventions into the psychology curriculum and work with your college for all students to learn and benefit from psychology. You know your students best and can share tools for their “toolbox” that relate to psychology content! I have a Well-being Assignment posted in the Canvas Commons as well that offers students different research-based activities to improve their emotional, physical, or cognitive well-being (Beyer et al, 2021). They are short assignments meant to be week-long or less challenges.
This tool became utilized with underrepresented groups as value affirmation reaffirms feelings of self-worth when an individual feels threatened or self-confidence is challenged, with the idea that participants self-esteem is raised while reaffirming personal values (Sherman & Cohen, 2006; Steele & Liu, 1983). However, it is important to note that findings are mixed for underrepresented groups. Students who face identity threat may fail to see improvements and this research is complex (Yeager & Walton, 2011).
You have the flexibility to tie in life skills that connect to course content. Emotional intelligence education and training could be another resilience intervention possibility (Morales, 2000; 2008). Last year, I discovered an excellent resource, the Handbook of Wise Interventions (Walton & Crum, 2021). Some other ideas for successful interventions for students include growth mindset (see Dweck & Yeager, 2021 for activities and review) and self-affirmations (Steele, 1988; Sherman, Lokhande, Muller, & Cohen, 2021). Sherman and colleagues (2021) provide resources for self-affirmation intervention materials in their chapter. Another option could be utility value intervention as reviewed and discussed in Hulleman and Harackiewicz’s chapter (2021).
Although initially unplanned, having an online intervention has its benefits. For example, students had access to the modules 24/7, provided that they had internet coverage and ability to log into the LMS. Students could also access the LMS from phone, tablet, or computer. Students submitted the assignments to the instructor in a confidential format. With the ability for students to have some selection over activities, this gives them a sense of autonomy as well. Having an online option allows for more access to students and adaptability for different institutional needs. I recently learned about the Mastery Based path in Canvas that allows you to create a quiz about their habits and skills and then provides only content they need based on scoring. Mastery path could be a way for the student to feel that it was individualized for them and their needs. I have ambitions to create this set up filled with information from the course as a wrap up activity for skills they (hopefully) acquired (and if not, they are at least re-introduced to the resources).
I realize that the skills shared, and many connected to psychology content, benefit all students. You might gather a college-wide opt in that helps all college students strengthen their skills. While this is more of a grassroots effort, there are curriculum-based resilience programs out there like EmpowerU (https://www.empoweru.org/) and SCoRE (Student Curriculum on Resilience Education (www.scoreforcollege.org) that are designed to helps students cope with personal, social, and academic challenges. Colleges such as University of Toronto and Florida State University have also adopted college-wide efforts to promote resilience. All of these efforts are designed to increase student self-efficacy and academic performance for student success.
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