Mental toughness in Higher Education

Helen St Clair-Thompson

In this chapter mental toughness is discussed in terms of its importance within Higher Education. The results of a series of projects designed to examine relationships between mental toughness, attainment, and attendance at university are described and data about students' life satisfaction is also presented. Finally, there is a discussion of the possible role of mental toughness in terms of success gaining employment after university. Each project that is discussed employs the four C's framework of mental toughness which is described in the

earlier chapters of this book.

Introduction

As described in the previous Chapter Fourteen, mental toughness is a popular and attractive construct within educational settings. This is, in part, due to its conceptualisation as a mindset that can be changed or developed through psychological skills training. Given that mental toughness is defined as a quality which determines how people deal effectively with challenge, stressors, and pressure it seems reasonable to expect that it may be important in student's attainment and also wellbeing at university. There is evidence that the transition to university life results in increased stress (e.g., Fisher & Hood, 1987). Demands such as coursework deadlines, examinations, the requirement to manage one's own time and learning, work/study balance, and loss of support networks (e.g., Okopi, 2011) can also cause considerable stress. Mentally tough individuals have been found to be independent and to take responsibility for their own development.

University requires a great degree of independent learning requiring students to manage their own learning to a greater extent than in secondary education. This may mean that mental toughness is even more important for success in Higher Education than in compulsory education.

Consistent with the suggestion that mental toughness is important within higher education, Peter Clough and colleagues at the University of Hull examined mental toughness in 161 university students enrolled on sports-related degree programmes. All students completed the Mental Toughness Questionnaire (MTQ48), and their end of year grades and the number of credits achieved in the first year were calculated for each student. The number of credits achieved is an important measure of progress and also of attrition.

Analysis of the data revealed that scores on all of the mental toughness subscales, as well as overall mental toughness, were significantly related to both end of year grades and credits. Further analysis revealed that life control and interpersonal confidence were the most important predictors.

The aim of the studies presented in this chapter were to examine the relationships between mental toughness and attainment in a non-sport related degree programme and to examine the relationship between mental toughness and student's life satisfaction.

Mental toughness and attainment

In one exploratory study we were interested in the relationships between mental toughness, attainment, and attendance in undergraduate psychology students.

148 students completed the Mental Toughness Questionnaire (MTQ48) at the start of their university course. At the end of the academic year their end of year grade, number of credits awarded, and number of recorded absences were calculated. We also recorded average grades
for coursework and examinations in order to explore whether aspects of mental toughness were differentially related to coursework and examination performance. The correlations between mental toughness, attainment, and attendance are shown in Table 1.

The results revealed significant relationships between commitment, attainment, and attendance, and between life control and attainment, particularly in examinations. There were no significant relationships between the number of credits and any aspect of mental toughness. However, this may have been due to a restricted range in the credit data.

Nearly all the students who participated in the study were awarded the maximum of 120 credits in their first year. It is, however, important to note that some of the correlations that were observed in the current study were relatively weak. It is likely that this was a result of the longitudinal nature of the study. Students completed MTQ48 at the start of their university course. Several aspects of university life and other experiences may have influenced mental toughness and subsequently attainment and attendance over the course of a year. You will also see in the following section that in other studies we have found much closer relationships between mental toughness and attainment.

The findings of the study nonetheless have important implications for educational practice. They suggest that there could be benefits in incorporating mental toughness training into the university curriculum,

Table 1. Correlations between mental toughness, attainment, and attendance.

Grade Credits Coursework Exams Absences

Challenge

−0.03

−0.09

−0.13

0.01

0.04

Commitment

0.25**

0.13

0.28**

0.22**

−0.22**

Control of emotion

0.03

−0.01

0.02

0.01

−0.03

Control of life

0.19*

0.12

0.11

0.22**

−0.05

Confidence in

0.07

0.03

0.05

0.06

0.02

abilities Interpersonal

−0.02

0.11

−0.06

0.06

0.13

confidence Total mental

0.09

0.01

0.05

0.12

−0.02

toughness

Note: ** p < 0.01, * p < 0.05. perhaps as part of a “skills” module or personal development planning. In particular the findings of the current study suggest that interventions focused on commitment and life control would be most beneficial.

It is perhaps not surprising that commitment was related to attainment and attendance.

Commitment describes the extent to which an individual is likely to persist with a goal or with a work task. Previous research has demonstrated that commitment is linked to academic performance in undergraduate students (e.g., Sheard & Golby, 2007). This finding is also consistent with the results presented in Chapter Fourteen in which commitment was found to be important for attainment and behaviour in secondary school pupils.

Life control was also related to attainment, particularly in exams. Again this is consistent with the findings of Chapter Fourteen, in which life control was closely related to adolescent's attainment and disruptive behaviour.

 
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