Saturday, October 3, 2015

Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges. From Psychology Today.

A year ago I received an invitation from the head of Counseling Services at a major university to join faculty and administrators for discussions about how to deal with the decline in resilience among students. At the first meeting, we learned that emergency calls to Counseling had more than doubled over the past five years. Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life.

Recent examples mentioned included a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a “bitch” and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police, who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them.

More Things The Public Will Marvel At And That Will Not Surprise the Readers Of This Blog One Bit.


  1. How things have changed since I was an undergrad 40 years ago.

    Back then, I had my share of challenges and trials, just like everyone else. I took them in stride and viewed them as obstacles that I had to overcome if I was to get my degree.

    I didn't consider poor performance as an honour or something to be proud of, but ts wasn't the end of the world, either. Once I got over the personal humiliation and embarrassment of falling flat on my face, I rolled up my sleeves and worked even harder. I viewed that as a sign that I should smarten up and do my best with what I had. If I had failed after that, then, at least, I would have found my limits.

    When I finally did finish my degree, I had a sense of accomplishment. When I started, I had no idea that could even do that, but I had the feeling that my profs knew all along that I could.

  2. Oh, what hath helicopter parenting wrought. A response of mine to this situation that surprises me, and not in a good way, is when I started considering whether modern students would be so much better off if, before college, they were required to do a stint in the military.

    As no less than John McCain has observed, he knew plenty of people who didn't like being in the military. Every one of them admitted, however, that it was a maturing experience.

    Of course, this assumes that things like John McCain's stay in the Hanoi Hilton don't happen. You pay your money and you take your chance.

  3. Meh, some of the people on this blog get traumatized when we call our own students bitches.

  4. My joint has acknowledged the declining resiliency as descrbed by the adminiflake in this comment of mine.

    I agree that it is important for students to be able to work through their feelings of inadequacy and anxiety so that they don't melt down. However, I think that they could also be helped by interventions that deal with the inadequacies themselves (whatever their causes) that impede ability to perform academically. Yes, I know that how they feel about things affects how they approach them, but feeling good while continuing to use poor study strategies will only get one so far.

    I think these passages from the linked article are particularly insightful:

    Students are afraid to fail; they do not take risks; they need to be certain about things. For many of them, failure is seen as catastrophic and unacceptable. External measures of success are more important than learning and autonomous development.

    Failure and struggle need to be normalized. Students are very uncomfortable in not being right. They want to re-do papers to undo their earlier mistakes. We have to normalize being wrong and learning from one’s errors.

  5. Those were the paragraphs that caught my attention too. I wonder if one of the problems is that the financial stakes of a university education are so much higher than they used to be - your parents have spent all their retirement money on your education, they will never be able to retire, and/or you're going be $100,000+++ in debt when you graduate, assuming you graduate - that you HAVE to succeed. You HAVE to get an A.

    but there's something else going on too. Not sure what. They aren't playful anymore, that's for sure. This is Deadly Serious and they must succeed.

  6. Actually, the line that caught my eye was: "Colleges and universities have traditionally been centers for higher academic education, where the expectation is that the students are adults, capable of taking care of their own everyday life problems"

    That past tense (past imperfect? past semi-recipreverseclusion?) really says it all, doesn't it?

    On the other hand, the graphic in the linked article was worthy of Cal minus the blurriness.

    1. I think this is the other side of the same coin. Part of being an adult is understanding how to take risks and how to be wrong gracefully, both of which are needed when speaking up in class. These skills are honed through practice, for which an adult has ample opportunity during everyday life.

      Kids today have been deprived of the opportunity to even feel the bike wobble towards a fall, so it's little wonder that when the training wheels are finally off, that wobbly feeling is as foreign to them as the means to self-correct for it.

  7. I, too, am hearing about, and seeing, some of this ("more students with hidden disabilities, especially depression and anxiety," is the language around our place, but I think it adds up to pretty much the same thing). The trend doesn't seem to be quite so pronounced at my school as reports from elsewhere suggest, which might, as with reports of a growing tide of speech surveillance on campus, be the result of exaggeration in the media, or might be the result of a less-privileged/entitled student body (which you'd think would mean more anxiety of the sort that Merely describes above, which I also see, except that I think there's an element of losing status/doing worse than your parents to the fear that may not apply in immigrant families and/or those who are currently sending the first generation to college. Among other things, I'm pretty sure we're seeing the effects of a decade, and quite possibly more, of stagnant-to-declining real wages for much of the middle class).

    And I, too, am drawn to the paragraphs that OPH highlighted, especially the second one, because, unlike so many of the problems we discuss here, normalizing struggle and occasional failure (or not-quite-success) is actually something we can do something about, with no additional funding, no change in the curriculum, and relatively little effort. In fact, if we're going to create challenging assignments and grade them something approaching realistically, it's actually a very good idea, for both bona fide educational and more selfish/self-preservation reasons, for us to talk proactively about the values of challenge and struggle and sometimes feeling at least temporarily at sea. I do that as I'm introducing to students that fact that, yes, they'll be reading scholarly articles in their field in my class, and they may not understand every word and equation, nor do they need to do so to complete the assignments in my class, and completing those assignments will leave them better prepared for the moment when they are expected to understand all the vocabulary and the math. "Setting appropriate levels of challenge" is also a language that can be used with administrators (some of whom may admittedly be more open to it than others, but I think such terminology is gaining currency; we might also note as a bright spot the fact that administrators are becoming worried about just how much hand-holding students seem to need these days. To my mind, that's an improvement on insisting that the faculty are obviously deficient in hand-holding skills, which seems to have been the tendency over the last few decades. I suspect the prospect of funding a fully-staffed 24-hour crisis-management center capable of dealing with everything from roommate conflicts to mice looks a bit daunting.)

    I'd argue that a few of them even are playful, in a quite productive, "well, the economy's gone to hell, so I might as well follow my interests and cobble together a living while living life rather than desperately try to make some no-longer-really-existent career path work out for me" sort of way. Or maybe, once again, that's partly a function of the demographics of my school. I certainly do see plenty of the over-the-top anxiety about relatively small things as well.

    1. Hmmm ... should have read this before getting all snarky below. Just go treating the issue in serious, adult manner and make me look bad, why don't ya?

      Yes, I think our less privileged, less affluent students are more able to deal with life's tribulations. These kids and adults have skills (and in most cases a support network) to turn to in the event of a mouse. Or a blown water pump. Or a "small" tornado demolishing the house they're living in while they huddle in the shelter across the street (true story, they were back in class two days later).

      But they are not always as good at figuring out how to react to academic trials. They are suppose to have gotten some advice during their semester of "University Experience", but they don't always seem to believe that their advisor is there to help them. (I know I have at least two advisees who are actively avoiding me; not an easy thing when my office opens onto the busiest hall in the science building.) And they don't seem to have a metered approach to recouping from a bad grade in a necessary class; it's either "I'll take it again next semester and all will magically be well" or "I'm ruined, my life plans crushed". I've been making some progress with my majors just talking about the different study strategies I saw in my colleagues and with the phase "Learn to be an expert user of your own brain".

    2. That rings true to me, too (and this conversation definitely ties in with your "non-complaining misery" post of a few days ago, and, for that matter, with the bit of snark below, because underprivileged students were actually some of the worst victims of the self-esteem movement, since more privileged/educated parents, even when they were demanding and/or handing out trophies for everything, tended to also be demanding a pretty fair amount of achievement on the part of their children and help on the part of teachers/hired tutors/etc., and even often had the time and money to help each kid find something, academic or otherwise, at which the kid actually was good, which of course is the foundation of real self-esteem).

      The other good news (I seem to be channeling Pollyanna tonight; amazing what a full night's sleep and getting a long-neglected closet organized will do for one's mood) is that both more- and less-privileged students can benefit from study skills/thinking skills training (of course, that good news is based on bad news: both well- and badly-prepared students come out of high school with pretty poor time management/study skills, though perhaps for somewhat different reasons).

  8. Wait, you mean that sparing no effort to endlessly build up everyone's self-esteem wasn't a good idea, after all?

    I'm shocked.