Preparing for Student Stress

Steve Volk, Director, Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence (CTIE), Oberlin College

September 2, 2013

We talk often about getting to know our students at the start of the semester, starting with learning their names. You likely know, for example, that your courses on Blackboard provide a photo of your registered students. Find “Course Tools,” and then “Student Roster.” At the very least you’ll know what they LOOKED like when the picture was taken (which might bear no resemblance to what they currently look like). Often faculty hand out index cards or small slips of paper asking students to mention one thing by which you, the faculty, can use to remember them: a kind of mnemonic device (Elizabeth loves Maine lobster). In small classes, you can have students interview each other for a few minutes and then the “interviewer” introduces the “interviewee” to the class.

There are also ways to learn about in-coming students in a broader, sociological, sense. I always enjoy the famous Beloit College “Mindset List”, which reflects the world view of new students. Some of my favorites for the incoming Class of 2017 (born in 1995): Eminem and LL Cool J could show up at parents’ weekend, and Gaga has never been baby talk.

For a more serious look, the Chronicle of Higher Education publishes a yearly “Almanac” which provides useful data about entering first-years as well as students in general. In it, you will discover that:

  • the number of degrees awarded in “personal and culinary services” has gone up by 1,078% over the past 20 years while the number of degrees in education has declined by 6%;
  • Ohio ranked 5th in the U.S. in terms of drawing out-of-state first-years in 2010;
  • 29.6% of entering students in 2012 saw themselves as “far left” or “liberal,” as opposed to 22.9% who placed themselves as “far right” or “conservative;”
  • nearly half spent 1-5 hrs per week studying during their last year of high school while 31% worked (for pay) from 6-20 hours a week; and
  • just under 80% ranked themselves either “above average” or “in the highest 10%” in terms of their ability to work cooperatively with diverse people (whereas only 45% self-evaluated at that level in terms of their writing ability).

And on and on. (This year’s edition was published on August 23, 2013). [NOTE: If you are not a subscriber to the Chronicle, you can gain access via the library’s website.]

But there is an additional set of data that I’d like to draw your attention to as you are thinking about the students who are taking in your classes. This material comes my way from a College senior, Hannah Daneshvar, a neuroscience major, who recently completed a remarkably thorough and useful paper, “Mental Health Programming: Recommendations for Change.” While not a scientific survey of our students, it nonetheless provides very useful ways of thinking about the challenges our students face. Of particular importance for us as teachers is the section on “Academics: Awareness of Professorial Responses to States of Distress.”

Rather than report Daneshvar’s data, I’d like to refer to a much larger study undertaken bi-yearly by   the American College Health Association/National College Health Assessment, which she cites in her paper.

(The most recent report, for Fall 2012,  was for a reference group of 28,237 respondents with a 20% overall response proportion.)

Here are some data we need to keep in mind when we think about our students:

The results of Daneshvar’s informal survey of Oberlin students suggest that the likelihood of students feeling emotional or mental health distress (academic or otherwise) is even higher at Oberlin. Still, if we take the larger ACHA/NCHA study into account, there is a good chance that between a quarter and three-quarters of our students are likely to face significant emotional or mental health issues while at Oberlin.

So, is there anything we can do about this now, at the beginning of the semester. In other words, can we prepare our students for their future stress levels (just as we try to prepare for our own, as was raised in last week’s Article of the Week)?

Here’s where I think that Daneshvar’s paper is most useful. I’ll just pull out a few of her points for your consideration. Most students, according to her informal survey, do not feel comfortable approaching professors about their situations. So:

  • Think about sending your student a clear signal in the first week of classes that you know that, as the semester develops, they will be facing a lot of demands, that these will put them under considerable pressure, and that not only should they not hesitate to contact you if there are issues along these lines, but that this will not be seen as a sign of weakness, incompetence or poor performance in your class.
  • · Make yourself aware of the services readily available on campus for students that are relevant to emotional and mental wellness and health. These include Student Health & Counseling Services (John Harshbarger, director); Wellness and Health Promotion (Lori Morgan Flood, Associate Dean and director); Active Minds (a student organization for mental health advocacy and awareness); and, as always, the Class Deans. Further, we should soon have on board (if we don’t already), an Assistant Dean for Health Initiatives.

Send your students a clear signal that you know they will be under stress and that they can talk to you about it.

  • Explicitly inform students of the types of support you can offer them or guide them to, as well as your personal policies on physical and mental health, and treatment of extension requests related to mental health/emotional health issues. Put a statement in your syllabus, or in a tab on your Blackboard course site, to address these issues. Two examples (there are more in Daneshvar’s paper):
  • “If you feel emotional or mental distress this semester, you are welcome to talk to me about your situation. However, I am not a therapist and will most likely try to inform you to the best of my ability of the resources we have on campus, because your health is key to your success.”
  • “I realize that you have classes in addition to mine and that you may experience periods of anxiety and stress because of overlapping deadlines. If you feel absolutely overwhelmed, or are looking at your schedule now and see a week in which you’ll have five assignments due in two days, please see me and we’ll discuss your individual situation.”
  • Remind students of your policies in this regards in a few weeks time when they are likely to be feeling more pressured and anxious.

There are other ways that individual faculty (and departments) can become aware of these issues, but for the start of the semester, think of these as ways to introduce yourselves to your students.

We all decide what works best in our classrooms and for the learning goals we have established, but, if nothing else, do keep in mind these two points: (1) a significant minority, and perhaps a considerable majority, of your students will experience moments of anxiety and even depression during the semester; and (2) in general, they will not feel comfortable raising them with you unless explicitly invited. Taking that first step is a lot easier for you than for them.

From Debbie Millman, Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design (HOW Books, 2009)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *