Helping Ontario's colleges and universities enhance capacity to support student mental health and well-being

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Performance and Anxiety

By Kayla Smith

Understanding the Student Experience

I came into university with the mindset that I needed to perform well. To make it through post-secondary education, I needed to highly succeed. I had a full-scholarship, and I told myself that I had to keep it. Without this financial help, I couldn’t make it through university.

 

In my first year, I stayed up past midnight every night, all the while knowing that I wouldn’t be able to function if I didn’t get enough sleep. I tried to balance both by memorizing every word of every lecture, and study somewhere that wasn’t my bedroom. I wanted my mind to be able to consolidate all the information I had memorized, just like my professor told me it should do.

 

It was confusing because my professors were telling me to get enough sleep, while also saying I needed to be studying 12 hours each week. Somehow I managed to find a way to do both. I couldn’t spend time with my friends, and I couldn’t work, and I hardly had time to eat dinner with my family or relax on my own; but I got my homework done and I studied and I slept.

 

Living with Anxiety

One month into my second year, I couldn’t do it anymore. My anxiety levels had skyrocketed because, yes, I got my scholarship again, but now I had to go through the same routine as last year. Sleep, class, study, study, study, sleep. Repeat. Would it ever end? And would I do well enough?

 

My parents encouraged me to talk to someone about my stress, so I ended up going to counselling sessions once each week. It was a long process that I was at first not open to, but the end result was my realization that my performance did not define me. I didn’t have to get straight A’s or keep my scholarship in order to be a successful person.

 

So why is this what our schools are telling us? Universities encourage us to stay on our campuses all day, get involved in every little ounce of spare time we have, and then go home to study all night. Why do they encourage us to go-go-go and only sometimes mention the importance of time for ourselves? Why is the focus of our early 20’s so centred on academic achievement?

 

What can Universities and Colleges do to Help?

Students are so afraid of failure, yet there is often a sense of fear that is placed on them by administrators and professors. Professors seem to think that a sense of anxiety will increase the value that students place on academics. However, Nadeem, Ali, Maqbool & Zaidi’s 2011 study demonstrated that when anxiety increases, student academic achievement decreases across all IQ levels.  This could be in part due to the fact that anxiety makes it very difficult for students to move from one task to the next and ignore distractions (2009, ERSC). One resource also shows that high scholarship offers increase suicide rates (Saunders, 2016).

 

This pattern of fear-driven influence should not reflect the typical university experience. The best approach to teaching is to create comfortable environments for students that are free competition and criticism. Many elementary and high-school school administrators have begun to adopt this idea. When students are relaxed, they are ready to learn, and students have proven to be successful in this context.

 

Some professionals also suggest giving students opportunities to recognize and correct errors before finalizing their work and handing it in. Clear instruction free of ambiguity is also beneficial for reducing anxiety levels. This type of environment is best fostered by faculty who are focused on teaching and dedicated to their students.