An interesting study from Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK has shown that among first year students, higher scores on a test of resilience when they first enroll predicts higher grades only for women. Even when men showed just as much resilience as female students (resilience was defined as the capacity to adapt to challenges) the men did not do as well academically. How can that be? How can more resilience not translate into better academic performance?
There are several possible explanations. First, we assume that personal resilience translates into being able to handle academic challenges too. That may not be true. Good study skills, problem solving skills (like knowing when to reach out for help and go talk to your professor), and having an accurate appraisal of your abilities, are all good predictors of academic performance but may not be part of resilience. In fact, optimism (in the face of overwhelming facts that you are going to fail), self-esteem, and a stubborn sense of internality (that you can control your life) may be great for resilience in some circumstances like coping with abuse or living with a parent with a mental illness, but work against you when you have to study hard and accurately appraise your chances of passing a final exam.
If we look at research by Bruce Ellis and Thomas Boyce on biological sensitivity to context, we may find some explanations. Their research showed an odd pattern to people’s capacity to cope. The most resilient were either orchids or dandelions. Orchids were individuals who excelled and showed very creative personalities but lived in very low stress environments. They were beautiful, but delicate individuals who could thrive as long as their environments were fertile places that doted on their every need.
Now think about the overprotective parent who has told his or her child that they are amazing! Perfect! Clever! Then ask those young people to rate themselves on their capacity to do well under stress. Those pretty little orchid-children will over-estimate their capacity because no one has dared to suggest they are anything except wonderful. With their self-esteem rock solid, they are unlikely to know what to do when life gets challenging. They think they can adapt when in fact they lack the emotional intelligence to change.
A child that has never been allowed to fail is a child ill-prepared for life.
So why do girls do better? After all, they can be orchids too. It could well be that girls are more often like dandelions. Dandelions score exactly the same as orchids on measures of resilience but are those children who are doing well in contexts where there is a lot of stress in their lives. They too have self-esteem and a positive attitude towards life. The difference, however, is that they are actually using their talents to cope with real world stressors. Do girls have to be a bit tougher than boys? Perhaps. After all, they often have to put up with different expectations from parents, and even if overprotected, they are likely to have higher emotional intelligence than boys.
Furthermore, the authors of the Leeds study suggest that universities may teach in ways that suit young women better than young men. Combine that with young women having developed resilience in tougher environments than young men, and maybe, we have a reason why resilient female students get better grades overall than resilient male students.
There is one other piece to this puzzle we should consider. And it’s something every parent and teacher should know before trying to make children more resilient. Our expectation that resilience will improve our children’s grades is pure fiction. In fact, resilience will help them to deal with bullies, avoid suicidal thoughts, maintain friendships, feel good about themselves, and find ways to survive when life disappoints them, but it won’t necessarily mean better marks. Worse, as we’ve just seen, higher resilience may cause the orchid child to do less well than his less-resilient peers who don’t suffer from the same inflated sense of self-worth. A child with a sense of personal resilience that has developed by being challenged and succeeding is more likely to be the child who is ready for life. While that may not mean higher grades, it will mean a young adult with the capacity to fix his or her own problems.