Students, stress and anxiety
The college experience, however thrilling and inspiring, can also be stressful for a lot of students. The stakes are high, classes are hard, and they have a lot on their mind. But not all stress is created equal.
Stress is the body's reaction to challenge. Acute stress is normal and can even enhance performance. We should start worrying about students when they experience chronic acute stress; this type of stress feels never-ending and starts chipping away at one's health(1). While stress levels on average are declining for Americans, in a 2012 survey 39% of people aged 18-33 reported that their stress levels actually increased (2). The situation appears equally alarming with the incoming student generation: in 2013, teens ages 13-17 reported stress levels higher than adults over 18(3).
This generation has also been dubbed "the anxious generation" (4), for about 12% of young people are diagnosed with anxiety(2), and this figure likely doesn't cover all who suffer from the condition.
Anxiety is different from stress in that stress appears in response to a specific stressor (e.g. an upcoming exam), while anxiety has no identifiable root (5): it is a constant feeling of fear of what lays ahead.
According to a 2012 meta-analysis (6) students worry most often about academics, relationships, lack of resources (time, money and support), and expectations – both their own and that of others.
"Millennials are growing up at a tough time. They were sheltered in many ways, with a lot of high expectations for what they should achieve. Individual failure is difficult to accept when confronted with a sense you're an important person and expected to achieve. Even though, in most instances, it's not their fault — the economy collapsed just as many of them were getting out of college and coming of age — that does lead to a greater sense of stress," says Mark Hais, author of two books on millennials (2).
It is important to acknowledge that instructors cannot be responsible for alleviating student stress entirely. On the other hand, there are a number of strategies we can keep in mind when designing our classes that will make the experience less stressful for students. Bear in mind that our goal here is not to shield students from stress altogether, rather to alleviate unnecessary stress stemming from uncertainty without compromising our standards.
Tips for Course Design
Much of students’ stress revolves around grades. How can I get an A? How do I succeed in this class? What is the professor expecting of me on this assignment? We can reduce the uncertainty by establishing the ground rules up front and communicating the criteria explicitly.
Include your grading policy in your syllabus, including late assignment policy, how assignments are weighed, due dates, make-up exam policy and extra credit policy. Address these at the beginning of the course. An excellent resources for developing syllabi can be found on the GT Center for Teaching and Learning website.
Create rubrics to evaluate assignments. Share and discuss the evaluation criteria with students before the assignment is due. You can request help developing rubrics at CTL.
c. Practice Resources
Allow students to test their understanding on practice exams or practice problems. Even if you don’t provide personal feedback on these, such a resource will communicate your expectations to the students.
You can choose to involve students in making decisions about what happens in class, which can be empowering and can lessen the anxiety regarding the power dynamic between students and instructors.
a. Personalizing Class Environment
You can give students a choice over many aspects of the class: to have or not to have music during group work? To hold or not to hold class outside on a lovely day? To have two 5-minute breaks, or to have one 10-minute break? Do they want reminders via email, announced in class or posted on a website?
b. Setting Ground Rules
You can invite your students to agree on a set of guiding rules for classroom conduct at the beginning of the semester. As a group, they can come up with expectations and responsibilities for both themselves and the instructor, essentially an operational agreement. They will likely come up with similar expectations for timeliness, respect for others, clear communication that you would have on a syllabus anyway - but this way instead of imposing the rules on them, they will have a sense of ownership over the rules.
c. Choice in Evaluation
You can choose to build in some flexibility into how students acquire their final grade. For example, you can have 5 equivalent tasks on the final exam, of which students have to complete any four. A variation of this is when they complete all five, but you drop the lowest scoring one.
Compared to their high school experience, Georgia Tech is a drastic change for many students. You can design your course with a care for making this transition smoother.
a. Assignment Structure
If there are multiple exams/major assignments during your course, assign less weight to the first ones. This way, even if students have overestimated their conduct of the material, they can recover as the semester progresses. One such example is the grading scheme in MATH 2550.
b. Formative Feedback
Allocate more time for formative feedback at the beginning of the semester, so students can learn from their mistakes and perform better over time. For example, you can choose to provide very detailed feedback for the first draft of a paper, and only brief comments for the second draft.
You can leverage both the students themselves as well as your TAs in managing stress in your class – peer support can be a powerful asset. Here are some tips for creating a supportive community in your classroom.
You can foster collaboration between students by creating a “buddy-system” at the beginning of the semester. Have students turn to their left and right neighbor, exchange contact information and get to know at least a few other students’ names. They now have some peers with whom they can study together, ask them for their notes if they missed class, or someone they can reach out to. Students often talk more willingly with peers than professors.
b. Enlisting The Help of TAs
Organize a training session for TAs ahead of class. Brainstorm some strategies with them to address stress in the class. Make sure they know where to turn if they have a struggling student and provide them with resources they can share with their students. Check in with them regularly to discuss potential issues.
c. “We Want You to Succeed”
Assure students that while it is their responsibility to complete class work, you and your team want to help them excel in class. Communicate this clearly from the onset, and keep reminding students that your goal is for them to accomplish the learning goals and complete the class successfully.
It is of utmost importance to recognize when a student is experiencing anxiety or stress that is seriously affecting their health and to connect them with helpful resources. Many of the symptoms of chronic stress or anxiety are invisible to us, faculty, but there are some we can look out for. The GT Counseling Center provides an excellent guide to spot trouble. The following are signs that a student may need professional help:
Tips for Managing Stress In-Class
There are times when stress is more profoundly experienced by all and this may warrant additional interventions. It is predictable that students will be more stressed around midterms and finals, so you can choose to respond to that. We also sometimes experience traumatic and anxiety-provoking events as a community – which is when the techniques described below may prove useful. We suggest you consider what works for your class and your style and pick accordingly.
Practicing mindfulness is a popular and effective way to help students relax and focus. The idea behind such practices is that in order to do meaningful work and deep thinking, one has to be able to concentrate, and students sometimes do that better if they get a few minutes of "mental break". The following quote describes how Alisha Waller, professor of Statistics at Georgia Tech, leads a short session at the beginning of class:
"When it’s officially time for class to start, I thunk the singing bowl first to signal that everybody needs to stop where they are and physically be still. It's okay if they are walking into the classroom, they just need to stop wherever they are. Then I say: 'Let's take a deep breath together' and I ring the bowl, letting it resonate . While it's singing, I close my eyes, which gives students permission to do whatever it is they need to do. I hold myself in an open, relaxed posture and I visibly breathe deeply. Once I finished my breath and the room is silent, I open my eyes, look at them and say: 'Welcome back to Statistics, let's get started.'"
2. Let'em Vent
When students are distracted, you can choose to let them chat for a few minutes before turning their attention to the class. You may simply ask them to turn to their neighbor, and share anything that’s on their mind, what their day is like so far, what is ahead of them. A version of this is when you ask them to write anything they want on a piece of paper anonymously and then keep it. An even more satisfying way to do this is to have a shredder in the classroom, where they can shred their papers after writing them.
Offer a few moves of guided stretching exercises when you detect a lull in concentration or students appear distracted. It’s important to make this optional, and to allow students to stretch however they like. You can also ask students to just walk around for a few minutes, if your classroom infrastructure allows for that.
You can insert a short think-pair-share activity when you ask students to share how they cope with stress and exchange strategies. You can also choose to share your own strategies for handling stress, which has an additional benefit of communicating with students that they are not the only ones experiencing stress.