‘Inseparable’

Is stress an occupational hazard of university life? For a group of professors and staff at UBC, tackling stress in the classroom could go a long way towards impacting university culture.

Students are stressed. You’ve heard it, you’ve read it, you know it first-hand — you laugh at it, making memes with your friends about who’s the closest to having a full breakdown about that term paper they haven’t started or that project with the worst group members ever.

But is stress ubiquitous to university life in the way we assume it is? Some people at the forefront of the discussion are saying it doesn’t have to be.

Over the past year, mental health has been an especially prevalent topic in the media and within UBC’s bureaucratic structures, reaching buzzword levels of infamy. This is partially thanks to UBC President Santa Ono, who in his year-and-a-bit of presidency has consistently prioritized mental health and well-being as his personal passion project.

In October, Ono and University of Toronto Chancellor Dr. Michael Wilson co-wrote an opinion piece in The Globe and Mail in response to a Margaret Wente column titled, “Why treat university students like fragile flowers?” They drove home a single point, over and over: caring about students’ mental health is paramount to the success of their institutions.

“We would never allow our medical system to wait that long to treat [a disease]. We fully expect to have preventive education, screening and early treatment,” wrote Ono and Wilson in the piece, citing the prioritization of physical health in society.

“Now, imagine if the standard of treatment was equal for mental and physical health conditions. Not only would it significantly improve the lives of those living with a mental illness, it would save lives.”

While poor mental health can be caused by any number of reasons, one source is chronic stress. When we look at the university landscape, how can we take these preventative ideologies and use them to focus on student stress before it gets to the level of a serious mental health issue?

Where does stress come from, and why is it so crippling?

According to 2016 data from the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services, 89 per cent of students said that they felt overwhelmed by their post-secondary responsibilities. Fifty-eight per cent of students reported that over the previous year, they had felt that their academics were “traumatic or very difficult to handle.”

Stress is the single biggest impediment to academic performance, according to students surveyed, even more so than poor sleep or interpersonal conflict.

And student stress is increasing — studies conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute report that college students are feeling its effects more than ever before.

Stress can be motivating in small doses — having more to do can result in a drive to procrastinate less — but according to UBC psychology professor Frances Chen, when your body is repeatedly put into a situation of high-preparedness you will feel the repercussions both physically and mentally.

“There is something in psychology called the ‘optimal point of physiological arousal’: how hyped up you are about something that is good. If you’re not into something at all, you won’t be motivated to do anything,” said Chen.

“But if you’re too into it, that could be bad for you as well. If the stakes are too high, the stress could become overwhelming.”

Even the most motivated, school-loving students can put too much pressure on themselves to excel, resulting in extreme stress, overwhelmed feelings or burnout.

And in a highly competitive atmosphere like UBC, a “successful” student can’t just do well in academia. Extracurriculars, athletics, as well as jobs and internships all play into our holistic impression of a top achiever. This can certainly liven up a campus — UBC students take part in hundreds of clubs and other activities — but it also multiplies the number of venues in which a student can be pressured.

“The express definition of ‘well-rounded’ does not include work-life balance,” said Steven Barnes, a psychology professor at UBC and a prominent advocate of mental health and well-being on campus. “Which is quite telling, I think.”

Chen looks at students’ stress levels not just as a product of school, but as a combination of the stressors in all of the venues of their lives — we might feel pressured about an impending deadline, but we also missed the bus, had a fight with our significant other and have a club meeting to prep for.

“From the perspective of a faculty member who studies psychology, I think it’s important to keep in mind that these are not separable things,” said Chen. “The grade a student gets in my class is not an isolated phenomenon. It’s inseparable from what’s happening in the rest of their lives.”

She said that professors have a responsibility to look at students as people whose lives do not begin and end once they enter the lecture hall.

“I know [a student] won’t be able to do well in my class unless [they] can stay on top of all the other obligations going on in [their] life,” said Chen.

New frontiers

For a group of professors and staff at UBC, tackling stress in the environment where students often feel it the most could go a long way towards impacting university culture. With a new string of initiatives and studies, said Barnes, he and others have asked a question: where is it that most students spend a lot of their time at UBC or at university in general?

“And of course,” said Barnes, “it’s in a classroom environment. And so we’re asking the question, ‘Well, what would happen if you manipulated the classroom environment in a way that would be of benefit to student mental health and well-being? Would it actually have a larger impact?’”

Patty Hambler, director of student well-being promotion with UBC Student Development and Services, worked with Barnes and a diverse team of colleagues to study how instructional practices affect student well-being. The project, which was funded through UBC’s Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund, conducted extensive interviews with both students and teachers.

“What I’ve taken away from my conversations with students is that their day-to-day interactions with each other and with their faculty and with their TAs has an impact on their well-being,” said Hambler.

In research throughout 2015 and 2016 that questioned both students and faculty about the practices that they value most in the classroom, the group identified three key points: student well-being is improved through effective teaching strategies, belonging and social inclusion, and instructor recognition that the student experience extends beyond academics.

Barnes has countless suggestions for how classrooms might be tweaked to reflect these key values. Many of the examples try to encourage what he calls a “growth mindset” in students as opposed to a “fixed mindset.” The latter is an implicit assumption (which many people have) that their intelligence or skills are things that they cannot change. A growth mindset is where one believes that one’s intelligence or abilities are not fixed in nature and can be improved or changed.

In an academic context, Barnes said, a growth mindset could encourage a student, upon getting a poor grade, to say, “‘Oh, this means I should spend more effort and then I’ll do better.’” With a fixed mindset, the student might say, “‘I’m just poor at this subject, there’s nothing I can do to improve in this course.’”

“I remember when I was an undergraduate student, and I would do poorly on a midterm, and [I] would basically give up,” said Barnes. “Because you say, ‘Oh my god, that’s 30 per cent of my grade, and what chance do I have now of getting the grade that I want?’ and it’s very discouraging.”

He said that instructors can combat this effect, which can cause student mental health and their academic performances to take a hit, with several practices. Dropping the lowest grade of the term, giving students choices between different assignments and providing extra credit opportunities all made his list of options.

On the belonging and social inclusion side, the research suggests practices to foster cooperation rather than competitiveness — students will learn better and feel better about their studies if they are encouraged towards inclusion with their fellow students, instead of feeling competitive towards their peers.

According to Barnes, a student favourite from the focus groups was when “faculty members acknowledged the holistic nature of students: that they have lives in the classroom and outside of the classroom and that when students are supported holistically, they’re able to learn better and their well-being is supported.”

Students also reported feeling more motivated when they feel like their work has a higher purpose — if they have to tangibly apply their knowledge, or if volunteer opportunities are incorporated into their curricula.

These are just a few examples. Armed with knowledge like this gleaned over the last several years, the group hopes to apply their findings at UBC.

“We’ve been disseminating [a sort of checklist] to instructors at UBC, so giving them a long list of teaching practices that are of benefit to students and their mental health and well-being and then promoting that as much as we can,” Barnes said.

But it’s going to be challenging. Professors are busy, and larger class sizes add to the difficulty of acknowledging the specific challenges of each unique student.

“I have to have some standards that apply to my entire class or it becomes impossible for me and my TAs to manage,” said Chen. “Imagine a 100-person class where everyone has a different deadline. I don’t think I have a perfect solution to how much accommodation should be made.”

“It remains to be seen”: how can we apply these ideologies?

The success of projects like this will ultimately depend on the willingness of UBC faculty to learn about what the research is saying, and to test out classroom structures that incorporate considerations of mental health.

“We cannot ultimately dictate in our roles what instructors do in the classroom, but we can certainly provide a list of best practices,” said Barnes.

They are also considering taking some of their findings to the UBC Vancouver Senate, with the hope that their research might influence university academic policy — for example, particular rules about timing of exams or flexibility in course structures.

“That would be an ideal situation, but it remains to be seen how much uptake we’ll actually get with this,” said Barnes.

Hambler is optimistic about UBC’s potential in this area, and sees her role as disseminating ideas that already exist at the university.

“There are pockets of excellence all over the university, and I can’t tell you how many faculty I’ve met who are passionate about supporting students and their learning and their well-being, but they’re doing work in their classroom and they don’t have time or the inclination to broadly share what they’re doing with others,” she said.

“What I hope is that we can kind of spotlight on some of the really good practices that both support student learning and well-being at the same time, and then shine a light on them and share them across the university so that faculty can learn from each other and talk to each other.”

Right now, the team is still in an experimental phase — they are seeing how strong the causal relationship is between their recommended teaching practices and student well-being. Barnes also emphasized that their research focuses on the preventative aspect of mental health at UBC.

“I don’t think for a moment you could say that someone who was suffering from a mental illness in an acute stage is going to benefit from these changes in a classroom,” he said. “We’re talking about ways of preventing depression, anxiety, stress in general from occurring in students, with the assumption that stress would contribute to the emergence of mental health issues later on.”

Moving past “outdated thinking”

Wente’s “fragile flowers” column criticized universities for creating an “accommodation industry” that babies students.

“Universities have become massive therapeutic institutions, where ensuring the social and emotional well-being of the students is Job 1,” she wrote. “Any failure of the student is really a failure of the institution.”

People like Ono and the research team are shifting towards a new way of thinking: students are not fragile, but they should be treated as if their mental health is an important consideration in strengthening their capacity to succeed. Most importantly, stress is not mandatory.

“I think we’re still dealing with some — I would call it ‘outdated thinking’ — in terms of people thinking that stress is a necessary part of university and that you kind of have to just suck it up and deal with it, or else you’re not cut out for it. I think that’s an inappropriate way of looking at the effects of stress,” said Barnes.

“And I think it’s very unfortunate that some people still think that way, but it is still a part of university culture to some degree.”