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“When our students graduate from our program, they are resilient.”
It is a familiar idea in higher education—surviving a tough program makes a student tough … capable … resilient. But this notion is wrong. Yes, the students have proven their grit. They survived. But this grittiness does not translate to a resilient person.
Teaching resilience gives students time and space to develop essential skills: self-awareness, flexibility and the ability to learn from experience and focus on solutions, not problems. It changes the way they look at their societal obstacles, their histories and themselves so they can confidently transfer those skills into their lives.
I teach resilience through the University of Dayton’s Institute of Applied Creativity for Transformation. The class reaches capacity each semester, with about 30 students per section and 120 students total. Students earn a resilience microcredential, created in collaboration with Education Design Lab, an education-innovation nonprofit in Washington, D.C. The digital badge awarded to their Credly account is loaded with metadata and helps future employers understand how the student transfers and applies resiliency in their lived and learned experiences.
For example, the employer can click the resilience subcompetency “exhibits flexibility” and see proof, such as a student’s final project, which could be something like an audio story or a business plan. On the student side, they can click on their own subcompetencies and see a list of employers in their area or in the nation who are seeking candidates with those same skills.
The idea behind the microcredential, however, is broader than one stand-alone class. Any professor can weave these skills into the fabric of their existing course.
So how do we help students turn grit into resilience in the classroom?
It starts by acknowledging that learning this skill is not easy. At the top of my syllabus I have a quote: “It takes guts to sit down and do this work. Give your awesome self a pat on the back.”
It also takes a degree of vulnerability. Professors might struggle to get the meaningful and open discussions necessary to teach resilience in the first weeks of a new class as they get to know their students and the students get to know each other. The work is ideally suited to a cohorted program or learning community where trust is already established. For example, when the university’s Flyer Promise Scholars earn the resilience microcredential, they already have strong relationships with each other because they engage in service, mentoring, leadership training and other opportunities together during their undergraduate careers. Those existing relationships allow them to have deeper conversations about resilience or empathy as their understanding and skills evolve.
It also helps to have a vehicle through which students can explore. I do it with music videos as catalysts for students to understand how resilience is exemplified through the visual and oral narratives of some of today’s most innovative artists. Students evaluate their own lives in order to recognize their motivations and anxieties in an interrogation of Swae Lee’s “Sunflower” video. They reflect on their depth of failure and responsibility in understanding what they have learned through Tones and I’s video for “Never See the Rain.” In the final project, each student creates a visual experience that uses a music video of their choosing and two one-minute stories to bookend how the competencies of resilience and initiative have existed, and continue to exist, in their lives and why they are important.
You could also use written reflection like our nursing program does when they teach resilience. The nurses share their reflections in a group as well, focusing on the subcompetencies, such as self-awareness. Or you could use active learning, as does another professor in her foundations of disability class for students to earn the creative problem-solving microcredential by visiting buildings off campus to conduct accessibility audits.
Finally, teaching resilience requires us professors to adapt our ideas about teaching. As teachers, we think we are the holders of knowledge and we are giving that knowledge to the students. The reality is when you are teaching resilience, it has to be a collaborative experience. Of course, as an educator, you direct the room. But the students provide knowledge back to you and, importantly, to each other.
Resilience in Practice
At our institution, we work to meet students at their intersections of purpose, passion and possibility. The experiential learning models designed to teach skills like resilience demand that those human values are placed at the core of any learning. The process is to learn, practice, reflect. To start, I use a music video to prompt a discussion around “What does it mean to learn from one’s experience?” We then put it into practice with an activity like a “failure toss,” which allows students to reflect in a team dynamic on a failure that occurred recently in their lives and the wisdom they gained from it. Students then throw away their failure, their wisdom or both. Finally, they spend time reflecting on the experience: Why did they throw away their failure? Why did their peer throw away their wisdom?
Yes, students receive a grade for the course. But truly, you can’t grade resilience. There’s no multiple-choice test. For now, while I work to develop something more granular, I use a rubric for each subcompetency that is a simple yes/no. For example, did the student actively participate in the failure toss? I don’t want to judge their resilience, but rather if they have developed an understanding of it and how to apply it. The student capstone audio stories, entitled “Driven,” are also profound examples of the students’ demonstration of their resilience and empathy skills, which are published annually on our university’s public YouTube site.
This work is obviously necessary, especially in the wake of the pandemic that has created additional stress on every student. Now more than ever, students hear over and over again they need to be more resilient—but no one is telling them what that means. Resilience must be contextualized—its subcompetencies placed within the context of each student’s life. That is how they begin to understand what it means to be that word.
This kind of work is also valuable as more employers look for candidates who can demonstrate skills like flexibility, initiative and problem solving instead of screening applicants by things like their GPA, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
As so many of us rethink our curriculum as we deal with disruptions caused by the pandemic, now is the ideal time to integrate essential skills students need into our courses. Let’s give students the tools they need to turn their grit into resilience.