Students need honesty. So, when Clare Tattersall explains to them that setbacks are a normal part of a rigorous academic program, and that failure is an essential part of the learning process, it is the first step in creating a more resilient student.
“We want our students to recognize negative, self-defeating beliefs and replace inaccurate harmful thoughts with accurate and constructive thinking,” said Tattersall, manager of Undergraduate Services at Western Engineering, who leads the faculty’s new Engineering Resilience Program.
Although Western has a robust system of student mental-health and wellness supports, many students tend to wait until they are severely compromised or in a state of crisis before reaching out for help. Despite numerous universitywide efforts to the contrary, students are hesitant to connect with, or not adequately aware of, the resources that do exist.
The Engineering Resilience Program looks to bridge that gap and present the faculty’s students with an opportunity to come away with techniques for assertiveness, decision-making and the ability to recover, remain focused and engaged when faced with high-stress situations.
In partnership with Western’s Wellness Education Centre, the Undergraduate Services Office in Engineering will provide students registered in this program with tailored workshops, one-on-one coaching sessions and, as needed, referrals to other campus resources and services.
“We (Undergraduate Services) tend to be the place where, if they’re going to go anywhere, quite often they’ll stop in. It’s where they can start,” Tattersall said. “We can then connect the students with the other resources. We work closely with the other services on campus. It’s definitely not a duplication; it’s an enhancement of the network that exists on campus. It’s about how we can harness that network and connect the students with the right resources and supplement what is being done to help build student resilience.”
Engineering, she added, is a particularly challenging program, with relatively little flexibility in course selection and few, and complicated, options for making up courses in the event of failure. Combining this with high admissions averages, increasing pressure for positive career outcomes, high parental expectations and a history of success, the average student has little experience with failure and a high level of expectation for academic success, Tattersall said.
“And so we’re seeing massive increases,” she said.
In 2012, Student Health Services saw 2,000 students for mental-health appointments. By 2014, that number had exploded to 10,000.
“That is remarkable,” Tattersall continued. “It shows students are using the services more, but there is also legitimately an increase in need. All the services that exist on campus are tapped out; they have a lot of their plate. The more we can be effectively referring students and providing additional support, the more we can prevent things from getting to crisis mode.”
More Engineering students are not writing exams, quizzes, tests or completing labs and, instead, are submitting medical documentation to delay completion of the academic task or have that component re-weighted in their grade distribution. In the last year (since implementing a tracking system for medical notes), the faculty has recorded more than 2,000 accommodations. Just this past May, more than 170 students wrote special exams – there were 71 in the same period last year.
“Sadly, the missing and delaying of course components – even if validated by a medical note – does not always contribute to a student’s success. It can often have an effect like a snow plow of just pushing things off until they pile up, thus contributing to increased stress levels,” she said.
Tattersall has coined the term “intrusive advising” as a way to get the conversation started with students. As soon as undergraduate services start getting indicators – be it midterm grades, notes from professors or other students – Tattersall will email the student with a note reading something as simple as ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ Almost every time, this begins the conversation and allows the student to open up and talk about their concerns.
“It’s not so much what it was that went wrong outside of their control – it’s more about what could they have done that is within their control,” she said.
“Students tend to look at bad situations with what they are doing wrong, all the problems. They need to focus on their strengths and apply that to a situation where things are challenging. The key is prevention rather than treatment. The more we can make it so a student doesn’t end up with depression or anxiety, to the point where they need therapy and treatment, is our goal.”