Using Explanatory Styles to Increase Student Resilience and Success

By Suzanne Miller, Kristina Kauffman and Patricia Smith

Emotional Intelligence

The ability to succeed in life as a worker, partner, parent and even student depends on much more than a person's inherited intelligence or IQ.  Increasingly, business and personal success are being linked to emotional intelligence or EQ.  Emotional intelligence is how we relate to and understand others and the world around us.  Regardless of a student's IQ, a student who has a high level of emotional intelligence is more likely to have the resilience, resourcefulness, and positive concept of self and others necessary to succeed in college.

 Components of Emotional Intelligence

  • Personal Competence - how people manage themselves

    • Motivation

    • Awareness of one's internal states, preferences, resources, intuitions

    • Ability to manage internal states and impulses

  • Social Competence - how people manage relationships
    • Empathy or awareness of others' feelings, needs, and concerns
    • Social skills such as communication, conflict management and collaboration  
 More infomation on Emotional Intelligence

In a college setting, it is easy to see that students must rely on the skills and characteristics of emotional intelligence every day to motivate themselves to come to school and learn, to be considerate and work cooperatively with others, to recognize one's strengths, and to have the confidence to set and work toward personal goals.  As an instructor, you will encounter students who seem inherently capable of successfully completing course requirements, but who fail to do so because of a lack of emotional intelligence. They may exhibit characteristics and accompanying behaviors such as those in the chart below.


Characteristics Behaviors

    Poor motivation

  • irregular class attendance

  • frequent tardiness

  • few personal goals

    Lack of discipline

  • failure to complete class assignments

  • inability to adhere to schedules or meet deadlines

  • procrastination

    Unrealistic view of self 
    and others

  • lack of self confidence and/or self-esteem

  • over-confidence; over compensation

  • failure to acknowledge accomplishments of self & others

  • anticipation of failure

  • excessively critical of self and others

  • blames others for personal short comings/failures

    Lack of respect for self 
    and others

  • disruptive in class

  • sarcasm, cynicism, criticism

  • unable to work cooperatively in groups


"Stinking Thinking" and Student Success

The cumulative result of the behaviors that signal weaknesses in emotional intelligence, especially among community college students, is a general lack of optimism about their ability to learn.  You might say these students are the victims of their own "stinking-thinking"... 

  • "I didn't pass this exam; I'm just no good at math."
  • "I'm 40 years old; it's too late for me to start learning anything new now."
  • "I have 2 kids at home; I'll never be able to get through school." 

You can help these students develop their emotional intelligence through the teaching strategies you select as well as by helping them recognize the patterns of negative thinking that can have such a devastating effect on their academic experience and success.  These thought patterns are referred to as the students' explanatory styles--the students' internal dialogue that suggests their degree of optimism or pessimism in the face of adversity and challenge--factors that are directly related to student success.

Using Explanatory Styles to Increase Student Resilience and Success

It is true that every student can't excel at every subject, but there is a difference between thinking, "Advanced mathematics is rather challenging so I have to work harder at it." versus, "I'm terrible at math; I'll never get it."  Students who give up easily and think themselves incapable of succeeding are more likely to drop out of college or severely limit their options.

The Resiliency Project at the University of Pennsylvania is based on the work of Martin Seligman, Ph.D., author of Learned Optimism. The project has developed and tested workshops where valuable tools from cognitive psychology are used to help participants become more effective in their personal, academic and professional lives.  

The work focuses on Seligman's Explanatory Styles scale for pessimism/optimism. The skills taught hold great potential for promoting student retention and perseverance. They teach people: 

  • to focus on automatic thoughts and internal dialog when adversities occur

  • to examine and challenge one's belief system

  • to listen actively

  • to be assertive

  • to deal with procrastination. 

"... failure can occur when talent and desire are present in abundance but optimism is missing..." - Martin Seligman

According to Seligman, "Learned optimism is not a rediscovery of the 'power of positive thinking.'  What is crucial is what you think when you fail, using the power of 'non-negative thinking.'  Changing the destructive things you say to yourself when you experience the setbacks that life deals all of us is the central skill of optimism." (p. 15)  Seligman's work points out that students are often trapped in negative thinking (or errors in logic).  

How You Can Help Students

You're most likely to discover this pattern of thinking in a student when he or she has experienced a setback (academic or personal) and comes to see you in your office or seeks you out after class for help.  You will be able to recognize some of the characteristics of a negative explanatory style:

in the face of unexpected adversity, e.g. a flat tire on the way to school

NEGATIVE Explanatory Style POSITIVE Explanatory Style
"This is horrible. The teacher won't believe I got a flat tire. I'll be late and  miss the test."
"This is a bad time to have a flat, but while I wait for the auto club, I'll use the time  to study for the test this afternoon."
Pessimism, Helplessness-- 
"I'm doomed!  If I miss this test, I'll probably flunk the whole class, and there's nothing I can do about it!
Optimism, Alternatives
"I'll call the instructor from the repair shop and ask for an alternate test date in case I'm late."
    "I'll never be able to finish my degree."
"This could have been worse. I'll be back on track in a few hours."
"Nothing ever goes right in my life. This flat tire is just one more thing in a long line of bad luck."
"I haven't bought new tires in a while; I guess it's overdue."
"That instructor never liked me. That's why she wouldn't stop to talk to me about my situation just now."

The instructor may be on the way to her next class, so I'll leave a detailed note  about my situation in her box.  I'll call her again later during office hours." 

When working with a troubled student who has a negative explanatory style:

  • First, establish empathy for the student's situation

  • Distinguish between an optimistic and pessimistic outlook; distinguish between permanent and temporary outcomes

  • Remind the student of the constancy of change

  • Offer suggestions for how the student might change the "internal tape" that sees all or most negative things as permanent and most positive things as temporary.

IMPORTANT: Trust your instincts.  If you notice any signs of excessive despair or hopelessness, immediately refer the student to health services and/or counseling for more comprehensive help.     
Keep in mind that your role as a professor is not to treat people with serious psychological problems.  

Does Learned Optimism Work?  

Diablo Valley College and the University of Pennsylvania are participating in a Resiliency Project studying explanatory styles and learned optimism.  The learned resiliency model begins with the premise that emotion and behavior follow from thoughts and beliefs that may be out-moded or over-personalized, and from the errors in logic mentioned above. 

The focus on: 

  • Optimism over pessimism
  • Accurate thinking, realistic beliefs
  • Developing alternatives and persistence, leading to increased confidence
  • Improved mood, persistence, success

 may have profound implications for:

  • Students with school-related anxiety
  • Students lacking in basic skills
  • Re-entry Students

In addition to teaching students to change their explanatory styles (internal dialogues), educators can build resilience by fostering:   

  • Physical competence. Good health provides protection. Students, without their basic needs met, cannot learn. The College Health Services can provide appropriate health, social and mental health resources. Encourage and model fitness, nutrition, rest, recreation and other positive health habits.  

  • Community Competence: Create opportunities to enhance cultural pride; provide mentoring programs by utilizing community volunteers, concerned parents and elders, local business people, friends and advisors.  Become familiar with community resources that might assist students, for example legal aid and public health resources.
  • Cognitive Competence: Encourage creativity, social and life skills training, career awareness, communication, problem solving and decision-making skills, resistance skills training, and a sense of humor! 
  • Moral Competence: Educators can direct students to become involved in campus and community projects.  Peer health education programs, campus clubs and organizations, and student government provide opportunities to contribute which enrich both the student and the world. 

  • Spiritual Competence: Educators have the opportunity to share and convey the meaning of their lives with students. Faith in something beyond the self is helpful in overcoming adversity and living a constructive life. 

  • Caring Relationships: “Reciprocal, caring, respectful and participatory relationships are the critical determining factors in whether a student learns…whether a program or strategy is effective, whether an educational change is sustained, and ultimately, whether a youth feels he or she has a place in society” (Bernard, 1995). The literature supports that resilient individuals point to a teacher who made the difference. “Adolescents who viewed their teachers as providing both academic and emotional support were less likely to experience alienation or emotional distress” (Roeser, Eccles, and Sameroff, 1998). Diero (1996) gives the following strategies for making healthy connections:

    • Create one-to-one time with students; 

    • Use appropriate self-disclosure; 

    • Maintain high expectations of students; 

    • Networking with family, friends and neighbors of students; 

    • Building a sense of community among students within the classroom; 

    • Utilizing rituals and traditions in the classroom. 

     “Maintaining your own mental health is critical to bringing out healthier levels of functioning in students.”   - Diero, 1996

Educators are in a prime position to foster students' resilience -- not merely survival -- in the face of adversity.  Through your teaching and interactions with students, you can promote the pure joy and self confidence that learning can bring.  Keeping resilient people resilient, and teaching non-resilient people how to become more resilient, is an important part of your job.

Specific examples of strategies that instructors have used to build resiliency and community among students are detailed in the Apply section.