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Cornell University

Reframing Struggle

As the end of the semester approaches, students can often feel overwhelmed and may struggle in their courses. Often, struggle is a normal part of the transition to college or an engineering major or part of the process of learning new, challenging material. However, struggle can also cause students to ask questions like, “Do I really belong here?” and “Am I smart enough to make it?” Students can easily feel overwhelmed and alone during struggle, not realizing that adverse experiences and questions about belonging are very common.

So, what can you do? Each student’s struggle might be different, but all students deal with challenge at some point in their college careers. Instead of the narrative that this struggle is indicative of their ability to succeed, you can provide an alternative narrative—one that holds adversity as both normative and surmountable. Simply talking about struggle as normal and surmountable can make a big difference. The UBelong Collaborative is studying which set of interventions is most effective in conveying that message (more information is included in the references below). But, an action as simple as sharing about your own challenges as a student, actions you took, and the resolution, particularly in how the outcome addressed the concerns or threats to your belonging in engineering, can be one way to model productive conversations about struggle as temporary and overcomable. Struggle could be learning to study differently for college courses, time management, or engaging with challenging material that took a lot of effort to master. Opening a dialogue about struggle, particularly from the instructor, may change students’ perceptions of struggle and provide more motivation to persist during challenge. Often, that shift in how struggle is framed is enough to support their persistence on challenging tasks, which creates a positive feedback loop for believing that struggle is a temporary aspect rather than a signal of a student’s belonging in your course or engineering more broadly.

Other ideas that can also reframe struggle include:

  • Acknowledging students may be struggling and offering resources or an open drop-in session for support. Simply noticing, opening a dialogue, and reaching out is a great first step.
  • Providing an opportunity for individual reflection about a time when a student has overcome struggle and asking them to apply the lessons learned to their current struggle. Sharing these experiences with others in a short (5-minute) discussion is even better in conveying that struggle is normal and surmountable.
  • If you don’t have a specific story, you could ask students who previously took the course to share a written, video, or in-person story of challenge, action, and resolution with students.

Contributed by Allison Godwin, Associate Professor, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.