Overcoming Obstacles: The Power of Attitude in Enhancing Wellness and Learning
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Through a recent study conducted in the US, we explored how learners from two groups, namely (i) Higher Education Learners (ie. college) and (ii) Informal Learners (ie. adults working towards a specific diploma, certification, or on their own), performed in terms of wellness and learning.
For the purpose of our analyses, our definition of wellness included mental factors (eg. anxiety, depression, isolation, etc.), social factors (eg. access to external support), and physical factors (eg. sleep, diet, exercise, etc.). To analyze learning, we used several dimensions such as motivation, time available, access to mentorship, grit, and depth of learning, among others.
Through a 1,000-responder survey that evaluated more than 25 distinct dimensions of wellness and learning, we uncovered three distinct student segments, each characterized by a unique combination of wellness and learning attributes. Most interestingly, we were able to identify that the extent to which students were “feeling discouraged when facing challenges or setbacks” was a key determinant and potential predictor of a student’s own segment.
A Tripartite Division: Wellness and Learning Personas
Informed by a thorough review of more than 48 peer-reviewed articles and reports, we created a list of the most common barriers, drivers, and habits of both wellness and learning. We then conducted 25 one-on-one interviews with learners in the US (14 college students and 11 informal learners) to refine the list and develop the key hypotheses to test in the larger quantitative study. When ready, we launched a survey that captured the viewpoint of over 1,000 learners (50% college and 50% informal) in the US.
The survey evaluated the barriers, drivers, and habits of both wellness and learning by presenting sentences to the respondents and asking them to declare their level of agreement or disagreement using a 5-scale Likert scale. This allowed us to have a numerical score for each sentence. Then, we leveraged machine learning techniques to process the survey data and uncovered three distinct student segments:
- High wellness and high learning (the students who seem to thrive in the current system): This group represents students whose wellness and learning scores are high. This leads us to believe that this group thrives in the current system as they are able to maintain superior levels of physical, social, and mental wellness while also reporting high scores for learning drivers and habits.
- Moderate wellness and moderate learning (the “middle of the pack”): Occupying the middle ground, these students display average levels of both wellness and learning. This group seems to be able to balance their learning with their well-being, although not excelling in either.
- Low wellness and low learning (the students who seem to struggle in the current system): This segment includes students who reported low scores in both wellness and learning dimensions. This leads us to believe that the currently available learning alternatives are not well suited for them as they are scoring low in learning drivers and habits while also reporting low levels of overall wellness.
Behavioral Science, Democratized
We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices.
At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.
The graph above shows the average response to all questions related to learning (horizontal axis) and wellness (vertical axis), where a positive correlation between the two is evident. Segments 1, 2, and 3 as previously described are displayed in the graph with colors yellow, gray, and green respectively.
The above led us to believe that any interventions aimed at helping students must be reflective of the reality of the group that they belong to. This, in turn, pushed us to ask ourselves: “how can we reasonably identify which group a student is part of?”
The Defining Question
After running a classification algorithm on the previously defined clusters, we came to the most intriguing finding of our research. It so happens that the answers to one single Likert question in our whole survey can be used to classify all our respondents in the three segments with a surprising 72% level of accuracy.
This question asked the respondents for their level of agreement with the following sentence: "When learning something new or developing a new skill, I am easily discouraged when I face challenges or setbacks." The differing responses to this query offer profound insight into how important it is to support students and help them as they face challenges or setbacks in their learning journey.
- Strongly Disagree: Students who selected this option were typically in the high wellness and high learning segment. Their attitude in the face of challenges could be a key driver of both their learning and psychological well-being.
- Disagree: Those who disagree with the statement generally fall into the moderate wellness and learning group. They demonstrate a balance in their approach to setbacks, neither highly determined nor overly discouraged.
- Neutral/Agree/Strongly Agree: Students resonating with these responses are often in the low wellness and low learning segment. Their tendency to be discouraged by challenges is a significant barrier to both their learning and overall well-being.
Uncovering that self-doubt can translate into significant wellness and learning impacts or vice versa was the most interesting and surprising insight of this project. With this in mind, educational institutions could greatly benefit from prioritizing the development of a positive attitude towards challenges and setbacks as a key aspect of their teaching approach.
Implications and Future Directions
The findings of this study have far-reaching implications – not only for the field of behavioral science but also for education policy and higher education institutions.
Future Behavioral Science Research
This research opens new avenues in behavioral science, particularly in understanding the dynamics of different responses to challenges and their impact on wellness and learning. Future studies could explore how different interventions can enhance this attitude, particularly among students prone to discouragement, and how such enhancements can, in due time, increase reported wellness levels and learning attitudes. Additionally, investigating the long-term effects of facing challenges and setbacks with a more positive mindset on personal development across diverse demographic groups would deepen our understanding of these relationships.
For policymakers, these insights underscore the need to incorporate “challenge facing” driven mental wellness strategies into education systems. Policies could be formulated to integrate support mechanisms within curricula, ensuring that students are equipped to handle setbacks effectively. This approach could foster a more holistic education system, where learning and wellness are intertwined, leading to better educational outcomes and healthier student populations.
Higher Education Institutions
Universities stand to benefit greatly from these findings by adapting their support structures to focus more on building a positive attitude towards challenges and setbacks among students and potentially creating administration-led support networks. This could involve offering workshops, counseling services, and creating a campus culture that emphasizes growth and facing challenges “head-on” as core values. Furthermore, academic programs could be designed to gradually build stronger students' attitudes when facing setbacks, preparing them for the challenges of both academic life and their future careers.
In summary, this study not only contributes significantly to our understanding of the wellness-learning nexus but also provides practical insights for enhancing educational experiences and outcomes. By recognizing the critical role of how an individual faces challenges or setbacks, a collection of behavioral science research, education policies, and higher education institutions can work synergistically to foster the intellectual and emotional growth of students.
About the Author
Hector Alvarado is a Director at The Decision Lab. He holds a Masters in Applied Statistics from the University of Oxford, an MBA from INSEAD and a Bachelors in Actuarial Science. He is very interested in applying insights and his past experience to generating meaningful impact for vulnerable populations around the globe. Prior to joining The Decision Lab, Hector worked about 5 years as a Private Equity investor in the Infrastructure Sector in LATAM and over 6 years as a Management Consultant with the Boston Consulting Group. Hector has lead large transformation, growth strategy and integration projects in the Pharma, Consumer Goods and Banking Industries both in North and Latin America.