Resilience in higher education: new tools for Student Services

Resilience ToolkitAMOSSHE / Unite Students recently launched their Resilience Toolkit in London on 18 May 2018, and it was a wonderful event showcasing a very useful and timely resource. The AMOSSHE / Unite Students Resilience Toolkit is a well conceptualised and easily navigated online repository of the latest evidence-based practice on building student resilience from academics, students and Student Services professionals in the UK higher education sector. If you haven’t already had a browse through the wealth of resources that it offers, I encourage you to do so and please do get in touch with AMOSSHE if you’d like to contribute your own resources.

The toolkit launch on 18 May was an especially memorable event for three reasons:

  • The passion and commitment of the attendees and presenters, all striving towards tangible increases in wellbeing in their university communities.
  • The quality and range of work that the presenters shared with us.
  • The important questions that were asked.

I’d like to try and capture part of the energy and dynamism of the day by relating some of what was shared and what was asked.

The positive case for resilience

It was wonderful to have Dr Emily McIntosh (Director of Student Life, University of Bolton) as our first presenter of the day. Emily is the co-author of Student Resilience: Exploring the Positive case for Resilience and her presentation did exactly that. Emily also made use of the ‘iceberg illusion’ as a visual in one of her slides, reminding us all of the important part that ‘failed attempts’ play on the road to success. I try to convey a similar message in my own practice by using WD-40™ (Water Displacement 40th attempt) as an example of success being a long winding road through obstacles, challenges and oftentimes disappointments.

Does resilience need a rebrand?

Izzy Lenga (Vice President Welfare, National Union of Students) then provided a thoughtful and informed challenge to the positive case for resilience, suggesting that resilience may need a rebrand first. Izzy portrayed the extent to which many of our low income students are under significant financial pressures, living in sub-standard accommodation and often lose large amounts of study time through the long hours of paid work they have to undertake. Izzy’s point was that we cannot simply tell these students to ‘resilience their way out of it’. Surely, as Izzy asked, the point is to work together to change the conditions that negatively impact on the student experience, instead of telling the individual that they need to have more ‘grit’. This is an important conversation to have and one that I will return to when sharing my own conceptualisation of resilience.

Resilience course by students for students

AMOSSHE Insight project work was then presented by Bradley Powell, Psychology student and SUVP Welfare Coordinator at Bournemouth University Students’ Union, who updated us on a successful CBT-based resilience pilot. This is an innovatively designed resilience course by students for students, and a collaboration with Mind (who brought us the Emoodji app). Bradley and Fiona Shaw (Mind Dorset) are now looking to upscale the pilot in order to be able to extend the course to other universities.

Videos on motivation and overcoming anxiety

Julie Waddell (Disability Adviser) and Annette Davidson (Inclusion Manager) from Robert Gordon University (RGU) then presented their resources from the Resilience Toolkit. RGU have made a series of short videos on building resilience for students, which have been informed by Seligman’s PERMA model, on themes such as motivation and anxiety. Brilliant resources to embed into online support.

Research into resilience in care leavers

Conrad Sackey (Head of Information and Advice, Anglia Ruskin University) then introduced Natasha Javed, who presented on the AMOSSHE Insight project: Supporting Care Leavers. Natasha delivered an engaging and heartfelt presentation that updated us on the preliminary findings of this important piece of research into the resilience of student care leavers in university. Natasha explained that the research project makes use of the Child and Youth Resilience Measure, as this is a pre-validated, internationally recognised scale, which also allows users to customise items for their own needs. The project’s aim is to then use these findings to develop a needs-based support package for care leavers with a view to increasing student retention.

Careers resilience

Our penultimate presentation of the day featured an Open University (OU) Open Learn Careers Resilience Resource, which forms part of the AMOSSHE / Unite Students Resilience Toolkit and was presented by Catrin Davies (Careers and Employability Consultant) from the OU. Catrin showed us the Badged Open Course (BOC) in action (wonderful video on ‘personal best: setbacks’ from OU sports academic Catherine Heaney) and also shared the strengths-based theoretical model underpinning the BOC: Worsley’s (2015) Resilience Doughnut.

It’s OK to make mistakes

My own presentation on making mistakes and getting things wrong involved the aforementioned can of WD-40™, but not literally. I shared resources and ideas from my workshop on building academic confidence and resilience that forms part of both the Resilience Toolkit and the Institute for Academic Development’s Academic Transitions Toolkit. The main aim of these resources is to change students’ perception of ‘failure’ through talking about the underside of the ‘iceberg of success’ instead of only focusing on the top.

Define your terms

In the wrap-up section of the day, we reflected upon what had been shared and what had been asked, and I offered my own personal conceptualisation and definition of resilience. In contested terrain, clear definitions are essential. In this way, one of the key recommendations of the McIntosh and Shaw (2017) report is that resilience must be clearly defined. So, what is my own definition of resilience?

First of all, it’s a positive term in my understanding and it’s agentic; the individual is not rendered passive and the instructions are not to simply ‘grin and bear it’. Quite the opposite in fact. My own definition of resilience has been informed by Reivich and Shatté’s (2002) The Resilience Factor, which is a seven element model with causal analysis and flexible thinking skills at its core. Reivich and Shatté (2002) claim that “the defining factor of resilience has been found to be, not any type of inherited genetic ability or inner strength, but the way you think about adversity” (Reivich and Shatté, 2002, p.2).

Importantly, this definition does not imply that adversity must simply be tolerated – it instead perhaps offers us a potential route to realising personal and societal wellbeing goals, through:

  • finding individual calmness and peace by reframing the adversity we are personally facing, and
  • using this new perspective to work collectively with others to bring about the changes we want to see.

Certainly, in my own life, accurate causal analysis and flexible thinking / reframing skills have enabled me to overcome periods of difficulty and bring about positive change. In this way, my idea of resilience is not about merely ‘endurance’, it’s not the simple message of ‘keep calm and carry on’, more ‘keep calm, think differently and let’s look to change things’.

I will be sharing more of my work on how educators can support wellbeing for students and staff in their learning and teaching on my wellbeinginHE blog. The blog is in the design stage at the moment; please see @WellbeinginHE for updates.

Thank you to everyone for such an inspiring day!

Let’s keep the conversation going…

Abby Shovlin
Academic Transitions Advisor at the University of Edinburgh and Research Supervisor at INTO Stirling, University of Stirling

Shaping the future of higher education

Shaping-Futures-logo-webAMOSSHE is excited to announce that three exceptional women leaders in UK higher education will join us in a unique panel discussion at Shaping Futures, the AMOSSHE National Conference 2018! Shakira Martin (President, National Union of Students), Nicola Dandridge CBE (CEO, Office for Students) and Professor Dame Janet Beer (President, Universities UK) will take the stage together to discuss how students, universities, and the independent sector regulator are shaping the future of the student experience.

Shakira-Martin-croppedShakira Martin broke the cycle of deprivation through study at Lewisham and Southwark College, and developed her voice to become the second National Union of Students President in 95 years to have not attended a higher education institution. Shakira is committed to taking away barriers to education and giving students a voice.

nicola-dandridgeNicola Dandridge CBE is the first Chief Executive Officer of the new Office for Students, the independent regulator of higher education in England. In 2015 Nicola was awarded the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for services to higher education.

Janet-Beer-smallProfessor Dame Janet Beer is President of Universities UK, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, and a Trustee of the British Council. In 2018 Janet was awarded a Damehood for her services to higher education and equality and diversity.

Shaping Futures takes place in Liverpool from 4 to 6 July 2018, and Shakira, Nicola and Janet will share their vision and perspectives on Thursday 5 July.

David Grevemberg leads the way

David-Grevemberg-colour-croppedShaping Futures opens on Wednesday 4 July with another inspiring keynote speaker: David Grevemberg CBE (Chief Executive Officer, Commonwealth Games Federation). David will focus on leadership perspectives, drawing upon real world examples from major projects in the world of sport and human rights that mirror the responsibilities, challenges and opportunities facing higher education providers in the pursuit of a world class student experience and student success.

A world to explore

As well as inspiring keynote speakers, Shaping Futures also features a rich programme of workshops and presentations. There’s a world of new ideas, good practice, and thought-provoking topics to explore, including changing the higher education culture, creating positive learning and living environments, interventions to enable student success, and levelling barriers to student achievement.

Find out more about the Shaping Futures programme, and book your place before 23 May!

Resources for the sector

Bulletin-winter-2018-coverNow that spring has finally arrived, here’s a roundup of AMOSSHE’s work during the winter. Find out all about our Resilience Toolkit, a free open resource for UK Student Services to help develop resilience initiatives for higher education students and staff.

As well as this, you can now access the research and resources from two Student Services projects supported by our funding programme AMOSSHE Insight.

AMOSSHE has also been busy delivering continuing professional development for the sector: find out about a range of upcoming events, including Shaping Futures, our national conference 2018.

Read the bulletin online here: Winter bulletin 2018.