Competition, fear of failure and the impact on student mental health

A response to Dominique Thompson's TEDx talk at TEDxBath - "What I learnt from 78,000 GP consultations with university students"



If you haven't already seen it, this TEDx talk from Dominique Thompson, published on YouTube earlier this week, has a vital message about our overly-competitive society and the effects on student mental health. 


Its two central pieces of advice – to share our failures and reduce competition – are timely for universities, as we sharpen our focus on how we support the wellbeing of students.


At an institutional level, universities should strive to eliminate unnecessary summative assessment from our programmes. Universities should look for ways to talk to students about failure – perhaps even about staff members’ own individual past failures and rejections – to help students maintain perspective when faced with failure themselves. And we should try to make sure our university marketing teams do not constantly sell the student experience as one non-stop, fun-packed, and deeply unrealistic, thrill ride. (One university’s marketing slogan to “Enjoy Every Minute” always sticks in my mind for all the wrong reasons.)


Celebrating success has become so much part of our social backdrop that it has become almost invisible.


When I watched this TEDx talk, it reminded me of a house I lived in a few years ago which had bright retro 60s wallpaper throughout. In many ways, I loved the wallpaper, in all its geometric orangeness. Still, it didn't take long for the wallpaper to became almost invisible to us, as we lived alongside it every day…even if I did wonder from time to time whether its in-my-face colours were, on some subconscious level, good for my state of mind. I can’t help feeling our constant social media-fuelled celebration of how perfect and successful our lives are is just as appealing, invisible, yet quietly corrosive, as that wallpaper.


As universities focus on how we can support student mental health, other factors pull us sharply in a different direction – for example, our need to retain students for their fee income, our need to do well in institutional league tables, and our need to strive for TEF gold. (Indeed, what is the TEF itself if not an institutionalised form of excessive competition for all institutions, and an imposed sense of failure for many?) 


Developments such as trying to improve student retention using ‘learning analytics’ – and associated attempts to ‘gamify’ higher education by putting competitive academic performance data, in live time, in the hands of students – risk making students more competitive with their peers, not less. New initiatives and technologies like these may come to far outweigh our positive efforts to support students’ mental health.


This is also not just about taking away some of the competition; it is about what we replace it with. I wonder if we might find ways to encourage students to seek out, invest in, and value certain types of friendships and relationships – the people around us who have our best interests at heart, and who are unimpressed by how much we earn or by how many ‘likes’ we have on social media. Looking for ways to have that conversation with students, in a way which doesn’t feel patronising or out-of-step, could be worth a try.

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