Declining Student Resilience A Serious Problem for Colleges

Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges

College personnel everywhere are struggling with students’ increased neediness.

Dr. Lee Khanna

Sept. 22, 2017

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.

Faculty at the meetings noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when it comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices. Many students, they said, now view a C, or sometimes even a B, as failure, and they interpret such “failure” as the end of the world. Faculty also noted an increased tendency for students to blame them (the faculty) for low grades—they weren’t explicit enough in telling the students just what the test would cover or just what would distinguish a good paper from a bad one (just read any bad review on the universally loathed RateMyProfessor). They described an increased tendency to see a poor grade as reason to complain rather than as reason to study more, or more effectively. Much of the discussions had to do with the amount of handholding faculty should do versus the degree to which the response should be something like, “Buck up, this is college.” Does the first response simply play into and perpetuate students’ neediness and unwillingness to take responsibility? Does the second response create the possibility of serious emotional breakdown, or, who knows, maybe even suicide?

Two weeks ago, that head of Counseling sent us all a follow-up email, announcing a new set of meetings. His email included this sobering paragraph: 

“I have done a considerable amount of reading and research in recent months on the topic of resilience in college students. Our students are no different from what is being reported across the country on the state of late adolescence/early adulthood. There has been an increase in diagnosable mental health problems, but there has also been a decrease in the ability of many young people to manage the everyday bumps in the road of life. Whether we want it or not, these students are bringing their struggles to their teachers and others on campus who deal with students on a day-to-day basis. The lack of resilience is interfering with the academic mission of the University and is thwarting the emotional and personal development of students.”

He also sent us a summary of themes that emerged in the series of meetings, which included the following bullets:

Less resilient and needy students have shaped the landscape for faculty in that they are expected to do more handholding, lower their academic standards, and not challenge students too much.

There is a sense of helplessness among the faculty. Many faculty members expressed their frustration with the current situation. There were few ideas about what we could do as an institution to address the issue.

Students are afraid to fail; they do not take risks; they need to be certain about things. This includes taking electives in fields outside their majors; they’re terrified their GPA will “tank” if they don’t get an A. For many of them, failure is seen as catastrophic and unacceptable. External measures of success are more important than learning and autonomous development.

Faculty, particularly young faculty members, feel pressured to accede to student wishes lest they get low teacher ratings from their students. Disposable adjuncts are especially aware of this. Students email about trivial things and expect prompt replies.

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 (even with a high original grade…that comma error might garner an extra point!) We have to normalize being wrong and learning from one’s errors.

Faculty members, individually and as a group, are conflicted about how much “handholding” they should be doing.

Growth is achieved by striking the right balance between support and challenge. We need to reset the balance point. We have become a “helicopter institution.”

Reinforcing the claim that this is a nationwide problem, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran an article by Robin Wilson entitled, “An Epidemic of Anguish: Overwhelmed by Demand for Mental-Health Care, Colleges Face Conflicts in Choosing How to Respond” (Aug. 31, 2015). 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.  Increasingly, students and their parents are asking the personnel at such institutions to be substitute parents. There is also the ever-present threat and reality of lawsuits.  When a suicide occurs, or a serious mental breakdown occurs, the institution is often held responsible.

On the basis of her interviews with heads of counseling offices at various colleges and universities, Wilson wrote:

“Families often expect campuses to provide immediate, sophisticated, and sustained mental-health care. After all, most parents are still adjusting to the idea that their children no longer come home every night, and many want colleges to keep an eye on their kids, just as they did. Students, too, want colleges to give them the help they need, when they need it. And they need a lot. Rates of anxiety and depression among American college students have soared in the last decade, and many more students than in the past come to campus already on medication for such illnesses. The number of students with suicidal thoughts has risen as well. Some are dealing with serious issues, such as psychosis, which typically presents itself in young adulthood, just when students are going off to college. Many others, though, are struggling with what campus counselors say are the usual stresses of college life: bad grades, breakups, being on their own for the first time. And they are putting a strain on counseling centers.”

Dan Jones, past president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, seems to agree with this assessment. In an interview for the Chronicle article, he said:

“[Students] haven’t developed skills in how to soothe themselves, because their parents have solved all their problems and removed the obstacles. They don’t seem to have as much grit as previous generations.”

In my next post I’ll examine the research evidence suggesting that so-called “helicopter parenting” really is at the core of the problem. But I don’t blame parents, or certainly not just parents. Parents are in some ways victims of larger forces in society—victims of the continuous exhortations from “experts” about the dangers of letting kids be, victims of the increased power of the school system and the schooling mentality that says kids develop best when carefully guided and supervised by adults, and victims of increased legal and social sanctions for allowing kids into public spaces without adult accompaniment. We have become, unfortunately, a “helicopter society.”

If we want to prepare our kids for college—or for anything else in life!—we have to counter these social forces. We have to give our children the freedom, which children have always enjoyed in the past, to get away from adults so they can practice being adults—that is, practice taking responsibility for themselves.

Can’t or Won’t: The Culture of Helplessness

Lori Isbell.



Recently, I received an email from a student asking me the name of a writer — a writer whose book we’d been reading for two weeks. (And discussing in class. And writing about in class.) It was not a textbook, anthology or unusual digital source. It was an old-fashioned printed book containing one play by one writer.

I knew that the student owned the book, because I had seen her with it in class, and in fact, she had told me she was enjoying the reading. However, when it was time for her to do an assignment on the playwright … well, she was stumped. She just didn’t know his name.

I had to explain to her, carefully, and with what I hope was compassion, that if she hadn’t picked up his name in the class discussions so far (or, I was thinking, in the course syllabus and calendar), then she could always try looking on the front cover of the book.

I share this story from my composition course at a midsize community college to make a point about the increasing “helplessness” of our students and their tendency to send emails and text messages of all sorts with the most basic questions about the most obvious matters. It is a helplessness, I believe, that is part feigned and part real, but nevertheless it is a problem that is eroding academe.

My colleague has a theory about the helplessness problem: he says students send emails as a deflective maneuver, and many are so reluctant to tackle the assignment at hand that they will employ a delaying tactic of sending inquiries instead. (Who is the writer? What was the assignment? When is the paper due? How long does it have to be?)

I think he’s onto something. We might provide the most detailed of written and oral instructions, but students will still find a reason, an occasion or excuse, to challenge those instructions as inadequate to their needs and (attempt to) shift the responsibility of the work from them to us.

It becomes like a game of tennis, this batting around of responsibility. We serve an assignment over the net with clear guidelines and expectations, and they either let the ball drop, claiming they somehow weren’t prepared (I didn’t know … You never told me … The assignment sheet didn’t say …) or they question whether the ball was even fair in the first place (Too long! Too hard! Hey, out of bounds!).

We then serve it again, and again, to our great fatigue, but perhaps resolve that next time we won’t bother to serve at all. Maybe next time, we think, we’ll just hand the ball to the students and thereby absolve them of actual effort. We’ll put the students in charge of the game; we’ll forfeit, give up.

Which is probably just what many of them are angling for.

Yet that is not necessarily because they lack academic ability — although that may be true as well at the community college level — but because they lack academic agency, it seems. They are unable or unwilling to recognize their own role in developing college skills, in earning a college education.

I should acknowledge here that I’m old enough to be a generation or two away from the academic and popular culture of today’s traditional-age students. They have grown up in a world with ubiquitous screens, upon which it takes only a tap-tap or a few clicks to make lights and music swirl, phantasmagorias appear.

I can compare that to the early years of my own undergraduate education in which typewriters and even pencils were the tools of the day — tools that couldn’t as easily yield pleasures or produce work. To do research meant traversing to the campus library in person and thumbing through the card catalog, stacks of journals and books.

But more important, it meant working independently on assignments, removed from easy contact and communication with instructors. If one wanted to ask a question of a professor in those days — specifically, over the weekend or in the wee hours of the night — it would have required going to her house and doing a tap-tap on the front window.

Yet nostalgia aside, I’d say evidence abounds of the growing helplessness of our students for academic tasks. I’ve recently discovered, for example, that many students can’t or won’t take notes. As soon as I write something on the board or project it overhead, a student inevitably calls out, “Can’t you post that online? Can’t you email that to us?” Some students don’t even bring writing utensils to class, or paper or notebooks or the textbooks from which we’re working. And I’m not talking about the textbooks that perhaps they can’t afford — that’s a different sort of issue. I’m talking about textbooks for which they’ve already spent their money and now often leave under beds or in the backseats of cars.

I’ve had some students counter that they don’t bring their books to class because they don’t know when they’ll need them, or what we’re doing each day. When I refer them to our class syllabus and detailed daily calendar, they then counter that the calendar is, like, you know, confusing.

One of two things is true here: 1) they really can’t read a simple table with dates on the left side and reading/writing assignments on the right, or 2) they just don’t want to be responsible for reading it, as this might suggest they’d be responsible for the assigned work as well.

But I don’t wish to rely on personal anecdotes for my case. On the contrary, I want to point out that at my college, and many others, there has been an institutional acknowledgment of the helplessness of students. We now have courses at my college, under the label of “student success,” that are designed to teach (and award college-level academic credit for) things such as time management and a sense of self-awareness.

While I certainly value such skills and traits, and hope that my students have them or develop them over time, the very existence of such classes lends credence to the proposition that students lack these basic elements of young adulthood when entering college.

Furthermore, my college has recently approved a proposal (brought by a student group to the Faculty Senate) that both acknowledges and legitimizes our students’ demands of having access to instructors 24/7. We instructors must now include a pledge in our course syllabi to respond to student emails within 24 hours and to return all graded work (with feedback) in seven days. It seems our campus is formally affirming the danger I spoke of earlier: the shifting of more responsibilities from students to instructors.

So what do we, as instructors, do in the helplessness culture? Do we capitulate to students, ask ever and ever less, and respond to emails and provide instructions in increasingly redundant ways? Or do we stand and fight the battle for instilling in our students the kind of accountability, autonomy and self-awareness our institutions tout? To do the former, in my opinion, only degrades academe; to do the latter risks the wrath of both students and administration.

For the record, I’m not out to discourage meaningful communication between students and instructors, either in person or online. On the contrary, as a teacher of introductory classes, I take seriously my role as a mentor to beginning students. I spend many hours each semester meeting with students one-on-one and connecting them with support services for tutoring, financial aid, personal counseling and the like. Many have complicated — even harrowing — lives, so I make time for serious conversations about that.

But the majority of my interactions with students these days — especially via email — are not of the substantive or academic variety but rather banterings about whether an assignment is really due on the due date, or what we did in class last Tuesday if last Tuesday was an exam. I also occasionally receive the late-night rant in which an aggrieved student wants to know why he is failing the class, just because he has submitted a long series of failing papers and/or not submitted the papers at all.

I respond to those emails — I respond to every email — returning the ball back over the net and awaiting the next missive. I explain and repeat, reiterate, reaffirm. Yet I wish, as I am typing my fingers into nubs, my students might take their education into their own two hands.

Education and Learned Helplessness

William Matthew McCarterJun 13 

Federal, state, and local governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars on developmental education because so many students are underprepared for higher education. There are myriad ways that students are often academically underprepared for college, however, students often put themselves at a disadvantage when they leave high school and attend college because they fail to understand that there are very profound differences between the public education that they have and the higher education that they are seeking. This is especially the case for many of America’s community college students who feel that they are going into the 13th grade and not that they are attending one of America’s institutions of higher learning. After nearly a decade of teaching in higher education, one of the larger problems I see in terms of education is how “learned helplessness” is cultivated in students in many of today’s secondary schools.

One of the ways that high school teachers fail their students is by giving those students too much support. This “support” is what helps to cultivate “learned helplessness.” While I would agree that both high school teachers and college and university professors should give their students the support they need, I believe that high school teachers go too far. However, I can’t say that high school teachers are entirely at fault. I think that they are only responding to the demands of standardized testing in American high schools. Because of the high stakes testing that has accompanied the NCLB legislation; high school teachers cannot allow students to fail these exams. As a result, instead of providing students with problems to be solved, these high school teachers are forced to tell students what they must learn. This, in turn, becomes the baseline for what students consider “learning” to be. Because of the demands of high stakes testing, high school teachers must summarize the main ideas of the texts that students should be reading. They must outline notes for the students, provide them with study guides, and provide them with pertinent questions about the texts. In short, high school teachers must do the thinking for the student instead of providing students with a safe environment where they can go through the messy complications of thinking for themselves.

Instead of allowing their students to wallow in the complexity of the world in which we live, high school teachers must construct a static reality that can be memorized and then spewed out onto a multiple choice exam when test time comes. This is precisely what the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, called “the banking concept of education” in his landmark book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. All of these things that are designed to “help” the student — the outlines, the study guides, etc. — only further inhibits any thinking that the student may have to do for themselves. Instead, this is the “thinking” that the student expects to be done by the teacher when the student gets to college. Before a student can attend college — especially at the community college — the student must take an exam (often it is the COMPASS test). One of the things that students must do while taking this exam is understanding the inferences in the texts that they read. Students often don’t do this very well and, as a result, must take a developmental course to help them to cultivate this skill set. At that point, the student often expects the instructor to provide them with the study guides and outlines that point out these inferences for the student and the cycle continues.

A student’s inability to understand inferences in the text also manifests itself in the research process. If students are expected to do any research at all in high school, they are also often given too much help as they go through the research process. Again, instead of allowing their students to wallow in the complexity of a problem, they often short cut this research process by allowing the students to begin their research from a position of certainty. This leads to students looking for sources that agree with their position and, if the students are required to find any sources that might challenge their prior assumptions, they are often token sources that enable the student to set up a straw man argument in an either/ or binary position. This only teaches the student that he or she was right all along and didn’t really need to do any research in the first place. It only reinforces the sense of certainty that people have and doesn’t challenge their assumptions or preconceptions about the world around them. This also leads to students embracing a neat and tidy view of the world and stresses its blacks and whites leaving little room for the grays that really make up the dynamic reality in which we live. Again, this scenario also echoes the very thing that Paulo Freire argued against in “The Banking Concept of Education.”

Once a student learns that all they have to do is ask enough questions and the teacher will “tell them the answer” (as if it were that simple and there was only one definitive answer), why would they do anything else? Once a student becomes accustomed to the teacher doing their thinking for them, why would they go through the messy complications of doing it themselves? Why is it that “I don’t get it,” seems to be the most ubiquitous statement in academia and the universal precursor to learning? Why is it that when the instructor tries to engage in a dialogue with the student (what Freire would consider to be the real prerequisite to learning) by asking a question like “what is it that you don’t get,” that more often than not, the student answers the question (almost reflexively and without thinking) “everything?” It makes me wonder how many times in the past that same student had made that same statement and answered that same question (“what don’t you get?”) with that same answer and, as a consequence, the teacher said, “Let me help you” and then either on paper or in a verbal answer, gave the student a point by point analysis of the text or idea in question. It makes me wonder how when all of us, from the kindergarten teacher on up through the university professor, are going to start replying to the statement “I don’t get it” with the statement “you need to” instead of “let me help you by telling you the answer.”

Those of us who teach in the humanities can learn a lot from the folks over in the math department. When students solve math problems in algebra class, they have to put the points on the Cartesian graph and then connect the dots on the graph by drawing a line. If those of us in the humanities give our students too much help, we are basically drawing the points on the graph for them and then telling them to connect the dots. We are solving more than half of the problem for them. This has huge consequences in that students will not develop the critical thinking skills they need to function in a global economy (even the math people will tell us that before the student can apply a mathematical formula to a phenomenon, they must be able to understand the phenomenon first). It also has huge consequences for the humanities in that if all there is to it is just connecting the dots, then how important is it anyway?

We need to make it abundantly clear that there is more to learning than just connecting the dots and we also need to let our students know that if they have yet to understand the phenomenon, they need to because that, too, is part of the problem that they are to solve. Maybe then we can empower our students to engage with the various phenomena they encounter in the humanities in meaningful ways. Maybe then we can help provide our students with the self-efficacy that comes from being able to conceptualize a problem and posit a solution. Maybe then our students will be able to conceptualize the problems in their own lives and develop strategies to solve those problems as well. Maybe then the messy complications of trying to understand a phenomenon and asking one’s self questions about that phenomenon will once again be the precursor to learning instead of “I don’t get it.” Maybe then “learned helplessness” will finally take its place on the ash heap of history next to eugenics, smallpox, and the Edsel.