Post-secondary students often have a plan in mind for what they want to achieve during their academic journey. They may have set goals such as getting a high grade in a course, graduating with honors, landing a specific internship, or getting accepted into a graduate program. However, sometimes things do not go according to plan, and they may face obstacles that derail their goals. In such situations, it is important for these students to remember that they are not alone and that there are ways to navigate setbacks and still achieve success. This essay provides tips which are backed by empirical research to help students who are facing challenges to stay motivated and focused when “Plan A” does not work out as planned.
Tip 1: Advocate for the practice of self-compassion and acceptance
When faced with a setback it is common for individuals to experience regret and self-blame (Skinner et al., 2003). Zhang and Chen (2019) suggest that practicing self-compassion and acceptance can lead to personal improvement after regret experiences. Self-compassion involves treating oneself with kindness and understanding, while acceptance involves acknowledging and accepting the reality of the situation. They found that individuals who practiced self-compassion and acceptance after regret experiences were more likely to take steps toward personal improvement. Therefore, instead of focusing on self-blame and dwelling on regret, students should practice self-compassion and acceptance to foster personal growth. Faculty can help support students in this practice by re-framing their negative thought patterns to be more accepting and compassionate and/or by modelling what positive self-talk might look like in the context of a setback.
Tip: 2 Reframe students’ perceptions in a psychologically attuned way
Faculty and student academic advisors can play an important role in re-framing students’ perceptions to align with this suggestion. More specifically, institutions can practice psychologically attuned communication, especially in formal letters and communications with students such as letters informing a student that they are on academic probation (Brady et al., 2020; Waltenbury et al., 2018; Walton & Brady, 2020). Communicating bad news in a way that is more sensitive to students’ experiences (e.g., acknowledging factors outside of school which might have contributed to the negative outcome) can reduce negative feelings like shame, increase student hope, and even promote support-seeking behaviors (more on that in a moment) rather than dropping out (Brady et al., 2020). In this way, individual faculty, advisors, staff, as well as institutions and institutional policies, can help to support students when their plans don’t go as planned.
Tip 3: Encourage students to seek social support
When things do not go according to plan, students can use their social support networks to help them adjust to the situation. Abdullah et al. (2014) describes four general types of social support that students can perceive in a post-secondary school environment: tangible, appraisal, self-esteem, and belonging support. In their study, they found that perceived social support among students promoted university adjustment and academic performance. One possibility, then, is that when students perceive they have strong social support, it could assist with their adjustment and academic success. Post-secondary faculty and employees in various other roles can develop programs for students to make better use of their existing networks and/or develop additional social support systems by connecting them socially with other students on campus, with community or campus resources, or groups (e.g., Canadian Mental Health Association; campus financial aid, etc.). Institutions could even promote ways to include faculty members as part of the student’s social support network to help them cope with their setback.
Tip 4: Promote personalized goal-setting and planning
Yusuff (2018) found that personalized goal-setting and planning can improve academic performance and lead to more positive perceptions of learning experiences among students. Postsecondary faculty can encourage students to set specific, measurable, attainable, and time-bound (SMART) goals that align with their interests and strengths (Poe et al., 2021). The students could also benefit from developing a plan that incorporates set blocks of time for working towards these goals and for reviewing progress. By customizing these students’ goals and planning, the students can increase their motivation and engagement in learning. Faculty can provide guidance on effective goal setting and planning techniques to help them achieve success in any domain. In many classes (e.g., psychology, English/communication, etc) it may even be possible to embed these practices into assignments so that students have these skills before encountering a setback.
Tip 5: Inform students on the use of implementation intentions
Gollwitzer & Sheeran (2006) outlined a strategy called implementation intentions that can be employed to achieve a goal. Implementation intentions involve the planning of the when, where, and how of achieving a goal. They describe implementation intentions as “if-then plans” or in other words, if one situation occurs then another specific behaviour will follow that is related to the future goal (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006). Their research demonstrates that this mindset could be used to assist in goal achievement. Postsecondary faculty can support students’ use of this strategy, either by simply informing them about it, or by more actively engaging with students to articulate these intentions. Supporting students’ use of this strategy can help to keep them on a path which moves them forward, and which may still lead to their intended goal, even if they may no longer be traveling on the path they had planned to get there.
Even the best-laid plans can be disrupted, often beyond the student’s control. Learning to deal with setbacks is a skill which will have lifelong benefits in a variety of situations. As faculty, advisors, and various other roles where we interact with students, we can be a source of support and encouragement for students experiencing setbacks and help them continue on their journey to success.
Tyler Snyder recently his bachelor of arts in psychology at the University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada. He hopes to pursue a graduate degree in the near future.
Lynne N. Kennette is a professor of psychology at Durham College (Oshawa, Ontario). She earned her PhD in cognitive psychology from Wayne State University (Detroit, MI) and has varied research interests including language processing, bilingual language representation, memory, universal design for learning (UDL) and numerous other topics related to the scholarship of teaching and learning.
Abdullah, M. C., Kong, L. L., & Talib, A. R. (2014). Perceived social support as predictor of university adjustment and academic achievement amongst first year undergraduates in a Malaysian public university. Malaysian Journal of Learning and Instruction, 11, 59-73. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1137257
Brady, S., Fricker, T., Redmond, N., & Gallo, M. (2020). Academic Probation: Evaluating the Impact of Academic Standing Notification Letters on the Experience and Retention of Students, Followup Report. https://heqco.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Formatted_Mohawk_ASL.pdf
Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 38, pp. 69–119). Elsevier Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(06)38002-1
Poe, L. F., Brooks, N. G., Korzaan, M., Hulshult, A. R., & Woods, D. M. (2021). Promoting Positive Student Outcomes: The Use of Reflection and Planning Activities with a Growth-Mindset Focus and SMART Goals. Information Systems Education Journal, 19(4), 13-22. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1310027
Skinner, E. A., Edge, K., Altman, J., & Sherwood, H. (2003). Searching for the structure of coping: A review and critique of category systems for classifying ways of coping. Psychological Bulletin, 129(2), 216-269. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.129.2.216
Waltenbury, M., Brady, S., Gallo, M., Redmond, N., Draper, S., & Fricker, T. (2018). Academic probation: Evaluating the impact of academic standing notification letters on students. Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. https://heqco.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Formatted_ARC_Mohawk.pdf
Walton, G. M., & Brady, S. T. (2020). “Bad” things reconsidered. In J. P. Forgas, W. D. Crano, & K. Fiedler (Eds.), Applications of social psychology: How social psychology can contribute to the solution of real-world problems (pp. 58–81). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780367816407-4
Yusuff, K. B. (2018). Does personalized goal setting and study planning improve academic performance and perception of learning experience in a developing setting?. Journal of Taibah University Medical Sciences, 13(3), 232-237. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31435329/
Zhang, J. W., & Chen, S. (2016). Self-compassion promotes personal improvement from regret experiences via acceptance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(2), 244–258. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167215623271