Alicia Hoffman, Department of Chemistry

Stress is correlated with both improved and diminished academic achievement. Students are successful when there is a drive to attain high standards, but too much stress negatively impacts learning and memory and increases underachievement, dropout rates, and depression.1,2 Therefore, maintaining a balance between too stressful and not stressful enough is important for students to do well in the classroom.

Eustress (good stress) can drive productivity, creativity, and hope.3 It is linked to academic achievement and investment in coursework.4 Setting ambitious goals and having high expectations promotes eustress, resulting in a desire to achieve.1

On the other hand, overemphasizing goals or setting unrealistic expectations introduces distress (bad stress).1 Distress causes anxiety, lack of investment or interest, and can reduce students’ ability to concentrate.3,5 The fear of failure is a major source of anxiety for many students, and the fear becomes more apparent as the goals become more unrealistic.5

Students report several different causes of stress, such as studying, examinations, and fear of failure.5 While teachers cannot control all of these factors, there are some simple ways to reduce distress and increase eustress in the classroom.

Reducing Distress

Build a community

Use icebreakers and group work to foster a sense of community in the classroom. A community of supportive peers reduces distress and improves student confidence.3 The feeling of belonging in an academic community is also linked to a positive academic mindset.1

Create a routine

Students feel calmer and more in control when the class follows a daily routine. Too much “novelty” can cause students to worry or mentally withdraw.3 Maintain a few regular activities during the class, such as a break around the same time or a low-stakes review quiz at the beginning or end of every period.

Teach about time management

Time management training positively impacts a student’s sense of control over time, which reduces distress.2,5 Incorporate time management into projects and assignments. Have students reflect on the steps they need to complete the project and define goals for how to finish these steps. Then have students detail deadlines and strategies to reach their goals. Finally, have them break down these deadlines into daily or weekly tasks so that the entire project feels manageable.

Increasing Eustress

Set achievable goals with positive rewards

Instead of forcing goals on students, set them with your students. Ask students what they want out of the class. Create rubrics as a group so students understand what is expected and feel they have control over these expectations. Provide rewards for exceeding expectations, such as a homework freebie or a few bonus points on an exam.

Let students take ownership

Promote feelings of self-confidence and ownership by allowing students to make decisions. Give students the freedom to choose their own topics or the format of a project. A sense of purpose and ownership over a task motivates students and promotes confidence in their abilities.1,4

Focus on student improvement

Use formative assessments and check-ins to show students how they have improved over the course. When working on long-term projects, provide feedback at different stages so students have the opportunity to learn – and show they’ve learned – from their mistakes.

Recognizing a few sources of distress and redesigning them into sources of eustress can improve student attitudes and promote academic achievement. Stress doesn’t have to be a bad thing in the classroom, and good stress can help students achieve more.

References

Dockterman, D.; Weber, C. Does stressing performance goals lead to too much, well, stress? The Phi Delta Kappan 2017, 98(6), 31-34.

Häfner, A.; Stock, A.; Oberst, V. Decreasing students’ stress through time management training: An intervention study. Euro. J. Psych. Educ. 2015, 30(1), 81-94.

Sharpe, B. Digging into dissonance: Distress, eustress, and the student experience. 2014

Levi, U.; Einav, M.; Ziv, O.; Raskind, I.; Margalit, M. Academic expectations and actual achievements: The roles of hope and effort. Euro. J. Psych. Educ. 2014, 29(3), 367-386.

Robotham, D. Stress among higher education students: Towards a research agenda. Higher Educ. 2008, 56(6), 735-746.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on April 24th, 2019.

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