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Mental Toughness for improving learner retention and success


Student dropout and the resultant loss of funding continues to impact adversely on colleges’ ability to manage their budgets. Research into why students drop out shows that learners are more likely to withdraw if they:

  • believe that they not have been placed in the most appropriate course;
  • applied to college late; have difficulty making friends and/or settling in at the beginning of their course;
  • are less (compared with their peers) satisfied with the quality of teaching, their course timetable, and/or available help getting a job;
  • are male;
  • have difficult financial circumstances;
  • and have their fees waived or reduced.

This is a major cause for concern when, according to Ofsted, around a fifth of 19-year-olds are now starting adult life without the level of skills and qualifications that is generally regarded as the platform for success. In the Quarterly Statistical First Release published in January 2011, the success rate for level 2 and 3 programmes is around 77% – more than 20% of learners not achieving their qualification aim. This equates to some 600,000 learners in England.

In the late 1990s into the early 2000s several important studies highlighted these factors. Paul Martinez’s research and influential reports for the Learning and Skills Development Agency informed much of the development work in colleges. They were introducing new selection systems and procedures including formative assessment, taster programmes and more focused advice and guidance.  The growth in counselling services and tutorial programmes goes some way to improving the support frameworks for vulnerable and at-risk learners, but weaknesses persist. 
In the 2009/10 Ofsted Annual Report, in colleges judged satisfactory and inadequate, frequent weaknesses highlighted by learners include the  poor design of the timetable which leaves too much time between lessons, dull or monotonous teaching styles, high staff turnover and lack of information and communication technology equipment. Learners were also often concerned about poor assessment practices, which left them unaware of how targets are set or how to improve their work, and unstructured and infrequent tutorial sessions.

Although, in recent years, colleges have made substantial improvements in addressing many of the factors within their control, such as placement on appropriate course and quality of teaching and learning , not all contributory factors have been addressed fully, particularly those of an intrapersonal nature. More recent research, particularly in HE, where the problem is as challenging as it is in FE, has focused on ‘fit’ – the extent to which the learner fits happily into the role of student? Fit has two aspects: internally, do they feel it fits them from a personal perspective, and externally, do they feel happy in how others view them in this role. Fitting in is about any causes of friction or dissonance, even those too slight to be consciously noticed and spoken about.  The learner role has two dimensions, academic and social. The academic dimension is about learning, and the activities necessary for that. The social dimension is about fit with the groups the student cares about, both inside and outside the institution.

Mental toughness is a factor that is beginning to have credence in helping learners to cope with the pressures of college life.  Mental Toughness can be defined as ‘The quality which determines in a large part how individuals respond to stress, pressure and to challenge… irrespective of prevailing circumstances’. (Clough and Strycharczyk 2006).  Dr Peter Clough from the University of Hull identified the mental toughness dimensions that enable someone to cope or otherwise and these were developed into a psychometric questionnaire, the MTQ48, by Dr Clough and Dr Keith Earle and AQR Ltd.  The measure has high reliability and validity scores and has been independently validated  by the University of Western Ontario (published in New Scientist in 2009).

The mental toughness questionnaire is a straightfoward rating of 48 easy to understand statements on a five point Likert scale. On completion of the test, an overall score for mental toughness is provided and a further score for each of its components: control, confidence, challenge and commitment.  Studies carried out in schools, colleges and universities in the UK and in Holland show that there is a close link between mental toughness and the performance of young people in exams and tests, with around 25% of the variation in performance explained by mental toughness. Further studies have shown that it is possible to develop a person’s mental toughness which then results in improvements in things like attendance, engagement in learning and self-management.

The  MTQ48 has been used in a wide range of occupational settings and show exactly the same results, suggesting that mental toughness is also a factor in teacher performance and their susceptibility to pressures and stressors.  Further analysis has also shown that there is a clear link between mental toughness and ability to get a job, particularly, the job sought after. People with higher mental toughness are more competitive wih greater emotional resilience.
The findings from various studies shows:

  • Higher levels of mental toughness are associated with improved employability and a persons ability to get a job and: perhaps more importantly, a job that they want;
  • There is a clear link between mental toughness and young people’s performance in exams, tests and overall educational attainment;
  • Mental toughness (as measured by the mental toughness questionnaire MTQ48) is very accurate at predicting which students are most at risk of underperforming, dropping out or failing to complete their course of study;
  • There is a clear link between a young person’s behaviour in the classroom and their levels of mental toughness. Improvements to a student’s mental toughness translates to better attendance and to positive and active participation in classes;
  • There is a link between successful transition and mental toughness. Whether this is transition between levels in education or between education and the workplace

The questionnaire takes around 7-8 minutes to complete either online or in paper format, with results for the online version available almost immediately, with printable reports for discussion with tutor, coaching and developing a programme for improving mental toughness, where required.

Costing under £20 plus vat per student per test, the MTQ48 provides a robust assessment and basis for  developing mental toughness programmes which add value to both the institution and learner.  It also has value as diagnostic tool for staff.

LSN is seeking colleges to undertake a pilot study and to develop a range of appropriate mental toughness development programmes to meet a range of learner needs.  For more details contact me at [email protected]

Written by Bert Buckley, LSN Associate and Director of icaras Consulting.

To attend our Mental Toughness workshop (26th October 2011) or to find out more click here.

Find out more about icaras Consulting:

Find out more about LSN Learning:

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