All Posts Tagged With: "anxiety"
But will it really reduce stress?
The only thing worse than stressing out about upcoming exams is when you’re done writing them and you stress out about the marks you’ll get.
The University of Toronto Law faculty knows this and they want to make students focus less on marks and more on “intellectual engagement.”
After two years of studying how to reduce stress about marks and help students enjoy their studies, the law faculty is considering dropping letter grades (A, B+, B, C+, C, D, F). Several law schools in the United States use the pass/fail system, including Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, and Yale, they note. A pass/fail system can help reduce students’ anxiety over marks, they say.
Except, uh, U of T’s news system won’t be pass/fail. Instead, five categories of marks will be used: High Honours, Honours, Pass, Low Pass, and Fail. In other words, the letter grade system isn’t being dropped, it’s just getting a face-lift. It’s like making a director’s cut and calling it a new movie.
I’m not exactly sure how renaming the letter grades is supposed to reduce anxiety over marks. Instead of stressing about getting A’s, students can stress about getting ‘high honours.’
Here’s an idea: instead of assigning them grades, why not rank students on a superheroes scale, Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Green Lantern…
Then again, that might not work. Students would still fear getting an ‘Aquaman.’
Scott Dobson-Mitchell is a Biomedical Sciences student at Waterloo. Follow @ScottyDobson
Anxiety and depression need to be reclassified
Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about efforts to improve the services available to students related to their psychological well-being on campuses. University presidents met for a workshop recently, and Queen’s University welcomed a new $1-million chair to study stigma.
Now, I am no mental health professional but I do know a few things about universities and have some experience with anxiety and depression.
If it were up to me, those trying to improve things on Canadian campuses would keep one crucial principle in mind: be careful how you talk about it.
First, let’s call depression and anxiety something other than “mental illness.”
Universities are “perfect incubators” for mental illness
From the 21st Maclean’s University Rankings—on newsstands now. Story by Shanda Deziel.
Jonathan P. describes his second year at the University of British Columbia as “very, very rough.” He had five intensive reading and writing courses in international relations, plus volunteering commitments. But as an overachiever, he felt “on top of his game.” When he fell behind at week five, the Quebec City native decided he needed to work harder. “The obvious solution, to me,” says Jonathan, 21 at the time, “was to spend less time with friends, less time doing fun stuff, and study, study, study.” By week 10, as assignments piled up, he was sleeping three hours a night. “I woke up one morning,” he says, “and I just didn’t have any taste for my studies and every day looked like it would pretty much never end.” He would call home crying. When he told his stepmom he wasn’t eating, she urged him to go to a doctor, who prescribed sleeping pills that got him through the semester. “When I was home for Christmas,” he says, “just the thought of going back to UBC, I was like, ‘Hell, no. This is not happening.’ ”
Everything seems unfamiliar and un-memorizable
Normally, the more I study for an upcoming exam, the better I feel. As I read over my notes and review the textbook, the material seems familiar and my impending sense of doom diminishes a little.
But for my Embryology exam, the more I studied, the more I realized I didn’t know anything.
Christmas vacation isn’t a vacation yet.
When I found out that all five of my exams were in a row, right at the beginning of exam period, I couldn’t decide if I was happy, or on the verge of developing a nervous tic.
On the one hand, writing exams sooner means less time to study. Not to mention, when your exams are literally back-to-back, one day after another, it’s harder to divide up your study time properly. How can you study for Biochemistry when Embryology is the day before? And how can you study for Embryology when Molecular biology is the day before that? And how can you study for Molecular biology when… well, you get the point.
On the other hand, all my exams were over in one shot. And my Christmas vacation started a bit earlier than usual.
Except it didn’t. Until my final marks are released tomorrow, I can’t sit back and enjoy my vacation.
I’m stuck in post-exam purgatory.
-Photo courtesy of alancleaver_2000
The generation now entering university is the most anxious since the 1930s
By the time Victoria Ciciretto left her family’s home in Kleinburg, Ont., to live and study at the University of Toronto, the 18-year-old was already a seasoned world traveller. “I’d gone away for a month in Europe for summer school in Grade 10,” she says. “I took a Grade 12 course in Greece,” she adds. “And the year before last, I studied English in England.”
Presumably, moving 40 km away from home would be easy, but instead the arts and science student was filled with anxiety. “For my first week, I was like, ‘Oh my god, why would people say this is the most amazing time of your life?’ ”
She was nervous about living in a dorm, about classes and homework, about what major to choose and if she would make friends. There was a reason she could handle summers overseas, but was scared of university. “I had really good friends with me when I went travelling,” she says. “When I went to university, I didn’t know anybody.”
Ciciretto’s concerns are not unusual. For some, anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and loneliness. For others, it’s a serious mental health issue—one that afflicts university-aged students more than any other age group.
Statistics Canada’s 2006 Community Health Survey of Mental Health and Well-being revealed that people aged 15 to 24 are most likely to experience anxiety disorders, with 6.5 per cent reporting an anxiety disorder in the past year. Studies in Canada and the U.S. have also shown that about 30 per cent of post-secondary students suffer from a mental health or substance abuse issue, compared to 18 per cent of the general population. Researchers from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland found today’s college students suffer from anxiety and depression at a higher rate than every generation since the 1930s.
Why all this stress during what’s supposed to be the most exciting time of life? Michael Van Ameringen, a professor in the department of psychiatry at McMaster University, explains that it may be timing. The co-director of the anxiety disorders clinic on campus since 1985 says students are at the peak age of susceptibility. “The university cohort is entering the age of risk for onset of psychological disorders,” he says. The first episodes of clinical depression, panic disorders and generalized anxiety typically manifest in the late teens or early twenties. That risk, paired with normal stress about the whole university or college experience, makes it the most vulnerable time.
Novelist Patricia Pearson swam through her undergraduate degree in her hometown of Toronto, but generalized anxiety disorder hit her during grad school, when she found herself alone in Chicago at the age of 23. In her book, A Brief History of Anxiety: Yours and Mine, she concludes that anxiety is more often a product of culture and circumstance (like loneliness) than something written in our biology. “There is data on the fact that in a country like Mexico, where there’s less onus on the individual and it’s more collective, anxiety doesn’t last as long,” she says.
The Mexican example and other cross-national psychological literature revealed that tight-knit communities with collective rituals in place—say churchgoing or fiestas—tended to be healthier. “You don’t feel as isolated and you don’t feel like it’s all about you,” she says. But university, Pearson points out, is often all about you; it’s a period of isolation from social supports.
In Generation Me, Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, attributes anxiety to the individualism that characterizes the group born after the 1970s and she links it to unrealistic optimism. Yes, according to Twenge, there is such a thing as too much optimism: young people (“Generation Me”) have been brought up with unrealistic expectations about how their lives will turn out. “When things don’t happen the way they expect, they can hit anxiety and depression,” she says.
In other words, they have less access to the traditional social connections that promote mental health, such as closeness to family, stable relationships and a strong sense of community, so they’re more likely to experience anxiety disorders. If anxiety becomes disruptive, Twenge suggests students should pay a visit to the university counselling service, or talk to elders who have life experience. “But these rough periods can be a learning experience, too,” she says. “Things don’t have to be perfect all the time.”
Should students be scared when faculty threaten to walk out?
Labour unrest at Western and Carleton have, no doubt, students there worried. And as the academic year rolls on, more faculty associations across the country may reach tense periods in their bargaining processes. Could my school be next? But since students are not always familiar with the mechanics of such negotiations, the uncertainty can be unnerving. What follows is a brief outline of what goes on to help students feel a bit less uncertain.
At nearly every university in Canada, professors and other academics are members of a local faculty association, and in most cases those associations are legally unions according to provincial labour laws. For professors, most of those locals are part of a national union, The Canadian Association of University Teachers.
Faculty associations negotiate collective agreements with their university administrations and those agreements govern much of the academic workings of the university. Students may not be aware of it, but everyday things like the numbers of students in their classes may, in fact, be determined by the university’s contract with its faculty.
These contracts are made only for a few years at a time since neither side wants to be bound to one set of rules for too long — new problems may arise, after all. So, around the time the old agreement is set to run out, the two sides meet to try to negotiate a new deal. Often the changes are minor, but there are usually important things that both sides want to alter. Salaries, for example, are almost always on the table, but, as the recent disputes at Western and Carleton show, things like tenure and promotion can take centre stage.
Sometimes both sides agree within a few months to new terms and a contract is signed without much conflict. Just as often, though, negotiations drag on, impasses are reached, and things get tense. At some point, the faculty association’s executive may call a vote asking members to authorize a strike should they deem one necessary. Students should be aware that calling a vote for a strike mandate like this is very common in such negotiations and is nothing to be alarmed about. A strike vote is not a decision to strike; it’s only an authorization to call a strike if necessary. In fact, the strike vote may actually help resolve the problems because it shows the administration that faculty are serious.
When the vote is called, faculty association members typically vote in favour of a strike because if they vote against it, their bargainers lose almost all their power: they have to show the administration that, at the end of the day, they are willing to walk. That is the only real power faculty associations have.
If no agreement can be reached — and pending a variety of mediations that may be mandated by provinical laws — faculty may strike. They leave the university, cease their teaching and typically set up picket lines on campus. Depending on the particulars, the university itself may remain open so that students can go to the library, work in computer labs and so on, but those details will vary from one university to the next. Check the web sites of the university and of the faculty association itself to get information about your case.
If they do feel the need to walk out, associations typically try to arrange strikes for a time that will cause maximum disruption to the university’s operations so that the administration has plenty of motivation to make a deal. Faculty generally do not strike in the summer because the university can simply let them stay away without losing much revenue or causing a public uproar. Consequently, many associations try to time their job actions for the middle of the term to create fear that exams and courses might be in jeopardy if the situation is not resolved.
Does this sound like students are being used? They are. Associations want students and parents and members of the community to rally together and say “get those profs back to work for our kids’ sake!” which pressures the university to cave in to faculty demands.
At the same time, what is good for faculty is often good for students in the long run. If faculty win higher salaries at the bargaining table, it may mean recruiting better profs in the future. If they get better rules for academic freedom, it may mean better teaching because instructors are not worried about what they can and cannot say. If they get smaller class sizes, you may get more personal attention in your next course.
The good news is that for all the anxiety, faculty strikes are not usually very long (typically weeks, not months). So far as I know, no Canadian university has ever lost a term or semester due to a strike. So if there is a talk of a strike where you go to school, don’t panic. The strike is not likely to happen. If it does, it likely won’t be long, and by the time there is another one, you will have graduated and moved on.
Making the most of your study time so you get the best test mark you can
At most universities, classes are now over. Your assignments are handed in. You don’t have to get out of bed for that nasty 8:30 am class. And your first final exam isn’t for two weeks.
With all this free time on your hands, you:
a.) party like it’s 2010;
b.) sleep until noon then spend the rest of the day watching TV shows on your laptop in bed; or,
c.) hit the books.
(Hint: this isn’t one of those trick multiple-choice questions, where the obvious-sounding answer is the wrong one.)
As much as you feel that you deserve a break (and you probably do), stay focused for just a couple more weeks before shifting into the somnolence of turkey time. Organizing your time effectively now will ensure you get the mark you deserve after working your butt off all semester.
For some students, exam period can be incredibly stressful. (Breathe deeply and read our column on stress). Studying thoroughly and efficiently, not wasting time on unimportant material and developing a test-taking strategy are the three keys to doing well on your exam. And knowing you did everything you could to prepare, you should be able to sleep soundly the night before the big test day.
Many students think that the more time they spend studying, the better the mark they’ll get, but that isn’t necessarily true; you’ll better retain material if you study in a larger number of smaller chunks of time, rather than cramming studying into a couple of 12-hour sessions in the two days before the exam. So, before you throw yourself into studying, pause to make a study plan. There are a finite number of hours between now and your exam, so you need to budget your time accordingly.
Writing exams is hard. But so is writing them.
I remember vividly the moment I was most nervous about an exam. As I walked to the exam room that sunny morning, I felt a tightening in my back as if someone had wrapped a heavy belt around me and had begun twisting.
I wasn’t on my way to take the exam, however. I was on my way to give it.
Sitting for an exam has, of course, its challenges. There are names and dates to recall, formulae to remember, essays to construct — but to my mind the difficulty in answering all those questions is less daunting than the difficulty in making them up in the first place.
For one thing, if a student does badly on the exam, he only hurts himself. But if the exam itself is not constructed fairly, then the whole class suffers. This was the idea that plagued me as I took that first long walk to hand out that first examination. Were the questions too hard? Were they clear enough? Did I really cover everything in class that I think I did? What if everyone fails?
Over the years, as I’ve given more and more exams, I’ve relaxed a bit, but I still worry. Have I repeated questions twice? Did I accidentally leave out the right answer in a multiple choice question? Did I inadvertently introduce a trick somewhere? Is the hint I provided really helpful, or does it just confuse things?
The most disastrous exam I ever devised was one that students said they wanted. I asked what format they wanted for the exam; they replied “scavenger hunt.” So I obliged, and on exam day they went scampering off across campus looking for questions and writing answers. But I underestimated how physically taxing the whole thing would be, and when the marks came in I felt so guilty, I gave everyone a “fortitude bonus” for going enduring the grueling experience. The misadventure still seems like a bad dream to me.
I once gave students an oral final exam which presented its own challenges. For one thing, I needed to have a record of the answers since, in theory, students are able to appeal their grades after the course is over (I think I still have the tape). For another, there was a matter of organizing the time. I ended up giving the question to the students, giving them twenty minutes to make notes and formulate their answers, then ten minutes each to present each response. I varied the order of the presentations, since there were both advantages and disadvantages to going first or last. Luckily for me, there were only three students in the class.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I know that sitting for an exam is no walk in the park. For some it is a downright nightmare. But if it makes you feel any better, as you are worrying about how well you are answering the questions, there is a good chance your prof is worrying about how well he asked them.