The new semester started yesterday here at Vanderbilt. My students were bright-eyed and enthusiastic, though I know they were experiencing those first-day uncertainties about their new classes, professors, and classmates. Soon enough, these early jitters will turn to a more significant set of stresses as assignments come due, exams are scheduled, graduation approaches, and life unfolds.
Knowing this rhythm of the semester and being familiar with the anxieties experienced by students at a variety of institutions, I was surprised by a recent study by Lin and Huang (2013) on “Life Stress and Academic Burnout.” They surveyed 2,640 Taiwanese students, 71% of whom were juniors and seniors. They assessed the levels and types of stress, as well as if the stress was contributing to burnout (the combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization or detachment from others, and a decreased sense of achievement and competence). The students rated most highly “self-identity stress, interpersonal stress, future development stress [concerns about post-graduation life and employment], and academic stress” (p. 8), but the actual ratings were apparently quite low. Lin and Huang concluded that “both the level of students’ burnout and stress are in general not serious among these students” (p. 10). Cultures and institutions absolutely differ, but I’m still surprised.
Nevertheless, Lin and Huang offer some strategies for supporting anxious students and mitigating these experiences, such as integrating more material that appeals to student interests, using “authentic assessment” rather than traditional exams, redesigning orientation activities to include stress management, offering a course to provide more in-depth and ongoing stress management, or integrating strategies of stress management into all courses (p. 11). Notice the potential for mindfulness on campus here.
I can imagine orientations (undergraduate and graduate) and first-year experience programs (like Vanderbilt Visions) introducing students to mindfulness practices. I can see the university offering a one-credit course on mindfulness. I hope for increased integration of mindfulness, tailored to individual classrooms. Just one (of many) possibilities responds specifically to this issue of depersonalization: we can begin to minimize students’ feelings of detachment from each other, from the course work, from the university by establishing study partners and study groups in our classes. We know the academic benefits are there, but having these kinds of connections with peers–connections based on the work itself–may encourage them to support each other when stressed and develop a network grounded in, rather than escaping from, academics.
A common mindful practice is called “loving kindness,” a meditation that encourages connectedness. One of many meditations to mitigate stress, it specifically addresses the sense of depersonalization and disconnectedness that comes with burnout–and that we see in some students toward the end of the semester. However “serious,” we don’t want our students to experience it at all. May they be well. May they be happy. May they be peaceful. May they be loved.