By: Dr. Juliann Bosko Young - Psychology Faculty, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College
Walking behind some students the other day I overheard a familiar refrain, “I am so stressed out! I have two papers due this week, and I have to work”. Her companion replied with “Don’t I know it! I help take care of my Grandmother and have a project and two exams coming up”.
College students today face inordinate amounts of stress. They are not the first generation to experience stressors, nor will they be the last. However, their unique combination of stressors should not be ignored. The college students of today face the additional stressors not seen in previous generations. How can I go to school while I take care of my aging parents and my own young children? Can I afford to go to school? How much student loan debt will I have when I get out? Can I handle the work associated with college level courses? Add on the uncertainties of society today, including a fluctuating job market and expanding demands on workers, and we have a generation of students who are not equipped to deal with the amount and variety of stressors they face on a daily basis. Many students find themselves so stressed that they are unable to perform in their college classes.
When a student is in my office, one of their main sources of school related stress comes from the dreaded exam. I have found that many students are ill prepared to take college level exams. As high schools have increasingly focused on blended and experiential learning with portfolio outcomes, college students have less training on how to face and conquer the exams that are the hallmark of higher education. So what role do exams play in the overall stress of a college student?
For some students, there is no difference between the stress of exams today and the exams of yesteryear. They spend long, arduous hours making sure they receive the top marks on all their exams. Learning the material and performing on the exam is their sole focus and ambition. These students focus on perfect scores on their exams and high grades in their classes. We have another group of students who face a different type of stress from their college exams. For these students, it’s not about the exam itself: it’s about what the exam represents. It represents whether they are good enough to be in college. It represents how well they will succeed in life. It represents their own personal triumph or failure. When you add these weights onto an exam, it becomes more important than an A or an F. It represents their hopes, abilities, and future. Students who add this type of pressure to their college exams regularly crumble under the pressure.
Many of my colleagues have tried and true methods to aid those students who are looking to perfect the material. Memory skills, study techniques, and practice questions rank high on the advice and instruction we share, but, what about those students who view their exams as part of their personal success or failure? How do we guide them?
1. Listen. I have learned that many students need someone to hear and understand the stressors they are facing. While we may not see their situations as uniquely troublesome, they find them challenging, and in some situations, barriers to their success.
2. Validation. A simple, “That sounds like a lot on your plate. You have every right to be stressed” many times goes a long way to quell the nerves of stressed out college students. For many of them, they have never had an instructor or advisor who has tried to understand their unique life situations.
3. Redirection. This can sometimes be the hardest part. I spend time focusing on what the student is achieving rather than what they are not. Perhaps they earned a 70% on the last exam. They know 70% of the material that was tested which is much more than they knew a few short weeks ago. I also spend time reminding them that one test will not make or break their future. Their education is about a series of endeavors. Some will be remarkably successful, and some will be more challenging. It doesn’t make the challenges less useful.
4. Affirmation. Lastly, I tell my students I believe they can succeed. We may not all start with the same knowledge base or skill, and it may take some of us longer to get to the finish line, but I affirm that I think they will cross the finish line.
Hopefully, by following these simple tricks and tips, we can help college students face their exams with hope and determination rather than despair and frustration.
Watch for General Psychology by Dr. Juliann Bosko Young coming Fall 2017!