Resilience: a theme for learning in higher education?

Preamble: Reading “Resilience”

This post is written for the Principal Lecturers Thematic Event at Oxford Brookes University on Thursday 12 March. The post will be updated through the day [semi-live blogging]. I should say that this piece is my perspective and does not necessarily represent the views of others or the institution.

I did a quick literature search before the event on Academic Search Complete for: Resilience, Learning, Higher, Education. I read two that seemed most immediately relevant. References Below.

It appears that resilience is often conceived as a capacity of individuals, individually, to respond “positively” to challenges by deploying their individual amalgam of identity factors and “transforming” or “rising above” them. However, resilience also appears to be culturally nuanced. “Western” resilience is caught up in “western” narratives of continual change. Resilience may be exhibited differently in different spheres. Many people appear to be resilient in one domain, and not others. Social resilience, for example, may not be correlated with academic resilience (Walker et al 2006, 254). Western notions of resilience:

[transfer] any potential academic or pastoral difficultly directly to the student
since, within this model, being at risk can be defined by the extent to which the
academic and affective qualities of a learner fit with prescribed learning styles and
experiences. Any maladaptive behaviour can then be attributed directly to individual
learners on the basis of their pathology being problematic.

Resilience appears to be relational between individuals, and between individuals and institutions: both individual institutions (a university, a family, a workplace) and institutions as social constructs (the family, education, work, etc). It is this relational aspect that is the hardest to manifest, as all sides of the relationship(s) are implicated both in increasing and decreasing resilience. This includes all roles: teachers, SMT, students, etc. And it includes all identity factors of all individuals in all roles. The “presage” we bring to the “process” affects the “product”.

[Resilience] is prominent in the development of ‘thinking skills’, and their link to positive values and attributes within each individual’s cognitive and social development (Walker et al 2006, 252)

The multidimensional nature of resilience posits, therefore, that a pedagogy which has the intention of developing varied approaches to student learning be adopted, which fosters adaptability and endurance forms of resilience, rejects ‘at-risk’ pathology approaches to expectations and finality of outcomes, and not least, utilizes activities and techniques which promote ameliorative effects on resilience-linked behaviours and attitudes. But it is important to mention that such changes should not occur simply to bolster institutional retention rates, which as Longden (2002) points out, happens rather too often at present. Rather, evidence, scarce though it is at the moment, suggests that attention to resilience has far-reaching implications for the way that all individuals conceptualize of themselves and of their future chances of success in life, and needs to be operationalized at a relational, not just an institutional, level. (Walker et al 2006, 257 my emphasis)

Modularity, assessment and community (curriculum and relationship) appear to be the key areas in which institutional resilience needs to be addressed.

In terms of interventions to support adaptability resilience, we would suggest that
much more attention should be paid to oracy and verbal reasoning in the classroom.
It is difficult for students to develop protective processes when, for many, their only
real interaction in a critical sense is with a tutor’s comments on pieces of written work.
This gives limited opportunity to explore criticism, since it is static and private and
asynchronous; but perhaps more importantly, it prevents learners from being helped
to unpick assumptions and misconceptions within their ideas in a more open,
engaged and dialogic manner, something which all teachers would aspire to, but
which is comparatively rare, especially within the confines of a mass education
system. (Walker et al 2006, 261)

Modular courses encourage adaptive resilience. Extensive, linear courses encourage endurance resilience. Assessment where normative and comparative (especially competitive) outcomes are stressed appears to impact negatively on resilience of all sorts.

Resilience can be defined simultaneously as the ability to recover rapidly from difficult
situations [adaptive resilience] as well as being the capacity to endure ongoing hardship in every conceivable way [endurance resilience]. (Walker et al 2006, 251)

Endurance resilience has something to do with accumulated adaptive resilience, but we need to learn to draw relationships between different identity domains.

resilience is a dynamic, contextual construct, which is also therefore unstable, and success factors at any point in life [temporal or local] may not be mutually facilitative of positive or ‘protective’ resilient behaviours later.

A key argument … is that resilient learning is elusive and mutable and, by its very nature, impossible to capture and categorise.
… resilient adult learners have the ability to engage in open readings, resisting closed meanings and they take a playful approach to language.
… resilient adult learners are able to recognize, withstand and negotiate the tension between inclusion and exclusion.
… resilient adult learners show a willingness to divest themselves of their clothing and to wear different clothes.

… They resist passivity by dealing actively with their teachers.

Resilience is linked to transgression and transformation.

… Many resilient adult learners are ambivalent about, if not oppositional to, the academic system which seems to transform their lives. Some of them complain about feeling infantilised by teachers and others draw attention to the deep inequalities and disingenuities of academia. Despite this, they seem to be able to work within the system while subtly subverting it. Others will find an alternative, unofficial teacher.

… we need to understand disobedience and challenge as a feature of resilience and not evidence of the pedagogical relationship breaking down.

As Bauman says:

To measure the life ‘as it is’ by a life as it should be … is a defining, constitutive feature of humanity… Human life is propelled and kept on course by the urge for transcendence. Transcendence – transgression – is the modality of human being in the world… The urge to transcend is the most stubbornly present … attribute of human existence. This cannot be said of its articulation into ‘projects’ – that is into cohesive and comprehensive programmes of change, complete with a vision of the life that the change is hoped to bring about. (Bauman 2002, 222-23)

Recognising the contradictions, there are many “resilience projects” emerging. the transformative/transgressive characteristics of resilience, suggests outcomes are unlikely to be knowable in advance.

… all approaches to accommodating and promoting resilience will almost certainly have an effect, but not necessarily the intended one.(Walker et al 2006, 256-7)

Resilient adult learners have, at some level, a faith in the process which they recognise as stronger than them. Their lives are transformed in some way or another by learning. They seem to have a deep, intuitive understanding that the process is painful and at times it makes them feel wretched, but that it does good work.

It may be helpful to take a spatial as well as a temporal or cognitive model of resilience, when thinking about “learning spaces” especially the still less familiar “virtual or digital or technology enhanced/enabled learning spaces.

… resilience occurs in the space in between the learner, the teacher and the institution, (Hoult 2013)

 Workshop 1400-1630

Berry O’Donovan opens the day, which will be a “collage of impressions”.

What is resilience. Expert opinion is divided. For example, HEA understands it as “epistemic pluralism”, rather than bounce-back from adversity.

Is it a “thing” you need?

is it a character trait/personality type or can it be learned?

  • stoic
  • fluid
  • persistent
  • inner belief
  • determination
  • resource-dependent


Reivich and Shatte 2002

Resilience becomes laden with value systems.

Requires reflection (constructively)

is contextually located

professional and emotional; can be reinforced or destroyed.

Impediments to resilience

  • Shame,
  • embarassment,


  • Connectedness, community, sharing
  • control self-efficacy, confidence
  • sense of purpose, drive and direction
  • Maintaining perspective, accepting change (failure?) as part of life
  • Epistemic pluralism, multiple perspectives, ambiguity and certainty
  • Health and well being

Contrast with damaged survivorship.

Recovery and rehab? Or avoiding damage in the first place.

Notions of resilience often appear wrapped in


Walker, C., Gleaves, A. & Grey, J. (2006). Can students within higher education learn to be resilient and, educationally speaking, does it matter? Educational Studies 32(3): 251-264.

Hoult, E.C. (2012) Adult Learning and La Recherche Féminine: Reading Resilience and Hélène Cixous. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hoult, E. C. (2013). Resilience in Adult Learners: some pedagogical implications. Retrieved March 12, 2015, from