« More blog articles
A close-up photo of someone writing

Six ways to help students cope with setbacks in the classroom

Posted on: July 22, 2020

By Marc Smith, chartered psychologist and author of Becoming Buoyant: Helping Teachers and Students Cope with the Day to Day

What is it that drives academic success? There are certainly many factors involved, but the ability to bounce back from failure and disappointment is certainly an important one. Broadly speaking, the manner in which students approach such setbacks is known as academic buoyancy.

Academic buoyancy is a type of resilience specific to low-level learning related troubles. While these relatively minor yet personally significant hassles may not seem important on their own, they accumulate over time, chipping away at our ability to cope. They include such things as a poor grade on a test, dealing with multiple competing deadlines or finding the time and motivation to revise for upcoming exams.

Students who cope effectively in these situations share several qualities that provide greater protection from the negative consequences of daily hassles and setbacks. These students are also more academically successful. The original model of academic buoyancy identified five predictors that mainly focus on internal personal attributes (confidence, coordination, control, composure and commitment - the 5Cs) while other studies also highlight the role of community factors - a sixth C.

The 6Cs of Academic Buoyancy

Confidence Icon

Confidence refers to self-efficacy - the belief we have in our ability to complete a task successfully. Students with a greater capacity for self-efficacy are likely to persevere for longer because they feel they can complete the task. They also believe they will recover if their efforts are unsuccessful, so are less likely to give up when things get difficult.


Coordination IconCoordination is the tendency to plan, set goals, manage time and develop useful habits and routines. A student who sets realistic yet challenging goals and systematically works towards achieving these goals is more likely to persevere. Such habits also reduce procrastination, especially if goals are broken down into smaller sub-goals.


Control IconControl is the belief that we can influence outcomes, including failure. Psychologists often refer to this as locus of control, or the way we attribute the causes of outcomes. We perceive these causes as being internal or external and stable or unstable. A student might attribute a disappointing grade on a test to something internal (it’s about them) and stable (it can’t be changed) and conclude that they will always fail. If, for example, the student views their failure in terms of a lack of intelligence, they may conclude that failure is inevitable. However, if our student attributes failure to lack of motivation (internal and unstable), they can then control the outcome by changing their behaviour.


Becoming Buoyant Free Chapter

Download Your Free Chapter

Personality and the 6 Cs.

The relationship between academic buoyancy and some personality traits is complex, as is the ability to overcome the stability and consistency factors inherent in these traits. This free chapter focuses on how some personality traits actively reduce the capacity to flourish in the face of challenges, while others can support it.

Download Now


Composure IconComposure is the ability to remain relatively calm under pressure. This doesn’t mean the absence of anxiety because tolerable levels of stress motivate and prepare the body for action. However, high levels of anxiety affect us both cognitively and physically, and those students better equipped to deal with it perform better. Strategies such as regular low stakes assessment (such as daily quizzes) can help build confidence while normalising test-taking. Breaking difficult tasks down into manageable chunks helps to reduce the burden on our limited cognitive resources, so it can also reduce the anxiety encountered during formal assessment tasks.


Commitment IconCommitment comes in many forms; we might call it conscientiousness or grit. Commitment refers to the tendency to keep going and stick with the task, even though it might be difficult. It’s linked to personality traits, but this doesn’t mean that students can’t nurture it with support from teachers. It also has links to the other Cs, such as our commitment to accomplish a goal or the way it can increase our confidence.


Community IconCommunity is our 6th C and it takes a broader approach, recognising the importance of the wider environment. Support mechanisms play a major role in how successful pupils are, including the way they negotiate setbacks and other learning obstacles. Just as important is school ethos, the shared norms and values such as cooperation, working hard, respect for others and doing one’s best.

These six factors represent a model of academic resilience that takes into account both individual and school-wide aspects of learning. Some of them (such as coordination) can be viewed as study skills, while others (e.g. composure and confidence) are more similar to traits that can be nurtured and encouraged.

Discover more wellbeing advice 

Becoming Buoyant

If you enjoyed reading this article, Becoming Buoyant: Helping Teachers and Students Cope with the Day to Dais an invaluable therapeutic tool for teachers.