Surveys: Students not learning while stress levels increase

A typical college student is reportedly not learning the basic skills needed to land a job after graduation.

Yet his or her stress levels are at all-time highs, according to two recently published studies.

The first report was based on a book titled “Academically Adrift” by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, and it discussed the lack of writing-intensive courses that college students are required to take. The study tracked approximately 2,000 students; half took less than six courses that required 20 pages of writing.

This lack of writing in college courses contributes to the underdevelopment of such tasks as critical thinking and complex reasoning, and it leaves students with knowledge in their field but without any analytical skills to use that knowledge.

The second story, published in the New York Times in late January, explored college students’ stress levels and concluded that they are at a record high. The stress level includes classwork and outside factors, such as the economy, ability to find a job and distractions.

The question remains: how do college students really feel about their courses and stress levels, and which survey is closer to the reality?

It seems there is no simple answer.

“The problem you see is that there are two different kinds of students,” says Alice Edwards, Ph.D., Mercyhurst’s world languages and cultures department chair. “There are students who are working really hard and are stressed, and there is the opposite—students who aren’t stressed at all.”

Edwards also says there are other factors that affect a student’s emotional balance.

“The financial pressure is huge. Kids have to think really hard because they can’t afford to make bad academic mistakes.”

Robert von Thaden, Ph.D., of the religious studies department views these issues as part of a broader societal problem.

“We live in a culture that argues that college equals success,” says von Thaden, adding that America lacks a strong vocational education system, which can result in a number of students being stuck in college without the will or skills to succeed.

“This, I would argue,” he says, “leads to a segment of college students who are constantly stressed because they do not fit, and they feel like losers because no matter how hard they try, they can’t seem to hack it.”

Randy Clemons, Ph.D., professor of political science, thinks students are learning and gaining the essential tools needed to succeed in the work force.

These include “critical thinking, writing skills, research and analysis skills; as well as being able to identify moral dilemmas, a sense of responsibility, global awareness, citizenship skills and knowledge, and the importance of service.”

But other factors could be to blame for an increase in students’ stress.

For some professors, Facebook and text messaging come to mind.

“I have seen no convincing evidence, let alone proof, that the level of stress is actually related to the quality or amount of course work expected or delivered,” Clemons says. “Thus, students could be not studying much at all and still be very stressed by other factors.

“In other words, if you are spending too much time social networking, too much time playing video games, too much time partying, too little or too much time exercising, it can make your academic responsibilities seem to be stressful,” he says, “But they are not necessarily the actual cause of the stress.”

Ludlow Brown, Ph.D., professor of philosophy, agreed.

“Students are constantly being bombarded with everything social networking represents,” says Brown, noting students generally cannot have both a solid academic life and hyperactive social networking persona. “Social networking becomes a job because students don’t want to be left behind. The additional stress isn’t from schoolwork; it’s from other work.”

The perceived light workload could stem from yet another seemingly external factor but one that is related to course methods, von Thaden says.

“This is also linked to student evaluations — many junior faculty may fear giving challenging assignments (especially in core classes) because they fear students will write them really bad student evaluations,” he says, “…this may lead some of us to cut back on the workload.”

On a more positive note, Edwards says, “I see enormous growth between freshmen and seniors; it depends on how seriously the student is taking (his or her) major.”

A recent Merciad poll indicated nearly 50 percent of respondents are “stressed just staying afloat with jobs and classes.”

Other Mercyhurst students expressed similar thoughts.

“I think people feel like they’re coasting in the first two years, but then it gets harder,” says junior J.A. MacDougall, an English major.

Freshman Valeria Silva, a fashion major, already knows college is much harder than high school. It requires much more hard work and studying, and provides much less down time.

“I haven’t been sleeping for a week because of stress,” Silva says.

Freshman psychology student Daniela Funes added, “In high school, I didn’t have to do anything, but now I’m so stressed that I’m only sleeping from 2:30 a.m. to 7 a.m.; I just think that’s college.”

One student does believe his learning here is on track, despite Arum and Roksa’s national findings.

Junior Stephen Donohue, a sports/pre-med major, says, “I’m learning because Mercyhurst College has exposed me to more things than I learned about in high school.”

Other factors contributing to students’ stress levels vary.

“A lot of bigger schools don’t have interaction with professors and students, so you would feel despondent like you’re going through the motions and don’t know how to interact with people,” MacDougall says.

Although there are more distractions now than ever in the life of a college student, financial and economic pressures combine to the amount of stress a student has—even if stress from coursework does not increase.

“I will say, though,” von Thaden says, “I have no idea why writing proponents hold up 20 pages as the magic number. That seems odd to me. This issue seems to be one of skill development, not quantity.”