Students who experience occasional setbacks are more likely to be top students – study
Image via Shutterstock.

It’s generally believed that maintaining a positive outlook is the key to success in life.

But apparently the best students are those who experience both the highs and lows, according to a recent study.

Researchers at a Canadian university have found that students who go through bouts of negativity once in a while are likelier to graduate with better marks than their peers who are consistently happy or unhappy.

Dr Erin Barker, an assistant professor of psychology at Concordia University in Canada, along with her team, conducted a longitudinal study over four years, monitoring the well-being and exam results of 187 students.

Based on their results, they discovered that students who constantly felt unhappy had the lowest grade-point averages by the end of the study.

The team was surprised to note, though, that while consistently happy students did well academically, the students who performed the best were those who had reported general happiness with a few spells of negativity.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Dr Barker said, “When we’re going through situations that are challenging, that are frustrating, that make us sad, we have emotions that inform us about our environment.”

“We need to be able to understand these emotions and regulate them such that we can make the appropriate response.”

The study’s authors suggest that experiencing negative emotions such as frustration, disappointment, or anxiety are useful, as they teach students how to regulate them.

Therefore, students who learn how to overcome difficult periods in their lives are also those who tend to excel in their studies.

“Within each academic year, there are lots of ups and downs, and [students] report at the time feeling bad or anxious or angry,” explained Dr Barker.

“And perhaps some of them can say, ‘I feel bad; that’s normal and expected’ […] then they can figure out in time that these negative moods are short-lived and that they can get over them,” she added.

The researchers noted that this pattern did not emerge until two years the respondents’ studies, and Dr Barker believes that this was due to the fact that all students tend to go through some form of emotional upheaval when they first begin their studies at university level.

She thinks that it’s during these two initial years at university that high-achievers learn to swim rather than sink.

“Our understanding is that these students are able to channel and rise to those challenges, and use that as motivation to study,” said Dr Barker.

She added that top students take negative experiences such as receiving unexpectedly poor marks to motivate them to improve and do better the next time.

“That’s what puts them on top of the heap,” she concluded.

Liked this? Then you’ll love these…

Failure gives students a deeper understanding of a subject – report

5 ways to beat stress at university