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Can optimism keep students from failing?

It’s better to stay positive when times get tough

Thumbs up for optimism! / Alexandra Antoneshyn
Thumbs up for optimism! / Alexandra Antoneshyn

The fall is a beautiful time of year. The leaves are changing, the air is crisp and fresh, but we poor university students don’t often have the chance to make the most of these final days of enjoyable weather. Midterms are the biggest reason to fear the fall, not the impending doom of snow and frigid weather that follows the fall of the leaves. The cold has nothing on exams.

Alright, perhaps that is a tad dramatic, but it is true that midterms are a huge source of stress in university students’ lives. Our weeks are filled with studying or writing papers, while our families go for nice walks around the lake or curl up in cozy sweaters to read a book outside. This is nothing new; midterms suck.

So what can we do about our less than enviable situation? Moan and groan? Complain to anyone and everyone who pretends to listen? I won’t stop you, but I also won’t be around to hear it. Negativity is not only annoying, but it is detrimental to your success and that of those around you. We’ve all heard how positive thinking is great for your mental health and for the well-being of those around you. Optimism, though, can be just as annoying as negativity when it isn’t balanced with realism. Nobody wants to be a negative Nancy, but neither does anyone want to be an overly optimistic fool.

To gain some insight on how to fumble through university without being resentful of the hard work it requires or worse, positively thinking your way to an F, I spoke with Maths and Stats Program Coordinator Jason Bird. Bird has been an advisor for five and a half years, so he has seen many students become overwhelmed to the point of tears by the stress of school. He is also a previous student of the U of R and spent four years studying for a Bachelor of Business Administration. So what got him through the rough times of university? We shouldn’t be surprised that Bird is a big advocator for positivity.

“I was pretty optimistic from the day I entered university,” says Bird. “I knew I would do well because I believed in myself. I believed that if I went after something, I could achieve it, and I think most students think that way.”

I feel more inspired to study already! But, do most students really feel this way? I spoke with a couple of my classmates, Amanda Koback and Warren Bates, to gain some perspective.

Koback considers herself an optimist and uses positive thinking to get her through the semester.

“I’m a religious person, so I use quotes from the Bible,” Koback explains. She also admits to looking at Pinterest and similar sites to give her a boost when she needs it.

You’re not alone Koback, there are more than a few of us out there who scour Pinterest for inspiration.

But, some students aren’t religious, and some students don’t look to websites to fuel their motivation. Bates is one such student who doesn’t buy into conventional sources of inspiration.

“I just do my work,” explains Bates. “It just has to get done. I try to be like, ‘It’ll be over at the end of the month for better or for worse.’”

His focus is impressive, but necessary. Sometimes, we just need to suck it up and get things done. When I dug a little deeper, however, Bates admitted that reading poetry helps keep things in perspective for him. Although he denied being an optimist, Bates has a mentality that propels him through the rough patches of a semester just like Koback’s positive mindset fuels her through the year.

Whether it is poetry, religion, inspirational quotations, or funny videos, it seems that every student has something that helps them remain sane through the chaotic and stressful semester so that they can be motivated to get work done.

“Some semesters are just tougher than others,” says Bird. “[Students] need to say to themselves, ‘No matter how tough this semester gets, I can do it. I can push through it and finish everything, and then next semester will be perfectly fine.’ So, I think it’s a matter of encouraging themselves [and] believing in themselves. Students that don’t do that, those are the same students that are not here anymore. They’ve left school, and they’ve gone somewhere else.”

Bird has a point. Everyone who has made it through the first couple years of university recognizes that work needs to get finished, and the only way to do so is to calm your nerves and get reading, equating, writing, or whatever it is that you need to do.

“There is a real balance that students have to consider. It’s the realistic expectations they need to have, but also they should shoot for their dreams,” says Bird.

The reality of university is that we may not be able to reach the goals we came to university with. Maybe your marks aren’t good enough to get into med school, or perhaps you really hate all of your education classes, but Bird says this is normal and only means you need to revaluate your goals.

“Nothing’s really set in stone. Your dreams change, your ideas change, your goals and values, they’ll change in four years; that’s the way it works. If you’re going to do any changes, this is the place for it: the university.”

Maybe the fact that you are so stressed in classes is because you are in the wrong faculty. As someone who has changed majors multiple times, I think it’s important to recognize when the classes you are taking no longer give you any return. University is stressful and expensive, and it is not worth it to push yourself through classes that bring no enjoyment. Of course, required courses can turn out to be a drag, but the majority of your courses should make you want to pursue your degree. If it takes many trials and many errors to find that area, no sweat; you’re still learning along the way.

Education itself should inspire some sort of optimism within us. We can search for positivity in sources outside of school, and we definitely should, but much of our optimism also comes from the end goal. Achievement and a career are what drive us into university, and they are also what ultimately keep us here through the tough weeks.

“You should be able to say to yourself, ‘All the things I think I can do, I am going to do,’” says Bird. “You should be the one to shoot for your goals, and you should be the one that changes your goals.”

Optimism, whether it is in the form of inspirational messages or is simply the thought of convocation, is what keeps students in university. Studying is not the ideal way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but it ultimately brings us closer to our goals, and those goals are the positive forces that keep our noses in the books.

About laura billett

I grew up dancing and have never been able to stop. I have been addicted to reading and dreamed of writing for as long as I can remember and am always looking for new inspiration, adventures, and a good laugh.

One comment

  1. Stoecker, “Optimism and Grade Expectancies,” Psychological Reports, 1999, 84.
    No relationship between general optimism and optimism about grades. There was a relationship between expectation of grade and actual performance, likely due to expectation being guided by prior performance.

    Svanum et al, “Grade Expectations: Informed or Uninformed Optimism, or Both?,” Teaching of Psychology, 2006, 33.
    Contrasts uninformed wishfulness with “informed aspirational judgment.” Lower GPA students typically fall into the former, higher GPA into the latter. Those with higher GPA were more likely to perform to their expectations.

    Rand, “Hope and optimism: latent structures and influences on grade expectancy and academic performance,” Journal of Personality, 2009, 77.
    The results show that hope uniquely influenced students’ grade expectancies, whereas optimism did not. In turn, grade expectancies influenced academic performance. Neither hope nor optimism had a unique, direct influence on academic performance. In contrast, the shared aspect of hope and optimism (i.e., goal attitude) had a direct influence on academic performance.

    Rand’s paper also explains the difference between hope and optimism in the psychological literature.