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Implementation Planning

Operational Definition: What are Coping Strategies?

While coping is broadly defined as the response to a stressful situation, there are many ways in which responses can be categorized. Within ISSAQ, Coping Strategies refer to the spectrum of ways in which students react to stressful situations, based on well-established theories of stress and coping (Endler & Parker, 1999; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).


There are four strategies - two adaptive and two problematic - addressed by the Coping Strategies scale. “Planful problem solving” and “seeking social support,” whereby students either develop a plan to address the source of stress or seek someone to assist in handling the issue, respectively, comprise the two adaptive coping strategies. Questions related to these factors are scored positively in the ISSAQ assessment.


The two problematic strategies are “avoidant” and “emotional” coping. In avoidant coping, students simply do not acknowledge the source of stress or actively seek a means of distraction from it. With emotional coping, students respond using emotion, including negative emotions such as anger or sorrow.


Empirical Relationship to Success (Does it Predict Student Success?)

Eaton and Beane (1995) were among the first to relate coping strategies to student retention. Using a simple approach/avoidance dichotomy, they found coping strategies to be significantly predictive of student retention within a single institution.

While their study showed promise in exploring the role of coping in student retention and success, no available studies have examined this relationship on a large scale. While some studies, notably the Robbins et al. (2004) meta-analysis, have acknowledged the importance of coping, it was not specifically measured. Instead, coping was considered under broader constructs such as social support or academic skills.

Practical Relationship to Success

Coping Strategies are one of the more integrated factors in the ISSAQ framework. Students’ responses to stress are related to how well they can manage tasks (i.e., Organization), their social resources (i.e., Sense of Belonging), and their willingness to ask for guidance (i.e., Help Seeking). Thus, just as with Calmness, a student’s Coping Strategies cannot be fully understood in isolation. Rather, their responses must be considered as a profile.


Consider a student who scores low in Coping Strategies. This indicates that they are likely to avoid a problem, fail to develop a plan for solving it, or resist asking someone for help in doing so. However, is this because of how they respond to stress, or because of what they perceive as their available resources? By looking at their scores in Organization, Sense of Belonging, and Help Seeking, you can begin to better understand the “whole student.”


How do I help students improve in Coping Strategies?

Coping Strategies is a Dispositional Factor.

This means that direct interventions should be provided in the context of a broader coaching conversation.

At first, Coping Strategies may seem like a Strategic Factor: simply instruct students how to respond in a stressful situation.

However, given the sensitivity that may arise in such situations, it may be best to approach students with problematic Coping Strategies more carefully. Consider the following steps:

  1. Ask a student how they responded the last time they dealt with a really stressful situation.

  2. If the example demonstrates avoidant or emotional coping, point that out. Try to provide an example of how more planful or help-seeking responses could have been used.

  3. It may be helpful to provide an example from your own experience.

  4. Ask the student to reflect on other stressful experiences, or to ask themselves this question the next time they feel stressed.

Note that the Student Resource Hub mostly focuses on helping students reflect on their Coping Strategies and/or connecting with institutional resources (e.g., advising, counseling). This emphasizes the importance of collaborative conversations in helping students develop better Coping Strategies.



Eaton, S. B., & Bean, J. P. (1995). An approach/avoidance behavioral model of college student attrition. Research in higher education, 36(6), 617-645.

Endler N.S. & Parker J.D.A. (1999). Coping Inventory for Stressful Situations (CISS) Manual (2nd ed.). Toronto: Multi-Health Systems.

Lazerus R. & Folkman S. (1984) Stress Appraisal and Coping. New York: Springer.

Robbins, S. B., Lauver, K., Le, H., Davis, D., Langley, R., & Carlstrom, A. (2004). Do psychosocial and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin, 130(2), 261.

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