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How to deal with uncertainty

07 October 2019

Stress Management

By Bradley Busch – Chartered Psychologist and Director of InnerDrive

FE is going through an interesting time; large uncertainty, funding issues, external assessments and linear exams. But when there are times of uncertainty, there are almost always opportunities. Those that can adapt best will yield the biggest results. But where do the answers to these problem lie? One possible answer is in the realm of cognitive psychology.

A recent study from UCL found that uncertainty is one of the biggest cause of stress. Worst case scenario is not as bad, as we can brace and prepare for it. But not knowing what to expect is far more stressful. To help combat this, my keynote at the AoC Teaching, Learning and Assessment Conference on the 5th December will look to answer three seemingly simple (but in reality often quite complex) questions:

  1. How do we best motivate people through periods of change?
  2. What does a resilient environment look like?
  3. How do we help develop independent learners?

1. Motivating People Through Change

Author Daniel Pink recently stated that “carrot and sticks are so last century”. The problem with rewards is they can hinder intrinsic motivation, and too much fear can lead to stress and anxiety. Recent research suggests there may be a better way. A recent study asked participants to learn a set of Swahili-English word pairs. Half of the participants were offered a reward for doing so, the other half were not. After an initial study phase, participants were given the opportunity to study the words during their free time.

The results?

Participants who had not been offered a reward spent more time studying during their free period. The researchers behind this study suggested that the rewards had undermined and negatively impacted participants’ intrinsic motivation and self-regulated learning behaviours.

This finding is echoed in research on paying for blood donations. Some countries pay for people to donate blood (Russia, China, Germany and America) whereas others don’t (France, Australia, England and Japan). New Zealand recently considered going from voluntary donations to paying for it. They found that 52% of their donors said they would stop donating if they were financially rewarded for doing so. Clearly, financial incentives have some impact on intrinsic motivation.

On 5th December, I will highlight what strategies help motivation (spoiler alert: these include creating a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging and a mastery orientation).

2. Resilient Environments

The Sutton Trust define this as a ‘positive adaptation despite the presence of risk’. In their report, ‘The impact of non-cognitive skills on outcome for young people’, they note that resilience and coping skills have high malleability (meaning that they can be improved and developed). Research has also demonstrated that setbacks are not always a bad thing, and that those who have experienced some adversity go on to perform better under pressure than those who have been wrapped in cotton wool. Experiencing failure has also been associated with higher levels of empathy,
motivation and determination.

Recent research has suggested that the key to developing resilient environments is to ensure that there are both high level of challenge and high levels of support available. This means combining high expectations with quality feedback and pastoral support.

3. Developing Independent Learners

Often perceived as the holy grail of teaching is the quest to develop independent learners. Given that it is such broad topic, no quick wins exist and no singular strategy holds all the answers.

Promising research in the area of metacognition may offer some guidelines for this. Helping students understand how they learn, how to self-regulate their emotions and how to plan their time effectively provide a firm foundation for future learning.

Research suggests that most students are poor predictors at estimating how long a task will take to complete, as they get distracted or face unexpected obstacles along the way. This is called ‘The Planning Fallacy’. One study found that one of the best ways to overcome the planning fallacy is if a teacher sets small regular deadlines. This was proven to help students manage their time better and perform significantly better in their coursework, achieving higher grades overall.

Final Thoughts

I’m really looking forward to presenting at the AoC Teaching, Learning and Assessment Conference in December. I’ll cover the above details in more area and highlight some of my favourite studies in this area and suggest other strategies moving forward.