How resilient students turn adversity into an academic strength

iStock_000003798811XSmallAdversity is often a risk factor for educational achievement. But in resilient children, adversity can be turned into capital, providing a crucial kind of autonomy when students face educational challenges and transitions, says a recent study in the British Educational Research Journal.

Researchers conducted a narrative analysis of two English students from working class families beginning their mathematical studies in post-secondary institutions. Having attended disadvantaged schools that did little to advance their educations, both students were forced to develop an independence that many of their peers making the transition to college or the university did not have. These two students were determined to succeed in their mathematical studies and were holding up well during this difficult transitional period, the researchers write.

What is it about students like Jenni and John that makes them resilient? Much of the research on resilience addresses protective factors (e.g. supportive teachers and family members) and risk factors (e.g. poor socioeconomic background, disadvantaged schools). However, the language of risk and protection fails to acknowledge the dynamic nature of how individuals relate with their life contexts, the study says.

“We believe that reflexivity is the key to understand how some few individuals are able to ‘escape the failures of the system’ and therefore help to explain how they become resilient,” the authors write.

The language of risk and protection fails to acknowledge the dynamic nature of the relation of individuals with their contexts and, in that sense, seems to place resilience either within the individual or within the context. Through reflection, students develop capital that allows for agency in difficult transition periods, the authors believe.

A discourse of “independence of learning” was evident in both students’ narratives about their educations.  In high school, Jenni said she hated math in primary school and then in her 7th year of school she decided that part of the reason she didn’t like math is because her classmates were “annoying” and wouldn’t let her do her work. At one point, she reflected on her classroom experience and decided to begin ignoring her classmates and focus on her math studies.

John attended one of the worst schools in the UK before going on to the university. He did advanced work in math largely on his own initiative. He relied on the online instruction of the Further Mathematics Network, sometimes traveling to a nearby university for face-to-face sessions. Since he had excelled in math at this school, he was quite confident about his abilities upon entering the university, but then found himself a small fish in a big pond.

“Came to university and realized like I’m not the best at university, far from it. Like some of the people on our course, and in our year group that are like, things just click with them, and they’re the ones that like stop lecturers and notice things straight away and like, are really sharp and like, don’t really need to—like some people turn up to lectures and don’t take notes because it all goes into their head as they’re getting it….”

John developed a close relationship with his personal tutor, a pure mathematician who advised him only to take ‘proof-based’ pure mathematics in his second year. John said this was a major factor in helping him to understand the importance of proof at a time when he was struggling with it.

John explained his persistence in this way: “But that’s just part of growing up like, we’ve been told over and over again by many different lecturers, and even at A-level, that like it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it at first, just keep trying and trying, eventually it’ll click sort of thing.”

Mathematical learning should incorporate conscious reflective work, the researchers write. Students reflect on their experience when they have work that is challenging and stimulating, that appeals to their aspirations and that supports them in overcoming and thinking about experiences that are, in some sense, risky.

“The implication for practice, therefore, might be that educational capital is at bottom relational and reflexive and so that processes that encourage reflexivity in students should be incorporated in pedagogical practices at all levels,” the researchers write.

“Against the odds: resilience in mathematics students in transition,” by Paul Hernandez-Martinez and Julian Williams, British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 39, No. 1, February 2013, pp. 45-59.

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