Monday, September 28, 2015

Grit and How to Grow It: Addressing Declining Student Resilience

My friend and college classmate, Allison Hagood, teaches psychology at Arapahoe Community College in Denver, Colorado. Last week she shared an article from the September 22, 2015 issue of Psychology Today "Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges."  The article traces the increasing demand by college students for psychological and other services to address depression and anxiety, their desire to avoid challenge, and the impact of these trends on faculty teaching (and ultimately, student learning outcomes). The article discusses the collective perception of college and graduate-level faculty and administrators that today's students are more needy and less resilient than those of prior generations, issues discussed in more depth in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education "An Epidemic of Anguish." 

Peter Gray, the author of the Psychology Today article, argues that there is a link between the dramatic decline in play from over-scheduling and students' increased anxiety and depression, lack of emotional resilience, and inability to cope during college. He argues that students need to experience opportunities to play, explore, pursue their own interests, and solve their own problems.

These are important insights for parents who might be tempted to over-schedule, intervene and place too much emphasis on performance rather than effort and enjoyment. However, it does not help the current set of students who are having these experiences or the faculty and administrators who are teaching them. Fortunately, a number of scholars have been observing this trend for a while and have begun to develop resources for faculty and students to facilitate learning and growth.

First, Angela Lee Duckworth explains the importance of resilience in long term success in her TED Talk The Key to Sucecss: Grit. Silicon Valley has long recognized that "failing intelligently is an important skill" and has begun offering premiums for those who have failed and learned from their experience, because embracing failure is an essential part of innovation.

Second, there are a number of resources to help students, faculty and parents understand that a shift in mindset can improve student experiences and advance learning. Brene Brown has several books and TED Talks on the impact of shame, the value of vulnerability and the joy of daring greatly. Shawn Anchor describes the payoff of being happier at work (and school) in his TED Talk on The Happy Secret to Better Work. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the ideal state for generating happiness: Flow, The Secret to Happiness.

Third, several scholars are helping students shift their mindsets to lower the emotional stakes, and make failure fun again, since it's an essential part of the learning process. Carol S. Dweck describes how to move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset to reduce stress and improve performance in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek have produced a book that helps students understand the neuroscience of learning and the importance of repeatedly engaging with challenging material over a long period of time in The New Science of Learning, How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain   [Note: I give this book to my students to read before the semester begins.]

Law school and college faculty are also developing new resources to advance college and post-graduate education. Flipped classrooms and active learning techniques give students low-stakes opportunities to make effort, receive feedback, and learn from their peers' and their own mistakes. Terry Doyle has written a book encouraging college professors to shift to a model of Learner Centered Teaching, Putting the Research on Learning into Practice. In the law school context, the book, What the Best Law Teachers Do by Michael Hunter Schwartz, Gerald F. Hess, and Sophie M. Sparrow, provides alternatives to the standard lecture course and Socratic method options that have long held sway in legal education.

Finally, I have found that structure, clear procedures and organization are even more important if you are going to deviate from an institutional norm. While nothing has been developed at the college and grad school level, one book confirmed my classroom experiences with using innovative teaching techniques: You can demand more from students when you give them clear structure and predictability. I recommend The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher, 4th Edition, by Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong for all beginning teachers, particularly those who have had no prior training.

We should all practice resilience. If our current process isn't working, let's recognize our failures and innovate. Consider: (1) sharing with our students what science has shown to be the true keys to success and happiness, (2) shifting our priorities away from evaluation, perfection and shame and toward effort and learning and growth, (3) providing structure and low-stakes active learning opportunities, and finally, (4) recognizing what works for Silicon Valley, where some of the most fertile and productive minds are transforming our world, may also work for the rest of us.

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