What is academic challenge? Vulnerability, resilience, grit, stretch, toughness and the student experience.

Next month, Ros O’Leary and I will be attending ICERI2017the 10th annual International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation. The title of our contribution is What is academic challenge? Vulnerability, resilience, grit, stretch, toughness and conceptualising the student experience.

This will draw on our Model for Academic Challenge, that we have began to develop here, as well on the concerns re grit that we have discussed, and the work we have been doing with Nicola Rivers, about Resilience.

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The paper will allow us to move towards thinking how this might pan out in actual classrooms – and we hope to blog about this work here. The abstract for our talk is below:

Recent focus on the student experience in Higher Education in the UK has moved away from student satisfaction towards student engagement, including the notion of ensuring students are intellectually stimulated and challenged in their learning. Simultaneously, there has been a rise in both student mental health issues including anxiety. The rhetoric around student resilience has been vaunted as one route to address both of these issues. If we can ‘toughen’ students, they can be challenged more effectively. This paper seeks to introduce a critical edge to this debate, by disrupting dominant discourses regarding ‘academic challenge’, and reimagining what it could actually mean, in ways that are supportive, and move away from neoliberal models of education towards more open, collaborative and cooperative models. 

We will offer some resistance to the notion that challenging students needs to be about making they, or the course, ‘tougher’. The notion of ‘easy’ versus ‘hard’ in course content is simplistic and unrealistic in Higher Education, and serves students and educators ill. It also feeds into a discourse that situates students as currently too thin-skinned, weak, and sensitive (note the rise in the derogatory use of ‘millennial snowflakes’ as a way to refer to young people), and posits ‘resilience training’ as a solution. Our approach lies in de-weaponising the idea of ‘challenge’, and noting that student support needs to be greater – that we respond to problems with student anxiety and engagement by addressing systemic issues, not asserting that the individual student is struggling due to an absence of certain character traits.

Following the critique, we will look at what an alternative model of student challenge might look like. This obviously implies a need for more student support, but also requires staff openness about their academic struggles, and cooperation, collaboration and co-production that is built into it into the curriculum, both in content, delivery and assessment. This is easy to say, and hard to do. But education is the place where we do do things, and this is the academic challenge for us, educators, and on behalf of our students, we need to meet it.


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