Academic Stress Of College Students: Comparison Of Student And Faculty Perceptions
This study examined perceptions of academic stress among male and female college students, and compared faculty and student perceptions of students’ academic stress. The sample consisted of 249 students and 67 faculty members from a midwestern University. Mean age of the students and faculty members were 21 years and 42 years respectively. Results indicated a considerable mismatch between faculty and students in their perceptions of students’ stressors and reactions to stressors. The faculty members perceived the students to experience a higher level of stress and to display reactions to stressors more frequently than the students actually perceived. This could result simply from the faculty observing the students only during their moments of stress in the classroom. Results also supported the hypotheses that stress varied across year in school and by gender. Implications for improving faculty-student interactions are discussed.
All further correspondence should be made to Ranjita Misra
Academic stress among college students has been a topic of interest for many years. College students experience high stress at predictable times each semester due to academic commitments, financial pressures, and lack of time management skills. When stress is perceived negatively or becomes excessive, it can affect both health and academic performance (Camp bell & Svenson, 1992). University students often attempt to control and reduce their stress through avoidance, religious and social support, or positive reappraisal (Mattlin, Wethington, & Kessler, 1990; Blake & Vandiver, 1988). Leisure satisfaction and fitness activities act as stress buffers, providing a sense of purpose and competence for college students (Ragheb & McKinney, 1993). Student academic stress is also reduced and controlled through effective time management and study techniques (Brown, 1991). Macan (1990) found that students who perceived themselves in control of their time reported greater work and life satisfactions and fewer job-induced and somatic tensions. Research examining gender differences and comparison of student and faculty perceptions of students’ academic stress, however, is limited.
A few studies have examined faculty perceptions of students’ behaviors. Studies indicate that student behavior is linked to the attitudes of faculty members (Williams & Winkworth, 1974). Faculty members from predominantly teaching- or research-oriented universities, however, differ in how they evaluate students’ behavior (Brozo & Schmelzer, 1985). Interaction with students significantly influences faculty behaviors (Pascarella, 1975). Stress levels of faculty members vary due to personal and organizational behaviors (Pretorius, 1994) that may affect their interactions with students. Although stress-causing stimuli are often similar in the lives of professors and students (Brown, 1991; Pretorius, 1994), teachers also bring stress into the classroom in the form of inherent personality traits (Kagan, 1987). However, stressful personality of a teacher may be perceived as a positive rather than a negative attribute by students (Kagan, 1987). Faculty members’ accurate perceptions of student academic stress are important for effective communication with them. For instance faculty may highly prioritize prompt attendance and good academic performance, while some students may not necessarily value such items (Parish & Necessary, 1995).
This study examined (1) academic stress by gender and year in school (class status) of college students and (2) compared faculty and students perceptions of students’ stress. We expected that there would be differences across year in school in academic stressors and reactions to stressors due to disparate demands, unique stressors, and acquired coping capabilities of each class (e.g., freshmen leaving home and adjusting to group living, sophomores facing major field curricular decisions, and seniors facing job searches or postgraduate training decisions). Gender differences were also anticipated as had been indicated in previous research (Allen & Hiebert, 1991; Davidson-Katz, 1991; Rawson, Bloomer, & Kendall, 1994) in which researchers argued that women not only perceived more stress and anxiety in their environment, but they actually experienced more symptoms of depression and anxiety. We expected differences between students and faculty members, as past studies suggested that professors often misinterpret students’ stress levels.
Sample Design, Sampling, and Data Collection:
The sample consisted of two components. Component 1 consisted of a cross-sectional survey of full-time students (freshmen to senior) at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. The sampling frame chosen was the University Registrars’ directory of address files. The advantage of using this sampling frame was that it provided an up-to-date address list of students by gender and class status. Information was collected using a questionnaire. Six hundred students were randomly surveyed and 249 students returned the completed questionnaire, yielding a response rate of 42%.
Component 2 consisted of a mailed survey of 200 faculty members randomly selected from the faculty directory, and employed as full- or part-time instructors, assistant professors, associate professors, or full-professors. Sixty-seven completed questionnaires were returned, a response rate of 33.5%.
Instruments/Measures: The data collection instrument included the following:
Academic Stress Data from the study were obtained using two congruent forms of Gadzella’s Student-life Stress Inventory (SLSI) (1991). The SLSI was designed to assess the students academic stress and reactions to stress. The instrument contained 51 items in a Likert response format (1=never true to 5=always true) that assessed five categories of academic stressors (frustrations, conflicts, pressures, changes, and self-imposed), and four categories describing reactions to stressors (physiological, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive). The items were summed to get a total score on all the nine sub categories (Chronbach’s alpha ranged from 0.59 to 0.82). A higher score indicated greater stress and reactions to stress. A congruent form of the SLSI was modified to assess faculty’s perceptions of student academic stress. For example, if an item from the frustration subscale read “As a student, I feel I was denied opportunities in spite of my qualifications,” the same question modified for faculty members read, “Students at your university feel they are denied opportunities in spite of their qualifications.”
Basic demographic information was collected on age, gender, ethnicity, educational level (academic status for faculty), health risk behaviors (smoking and drinking) and degree sought.
Data Analyses: Demographic characteristics of faculty and students were compared using chi-square analysis. Total scores in addition to scores on the nine categories of the academic stress scale were compared between students and faculty members, and between male and female students using the t-test. Data was analyzed using the Statistical Package for Social Science (SPSS) software.
Demographics: The sample consisted of 249 students and 67 faculty members with mean age of students 21 years (SD=2.0) and of faculty 42 years (SD=9.0). For both students and faculty, respondents were primarily caucasians with more females than males represented for students. Students of sophomore status and faculty with the rank of assistant professor comprised the majority of the respondents. In regard to health behaviors, students reported engaging in more cigarette smoking, alcoholic beverage consumption, and religious activities than did the faculty members. Faculty reported drinking in moderation, while students defined alcohol consumption as binge drinking on the weekend.
Table 1 compares stressors and reactions to stressors of male and female students. Students experienced highest stress levels due to pressure, followed by self-imposed stress. Females experienced higher stress than males due to frustration, self-imposed stress, and pressure. The only statistically significant difference in stress between males and females occurred in the area of self-imposed stress with females reporting significantly higher scores than males. Academic stress due to changes, conflict, and frustration were found to only cause stress among students occasionally.
Descriptive Statistics of Stressors & Reactions to Stressors of Students and Faculty by Gender
MALES FEMALES T-TEST
(N=30) (N=37) (p-value)
CHANGE 2.77 2.71 0.3 7
(64) (.57) (.7)1
CONFLICT 3.09 3.19 -0.8 2
(.42) (.51) (.4)1
FRUSTRATION 2.96 2.90 0.5 5
(.46) (.41) (.5)8
PRESSURE 3.85 4.04 -1.5 9
(.54) (.44) (.1)1
SELF-IMPOSED 3.60 3.78 -1.4 4
(.52) (.49) (.1)5
REACTIONS TO STRESSORS
EMOTIONAL 3.27 3.52 -1.6 4
(.72) (.51) (.10)
COGNITIVE 2.68 2.86 -0.8 3
(.62) (.95) (.4)0
BEHAVIORAL 2.66 2.82 -0.8 5
(.82) (.66) (.3)9
PHYSIOLOGICAL 2.47 2.59 -0.5 7
(.97) (.72) (.5)6
MALES FEMALES T-TEST
CHANGE 2.61 2.60 0.16
(.72) (.72) (.87)
CONFLICT 3.14 3.06 0.86
(.59) (.62) (.38)
FRUSTRATION 2.71 2.73 -0.13
(.48) (.53) (.89)
PRESSURE 3.62 3.68 -0.68
(.65) (.60) (.49)
SELF-IMPOSED 3.60 3.77 -2.08
(.52) (.55) (.03)
REACTIONS TO STRESSORS
EMOTIONAL 2.69 2.86 -1.07
(.94) (1.09) (.28)
COGNITIVE 2.77 2.92 -1.00
(1.01) (.97) (.32)
BEHAVIORAL 1.96 2.08 -1.18
(.69) (.74) (.23)
PHYSIOLOGICAL 1.77 2.03 -2.42
(2.03) (.77) (.01)
The most common reaction to stress among the students appeared to be emotional (fear, anxiety, worry, anger, guilt, grief, or depression) and cognitive reactions (i.e., their appraisal of stressful situations and strategies). Other reactions that occurred less frequently were behavioral (crying, abuse of self and others, smoking, and irritability) and physiological (sweating, trembling, stuttering, headaches, weight loss or gain, or body aches). Although females had lower stress levels than males in three of the five stress categories, they experienced more reactions than males. This difference, however, was not statistically significant except in physiological reactions.
Table 2 also compares faculty and students’ perceptions of students’ academic stress. Faculty members perceived students to have higher academic stress than students’ self-perceptions. The difference was statistically significant for two stressors (frustration and pressure) and three reactions to stressors (behavior, emotion and physiological). Both male and female faculty members perceived students to have stress due to changes only occasionally. Perceptions of faculty and students were similar for stress occurring occasionally due to conflicts and frustrations but higher stress (average response in the often category) due to pressure. Both students and faculty perceived that students get stressed due to pressure from competition, meeting deadlines, and interpersonal relationships. Both female faculty members and female students had higher scores on self-imposed stress, indicating that females have higher stress that is self-imposed and female faculty also perceive female students to have higher stress levels that are self-imposed.
Comparison of Stressors & Reactions to Stressors Between Faculty and Students
FACULTY STUDENT T-TEST P-VALUE
MEAN SD MEAN SD
CHANGES 2.73 .60 2.60 .72 -1.41 0.16
CONFLICT 3.15 .48 3.08 .62 -0.82 0.41
FRUSTRATION 2.93 .44 2.72 .51 -3.05 0.00
SELF-IMPOSED 3.70 .50 3.72 .55 0.27 0.76
PRESSURE 3.95 .49 3.67 .62 -3.51 0.001
REACTIONS TO STRESSORS
BEHAVIORAL 2.75 .74 2.05 .73 -6.91 0.00
COGNITIVE 2.78 .83 2.89 .98 0.75 0.45
EMOTIONAL 3.41 .62 2.82 1.05 -4.37 0.001
PHYSIOLOGICAL 2.54 .84 1.97 .74 -5.39 0.001
A gender difference existed between male and female faculty members’ perceptions of students’ academic stress (stressors and reactions to stressors). Although not statistically significant, female faculty members perceived that students in general commonly experience more stress due to conflicts, pressures, and self-imposed stressors more than their male peers. Female faculty members also perceived female students to have higher behavioral (p [is less than] 0.05), cognitive, emotional, and physiological reactions to stress than their male peers. Male faculty members perceived students’ stress mostly due to changes and frustrations.
Table 3 compares stressors and reactions to stressors by year in school. No statistical difference was observed in stressors and reactions to stressors by year in school. Freshmen and sophomores in this study indicated they have higher mean levels of stress than juniors and seniors. Freshmen had stress related to changes and conflicts, while sophomores were more stressed due to pressures and self-imposed stress. Juniors and seniors indicated higher stress both self-imposed and due to pressure. Emotional, behavioral, and physiological reactions to stress were the highest among freshman level students.
Table 3 Descriptive Statistics of Stressors & Reactions to Stressors by Year in School
FRESHMAN SOPHOMORE JUNIOR SENIORS
(N=55) (N=90) (N=46) (N=53)
STRESSORS MEAN MEAN MEAN MEAN
(SD) (SD) (SD) (SD)
CHANGE 2.75 2.58 2.52 2.58
(.88) (.70) (.68) (.62)
CONFLICT 3.19 3.06 3.16 2.90
(.61) (.59) (.44) (.77)
FRUSTRATION 2.73 2.77 2.73 2.64
(.52) (.54) (.49) (.51)
PRESSURE 3.58 3.62 3.69 3.83
(.59) (.66) (.60) (.55)
SELF-IMPOSED 3.70 3.68 3.78 3.78
(.56) (.53) (.51) (.63)
REACTIONS TO STRESSOR
EMOTIONAL 3.05 2.76 2.72 2.76
(1.07) (1.02) (.99) (1.19)
COGNITIVE 2.92 2.82 3.03 2.76
(1.05) (.94) (.96) (1.01)
BEHAVIORAL 2.21 2.08 1.90 1.97
(.77) (.67) (.73) (.78)
PHYSIOLOGICAL 2.14 1.91 1.86 1.93
(.72) (.72) (.70) (.84)
Results supported the initial hypotheses that differences between faculty and students would be found in students’ perceived academic stress. Results indicated a considerable mismatch among faculty and students in their perceptions of students’ stressors and reactions to stressors. Faculty members perceived students to experience higher levels of stress and display more reactions to stressors than the students’ own self-perceptions. Both male and female faculty members perceived that students frequently exhibited behavioral, emotional, and physiological reactions to stressors. This difference could result simply from faculty observing students mostly during their moments of stress in the classroom and office hours. Students may experience less stress when they are detached from this environment, thus allowing them to experience leisure time at a more satisfactory stress level. Past research has suggested that professors often misinterpret students’ stress levels, and the results from this study concur. This has important implications. Institutions should develop ways to improve effective communication between students and professors, thereby improving academic and social efficiency of students. Faculty members’ understanding of students’ academic stress will help them to practice techniques and adopt attitudes essential to assist and mentor them to cope/deal with academic stress more effectively. Furthermore, they can also help students seek appropriate stress reduction methods to improve their academic performance. A considerable mismatch between students’ and professors’ perceptions of students’ academic stress may decrease interactions and reduce effective communication.
Results also supported the hypotheses that stress varied across year in school and by gender. Our finding that stress differed across year in school corresponds with research on coping behavior and social support. Coping behavior and social support structures moderate the effects of stress and anxiety on the individual (Allen & Hiebert, 1991; Rawson, Bloomer & Kendall, 1994; Wohlgemuth & Betz, 1991). Our results indicated that within this college population, freshmen and sophomores had higher mean levels of stress than juniors and seniors. Although support is provided to freshmen students (through freshman orientation, special programs, advising, and counselors), students of freshmen status in this study had high stress due to change, conflict and frustration. This could possibly explain high behavioral, emotional, and physiological reactions to stress among them. This has important implications for stress management. Institutions should include problem-solving training, especially for freshmen and sophomores that emphasizes the cognitive component to deal with academic stress. Since the freshmen and sophomores scored low in their cognitive reactions indicates they have not yet learned to use their problem-solving ability to deal with academic stress. Within a college social system, freshmen and sophomores lack the strong social support networks and they have not yet developed the coping mechanisms used by older students to deal with college stress (Allen & Heibert, 1991). Hence, they have fewer resources for managing stress and the anxiety of demanding school work and tasks.
The gender difference found for stressors and reactions to stressors among students supported the hypothesis and also affirmed the results of other studies. Female students reported experiencing more stressors and reactions to stressors than did male students. This probably reflects not an actual inequality in number of stressors by gender, but possibly indicates females rating their experiences as more stressful. Females tend to report having been affected by negative events more often and more markedly than males (Allen & Hiebert, 1991). Higher scores on self-imposed stress among females than males indicated that females liked to compete, be noticed, loved, and worry for others, sometimes seeking perfect solutions that lead to higher anxiety and stress. Possibly, female students attempt to do several activities such as achieve academic excellence, take care of families, and work at one time. Females had higher scores on reactions to stress on all the four categories than males. Gender differences in reactions to stress may result from the socialization of males, which teaches them that emotional expression is an admission of weakness and not masculine (Davidson-Katz, 1991). Male students seemed to be less stressed and have less reaction to stressors. These findings may help students to understand their experiences, attitudes, and behaviors. It may also help faculty members and counselors to understand why some students display high anxiety, fear, and depression. The most common stressors among the students were due to conflict, pressures, and self-imposed stress. Both male and female students had higher scores on their cognitive appraisal, indicating the use of problem-solving ability to lower stress levels. Previous studies have shown that problem solving is an important coping strategy that can reduce, minimize, or prevent stress by enabling a person to better manage daily problematic situations and its emotional effects (D’Zurilla & Sheedy, 1991).
Future research should explore the social support structures available across college class standings as well as the coping mechanisms used by students at each level. Furthermore, any differences in life stress and experiences at each class level should be investigated to ascertain if an environmental difference could account for the sophomores’ higher stress levels. There is a need for replication on a more heterogeneous population to further delineate the factors involved.
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RANJITA MISRA, PH.D., CHES Assistant Professor, Health Science
MICHELLE MCKEAN, JUNIOR Undergraduate Student Health Science (Pre-Nutrition Pattern)
SARAH WEST, SENIOR
Undergraduate Student Health Science (Worksite Pattern)
TONY RUSSO, SCIENCE Undergraduate Student Health Science (Public Health Pattern) Truman State University
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