Building capacity for academic resilience and confidence

Ms Natalie Smith, Dean of Studies and Planning

Things happen in threes — at least that is what my mother always told me. In fact, I have noticed that when the universe is trying to tell me something, it takes three goes to ensure that I am paying attention. So when serendipitously, the same two themes recently cropped up on three unrelated occasions, I knew that I needed to pay attention.

The first occasion was when I was contemplating my presentation for the Year 10 Parent Information night earlier in the term. I was drawn back to notes from a presentation by Professor Andrew Martin which were covered in my highlighting and underlining. His research into girls as learners, particularly in relation to building confidence and academic resilience, had certainly caught my attention.

The second occasion was at the recent Alliance of Girls Schools Conference, Creative Girls, Creative Women. Highly successful women from all walks of life spoke on the role of creativity and challenged the conference delegates to consider what we were doing in our schools to foster it amongst our students. While the speakers all related their own experiences in their fields as creative women — from the world of information technology start-ups and agribusiness, to investigating killer microbes that glowed in the dark and leading a nation’s government — there was a theme that surfaced time and time again: the importance of resilience and the fostering of confidence in young women. More than any other attributes, building the capacity for resilience and confidence was seen to be at the core of these women’s success.

The third occasion was when I was sent a link to a recent article in The Atlantic, ‘The Confidence Gap’. Its authors found that in general, women display lower levels of confidence and resilience in particular circumstances that directly impact their success.

Each of these examples reinforced in my mind that developing resilience and confidence are such important themes for us as educators of young women.

Professor Andrew Martin, noted above, is an Educational Psychologist and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Sydney. In his presentation ‘Girls, Engagement, Motivation and Personal Potential’ (2010) he identified the following general observations about girls as learners:

  • They were generally high achieving
  • They were better behaved in classrooms
  • They were highly motivated
  • They have a high emotional response to failure and setback — therefore less academically resilient
  • They required good relationships with teachers.

Based on my own experiences in the classroom, the point that really resonated with me was that girls are generally less academically resilient than boys. So what is ‘academic resilience’ and how can we build an increased capacity for it within our students?

The Oxford Dictionary (2014) defines the term ‘resilience’ as: 1) the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape — elasticity, and 2) the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties —toughness.

Academic resilience can therefore be defined as the ability to deal with setbacks at school, academic challenge and schoolwork pressures (Martin 2010).

There are many factors that influence the academic learning that occurs in our classrooms. As teachers and parents we understand that the underlying motivation of our students and daughters plays an enormous part in how they approach and engage with every challenge put before them.

Martin defines motivation and engagement as, ‘the students’ energy and drive to learn, work effectively, and achieve — and the thoughts and behaviours that reflect this’. We also know from the work of Dr Carol Dweck of Stanford University (2008) how important mindset is in influencing the behaviour of students.

Martin (2003) describes the factors that influence students’ motivation and engagement as having three types of effects. The term ‘boosters’ refers to the thoughts and the corresponding behaviours that reflect enhanced motivation and engagement. These include self-belief, learning focus, valuing school, planning, study management and persistence. Factors that that impact negatively on student motivation and engagement are called ‘mufflers’ and ‘guzzlers’. Mufflers reflect impeded or constrained motivation and engagement and also include anxiety, failure avoidance and low control, while guzzlers reflect a reduced motivation and engagement and are exhibited as self-sabotage and disengagement.

The Motivation and Engagement Wheel diagram below outlines these factors (Martin 2010).

18 Motivation Wheel Martin

Motivation and engagement boosters are indicated by the top two quadrants of the Motivation and Engagement Wheel and can be summarised as follows:

  1. Self-belief — students’ belief and confidence in their ability to understand or to do well in their schoolwork, to meet challenges that they face and to perform to the best of their ability (e.g., ‘If I try hard, I believe I can do my schoolwork well.’).
  2. Learning focus — being focused on learning, solving problems, focusing efforts on developing skills rather than on competition, recognising abilities and avoiding comparisons with others (e.g., ‘I am pleased with myself when I really understand what I am taught at school.’).
  3. Valuing school — how much students believe that what they learn at school is useful, important and relevant to them or the world in general (e.g., ‘Learning at school is important to me.’).
  4. Planning — how much students plan their schoolwork, assignments and study and how much they keep track of their progress as they are doing it (e.g., ‘Before I start an assignment, I plan out how I am going to do it.’).
  5. Study management — how students use their study time, organise their study timetable and choose and arrange where they study (e.g., ‘When I study, I usually study in places where I can concentrate.’).
  6. Persistence — how much students keep trying to work out an answer or to understand a problem when that problem is difficult or challenging (e.g., ‘If I can’t understand my schoolwork at first, I keep going over it until I understand it.’).

Motivation and engagement mufflers and guzzlers are indicated by the bottom two quadrants of the Motivation and Engagement Wheel.

  1. Anxiety — students feeling nervous and worrying — nervous being the uneasy or sick feeling that students may have thinking about assignments or schoolwork, and worrying being their fear of not doing well in assignments or schoolwork (e.g., ‘When assignments and exams are coming up, I worry a lot.’).
  2. Low control — students being unsure about how to do well or how to avoid doing poorly (e.g., ‘I am often unsure about how I can avoid doing poorly at school.’).
  3. Failure Avoidance — students have an avoidance focus when the main reason for doing their schoolwork is to avoid doing poorly or being seen to do poorly (e.g., ‘Often the main reason I work at school is because I don’t want to disappoint my parents.’).
  4. Self-sabotage — students do things that reduce their chances of success at school (e.g.,  ‘I sometimes don’t study very hard before exams so I have an excuse if I don’t do as well as I hoped.’) Martin (2003).

The motivation factors identified in the Wheel are significantly linked to students’ academic engagement, interest in school, enjoyment of schoolwork, effort, self-regulation, class participation, academic resilience, attendance, study patterns. It is via these connections that motivation leads to knowledge acquisition, skill development and competence (Martin 2013).

So how can we increase students’ experience of the top half of the Motivation and Engagement Wheel and therefore decrease their experience of the lower half. What needs to be done to boost the boosters and muffle the mufflers?

Martin posits that there are five factors that impact on academic resilience: the 5 Cs. These need to be the focus of our attention if we are to build academic resilience in our students.

  • Confidence (self-efficacy) — we need to focus attention on increasing students’ self-belief through experiencing success. Challenging students’ concepts of themselves as learners, establishing a ‘growth mindset’ as opposed to a ‘fixed mindset’, and focusing attention on personal improvement and progress rather than competition and comparison.
  • Control — we need to focus attention on increasing students’ sense of control. By giving clear and timely feedback about how to improve their work, by showing them that hard work and effective study strategies can impact their achievement.
  • Coordination (Planning) and Commitment (Persistence) — we need to focus attention on encouraging students to set effective goals and show them that that effort and strategy are important factors for improvement. They must work towards these goals, even when they are finding things challenging, and focus on mastery.
  • Composure (low anxiety) — a fear of failure often underpins students’ anxiety (Covington cited in Martin 2006). We need to focus on building a classroom environment where mistakes are experienced as a natural and essential part of learning and do not actually reflect on a student’s worth as a person. We must provide specific ways to reduce students’ test anxiety such as practice tests, developing test-taking skills and strategies.

Now at the end of the semester, with assessment being handed back, reports being finalised and students heading into the holiday period, it is timely to raise the issue of academic resilience. Students are encouraged to reflect on their learning over the past semester — what worked, what did not, what needs to change and what needs to be re-adjusted. Students need to realise that any apparent failure is feedback that something needs to change; that a failure does not define their worth as people but rather provides an opportunity to refine what they do. They are encouraged to focus on the 5Cs of confidence, control, coordination, commitment and composure as they approach the challenge, schoolwork and pressures of the next semester and beyond.


Dweck, C.S. (n.d.). Mindsets: developing talent through a growth mindset. Retrieved from

Kay, K. & Shipman, C. (2014, April 14). The confidence gap. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Martin, A. J. (2003). The student motivation scale: further testing of an instrument that measures school students’ motivation. Australian Journal of Education, 47(1), 88-106. Doi:10.1177/00494410304700107

Martin, A. J. (2010). Girls, engagement, motivation and personal potential. [Paper presented at the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Event]. Ipswich, Australia.

Martin, A. J. (2013). From will to skill: the psychology of motivation, instruction and learning in today’s classroom. Retrieved from

Martin, A. J. & Marsh, H. W. (2006). Academic resilience and its psychological and educational correlates: a construct validity approach. Psychology in Schools, 43(3), 267-281. Doi:10.1002/pits.20149

Martin, A. J, & Marsh, H. W. (2003). Academic Resilience and the four Cs: confidence, control composure and commitment. In Educational Research, risks and dilemmas: NZARE/AARE Conference. 888/academic-resilience-and-the-four-cs-confidence -control-composure-and-commitment Oxford Dictionaries. (2014).

Published 20 June 2014

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