Cultivating Resilience

Author’s Note:

In this article, I address resilience. In doing so, I want to first talk about the terms failure and mistakes, as both are important when we think about resilience. Resilience is our ability to bounce back in the face of disappointment. The problem is that the word failure, as interpreted in our society, implies only success or failure. And because of this either-or position, it is a strong deterrent from taking risks, needed risks, for fear of failing or making a mistake. Embedded in the meaning of failure is also the idea of mistakes. This word has been misrepresented to mean something bad and unwanted. But mistakes are simply opportunities to learn. Both of these terms actually work against the concept of resilience. Failure and mistake simply mean things didn't go according to the plan. However, these words have become entrenched in such negativity and, unfortunately, have come to define a person's or student's worth. In working with the concept of resilience, it is essential to more accurately define these words for ourselves and our students more consistent with what they mean and as a good and necessary thing in the process of learning, change, and growth (Failure, 2023). 

“I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways NOT to make a light bulb.” Albert Einstein.


The increasing prevalence of stress and overload among students is undeniable and remains a considerable concern for educators. We all see it, commonly starting about a third to halfway through the semester. Students feel overloaded, unable to complete assignments on time, ask for extensions, and are not present or engaged during class (Imad, 2023). This is deeply concerning as we know what lies ahead for them once they enter the health care system. 

In a recent study of over 3000 college students, eighty-six percent of them rate their mental health as poor. The greatest stressors include exams (59%), the pressure to do well (42%), and balancing school with other life events and obligations (42%). The first two stressor numbers were higher for students in the sciences. Sixty-nine percent rated exams as the highest stressor, followed by pressure to do well (43%). More than half of the students surveyed recognized that stress negatively impacts their ability to focus, learn, and do well (Flaherty, 2023). 

Over the decades of teaching PA students, I have noticed that they are not coming to the graduate level of study prepared for the rigor of master’s level work required in PA education. I have discovered that we now need to consider how to support learning and help students manage the stress of school more than in years past. There are many reasons for this, but that is not the focus of this article. I think most would agree the pandemic has impacted all of us, personally and professionally. And it has and continues to impact higher education and students significantly. So, in addition to helping students manage their stress, study strategies, and schedules, we also need to consider how we can foster resilience. 

 “Resilience is the ability to withstand, address, adapt and adjust to misfortunes, overcome obstacles, and bounce back from perceived failure, disappointment, or rejection” (Chandra, 2021). Building it requires a positive growth mindset, willingness, and ability to learn from setbacks. I am discovering that we need to start by teaching our students the basic concepts. We assume they understand what stress or resilience is. But I am not so sure. Although students know they are stressed, they don’t truly understand what stress is or their role in it. I believe the same is true for resilience. This reminds me of a situation about ten years ago when I was working in a program moving toward integrating more technology into day-to-day teaching, specifically the iPad. There was a common misperception that because our students grew up with technology (cell phones, computers, iPads), they understood how to use it. This could not have been further from the truth. Sure, they knew how to text message, use social media platforms, and get their e-mail, but we discovered they didn’t know how to use the device as a learning tool. We had to go back to the drawing board and first teach them how to use their device before we could start using it for our curriculum.  

So, how can we help cultivate resilience in our students? The good news is resilience can be taught. Here are a few suggestions to consider.

  1.   Teach the concept of resilience.

As previously mentioned, first, we must teach and ensure our students know what resilience is. Providing clear examples would also be helpful. You or students can share a story from an actual life situation that illustrates resilience. Or you can use a movie. I just saw NYAD recently – a powerful example of resilience.

  1. Create a safe and supportive learning space

Who and how we are as teachers and how we create and maintain a safe learning environment plays a significant role in student learning. We know from the research that our student’s mental health is temperamental, and mixed with the stress is a lot of fear and insecurities. Combining this information and what we know about the inhibitory effects of stress on learning, creating a safe and supportive learning space where growth and learning failures and opportunities are emphasized can support students to navigate setbacks. If a student answers a question incorrectly, rather than just moving on or saying ‘wrong,’ first be supportive of the student answering the question and then ask them to share more about their thought process behind the answer. Modeling how failure or mistakes are learning opportunities, not personal indications of ability or intelligence, can help students be more willing to try new things or take on a challenge.  

  1. Celebrate progress and small wins, not just success

Resilience is about navigating setbacks. Unfortunately, our society is success-focused to a fault. It has to be an A in the course and 100% on the test. It’s about the end result, not the journey and what was learned along the way.   But every great accomplishment is built on setbacks and small wins along the way. This is why formative assessment and feedback are so important in our courses. If we hope to build a growth mindset in our students, we need to focus on the process and progress of learning, supporting both the accomplishments and disappointments along the way and not just the end result.

  1. Engage reflection and goal-setting

In my experience, awareness is essential for learning and change. Learning is about change. We change because we have learned something. Our students have become excellent information consumers, but without goals and reflection, they are just amassing information. In concert with getting students to focus more on the successes and failures during the journey of learning, a key ingredient to that is having them reflect, including self-reflect. Asking them to look more closely and deeply into the why, how, or what of something can provide a perspective they would never have realized otherwise. This is also true of having them self-reflect about their learning and their performance on an exam or after hearing a lecture on a particular topic. I find students are weak in this skill, yet it is critical to develop resilience. Consider ways to have students reflect on what they learned, how it will play a role when they are practicing, what is still unclear, what surprised them about a topic, what was one new thing they learned, what was one thing they already knew, can they link something new they learned with something they previously learned. In this way, we get our students to pause for a moment from consuming to reflecting, which helps them move into awareness and insight.

Setting goals is also important because it aids students in navigating success and failure relative to attaining the goal. Encouraging students to set goals for themselves relative to their learning can provide challenges and motivation along with opportunities to celebrate those successes and work through setbacks. Setting goals and making time for reflection have been shown to help maintain focus and create momentum in times of growth and change (Imad, 2023).

We all know resilience is essential in our work as clinicians. Helping students to develop this skill during their education will support their success in the future and hopefully foster a passion for lifelong learning.


Chandra, S. (2021). 10 Ways to build your students’ resilience and involvement. CampusGroups.,their%20future%20careers%20and%20relationships.

Failure. (2023). DailyOm. Everyday Health Inc.

Flaherty, C. (2023). Stress is hurting college students. Insider Higher Ed. 

Flannery, M. E. (2023). The mental health crisis on college campuses. NEA. 

Imad, M. From autopilot to engagement: The neurobiology of presence. The Teaching Professor. 

American Psychological Association. (2009). Teaching tip sheet: Self-efficacy. Retrieved from: 

American Psychological Association. (2012). Building your resilience. Retrieved from: 

Reachout. (n.d.) What is resilience?


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