Sunday, February 7, 2016

On Student Stress

I've been teaching long enough to have watched a generation of students file passed me. It's fascinating from a social science standpoint because I can watch trends evolving before my eyes. And, being a bit of a hoarder, I've kept everything I've used and all my marks along the way, so I feel like I have a good handle on changes in this population. And they are stressed out like never before.

To get my Challenges of Change kids in the head space of demographic changes in general, I talked to them about why stress has increased for teenagers, and this is what we came up with.

The first suggestion was that there's just too much work to do. But my many binders of old curriculum show the opposite. In my classes over the past 25 years, I've given progressively less work. The exams from my early career are significantly more focused on nit-picky details and few would be able to pass them today. They were also significantly longer, one requiring two opinion essays in half an hour! Now, I might give one opinion essay in an hour - four times the earlier duration. And I couldn't imagine implementing the standards of yore. So, from my anecdotal evidence (and that of colleagues), the stress level is higher with a diminished workload. How does that happen?

Then they offered that they need higher marks to get into university now. Students used to need a 67% to get into a general arts program, and now they need an 82%. Ah, BUT all the marks really are higher across the board. It's not the case that there are higher expectations, but that mark inflation has been acknowledged by the universities. My averages in courses used to be in the mid to high 60s (everyone's were), and now they are consistently in the low 80s. So, generally speaking, university admittance seems to correlate with high-school course averages. They're still just taking the top half of the group. If things keep going in this direction, one day we could have to take it to one decimal point, with all students in the 99% range, and 99 point what? being the indicator of excellence.

And then they started to get at what's really changed over the decades:

Social media has changed everything. Absolutely. One problem raised is that kids today are surrounded by negativity. Instead of being personally shared with close friends, every negative thought or worry is shared and circulated with multitudes. I added the corollary, that they also see people who seem to effortlessly succeed at everything. There's a sense that we're missing out on the good life. And on top of those two factors, there's the time it all takes. If we did a time audit on how long kids actually spend on homework compared to how much time they shift to texting, facebook, twitter, instagram, tumblr, games, and online shopping, I think we might find that students don't spend nearly as much time on schoolwork as they think they do. It's as if we're expecting them to excel on their homework with all their friends in the room talking to them at once. Fat chance. Furthermore, studies have made it clear that every interruption, even useful ones, impede our ability to work efficiently with each interruption possibly adding as mush as 23 minutes to the time the task takes as we struggle to get back to where we were, deep in thought.

Competition is fierce. Yup. It's not the competition to get into universities that's changed, as universities have been taking an increasing percentage of students each year since 2000, but competition for jobs. The university degree is the new high-school diploma. More jobs are being outsourced or computerized. This, in turn, is making parents more frantic as they fear for their children's very survival. So they push them into what they think might be highly successful fields that the kids aren't necessarily interested in, and then the expectations in the field are raised because of the glut that this causes. In India, the concern is so high, parents scaled a building to help their children cheat on exams.

About those parents. Parenting has changed. Back in the day, parents let us get hurt. It's good for us; it builds character! Kids need skinned knees and hurt feelings and to fall out of trees, to be humiliated occasionally, and to fail things horribly in order to develop into useful human beings. Our parents knew that (well, mine did, but they were born in the 20s), but then we all forgot. And now we protect our children to a fault and need to see research before we'll consider letting any harm come to our bumbles of joy. Parents are swooping in to rescue their kids by intercepting discussions with teachers or bosses instead of giving their kids words to use and by being a little too hands on with the homework.  It's painful for parents to watch their kids struggle, so they don't. But we're the adults here, and we MUST take a long range view on what's actually best for our children. Kids have lost their resiliency as a result of being over-protected. They're immobilized by a fear of failure and have become perfectionistic in nature. And the anxiety in the room is palpable. 

Changing lifestyle expectations have added to this. We used to be content with having a job and didn't expect a life-affirming career full of creative opportunities and advancement.  Most of us were excited for our own apartment, now we all need our own houses with big yards. Our entire mentality has shifted from one of contentment to one of growth. Everything's expected to get better and better within a finite system, and that's just untenable. This is related to social media and to competition, but it deserves its own little paragraph. And I've written before about this paradigm shift in the beginning of this post where you'll find John Oliver explaining the very American perspective that we can actually live like the very wealthy if we keep trying; a Gucci knock-off can do in a pinch. It will do us well if we can reverse this trend in thinking before we have to, back to accepting good enough.

Low marks are too devastating to students' self-esteem now.  Marks have become commodified; they hold value as tradable for university admittance and scholarships as well as indicators of school performance as we're ranked against other schools, so it's no wonder there's such a push to raise them artificially and to cheat whenever possible. This commodification has led students toward a tendency to look at marks as an indicator of their worth in the world. We have to recognize what marks really are: an indication of students' ability to communicate their understanding of specific content and skills at a specific time. That's it. It's not a measure of intelligence nor status nor value as a human being. It just tells us how well people were able to demonstrate their knowledge.

So, how can students reduce their stress levels?

  • Do homework without social media enabled on your computers and with your phones off and in another room. People will get used to the fact that you go offline to do homework. Get the work done first, and leave social media as a reward when you're done. 
  • Watch for the crabs in a bucket effect. People who aren't doing their work will feel better about themselves if you don't do your work either. They'll try to pull you back in the bucket! Be prepared with a rebuttal to their taunts: you're not doing homework to be a keener, or because you obsessively follow rules, or because you're afraid of getting in trouble, but because it feels so much better to get it done and out of the way. You can party harder after the work's done.
  • Trust that you don't need all the trappings of the rich and famous to lead happy lives. Like de Botton suggests in Status Anxiety, we should follow role models that celebrate intelligence and creativity, not those that celebrate having lots of shiny things. This is a slower shift, but it's possible. 
  • Resist the pressure to go to university if it's not a good fit for you. Or, at least, don't feel rushed to go immediately. And don't feel like you have to stay once you're there. An electrician with five years of on-the-job training with college terms mixed in can make as much as a teacher after five years of university followed by ten years of teaching. You need a job to be able to pay for food and shelter, but it doesn't have to define you. There's more to you than your work.
  • Tell your parents to let you struggle against some firm boundaries. Accept failure gracefully. It will happen at some point. Do your best, but don't worry about being the best or even close to it, and then take responsibility for what you've accomplished. If you take the blame when you don't do it, you also get all the glory when you do. And if you can muster the courage to face your fears of failure, it'll be easier to do next time because you've created neural pathways.
  • You can't much affect the number of jobs available, but you can keep in mind that that the stakes are not nearly as high as you think they are. In this time and place, low marks are not a life or death situation. And beyond the economic realities, your marks affects you only because of your perception of what they mean. And they really don't make you any less lovable.

Or, as Epictetus told us, stop trying to change things outside of your control, and instead change the things you can control. It's all attitude.


  1. I love that you have these conversations with your students. Did they discuss your suggested solutions? What was that part of the conversation like?

    1. The solutions came at the end, so we didn't discuss them further. But telling people not to worry about getting the best job/house/car/mate possible will take more than one kick at the cat.


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