Weekly assignments and unnecessary stress are counterproductive for students during midterms

How changing SFU's approach could help students manage the semester's most stressful weeks

Photo courtesy of SFU

Written by Alexander Kenny, Peak Associate

As midterm season approaches, students engage in the common struggle of managing their stress levels while keeping up with school, work, and extracurricular activities. SFU offers resources on managing stress related to school and work. BC’s provincial government also offers stress management resources and videos. In 2016, The Globe and Mail discussed a survey which found a 3–4% increase in students whose academic performance was affected by stress, depression, and/or anxiety. Many of SFU’s initiatives geared towards helping students with stress are hosted by or in conjunction with Health and Counselling, such as puppy therapy, kitten therapy, and yoga classes, amongst other small stress relief workshops. There are also individual counselling services offered Health and Counselling.

However, if SFU intends to help their students stay emotionally healthy through the most hectic stretches of the semester, the university should alter their approach regarding the academic and social routines on campus. Academically, the most prominent change that could realistically occur would be the suspension of weekly assignments during the semester’s busiest weeks. By no means should weekly homework cease fully, as it can be a crucial part of a course plan, but it isn’t necessary during weeks where students have exams.

From my experience, the completion of weekly homework is no great expectation for professors to have from students, except during midterm season — the few weeks in the middle of the semester in which most classes have midterms scheduled, where those tests seem to cluster together on top of the regular assignments. This occurs again in the final few weeks of the semester, when the largest assignments are due and students are preparing for final exams. During these weeks, additional homework provides only added stress. This problem is even worse in classes that have multiple midterms on the syllabus. How can students stay mentally well if they have to worry about four midterms and weekly assignments?

Between preparing for exams and attempting to stay on top of major assignments, working, and making time for extracurricular activities, weekly assignments are only providing the straw that may break the camel’s back. While managing major priorities, the weekly assignments are met with “Oh, right, that. I can probably squeeze that in sometime between studying for tomorrow’s exam and my shift at work. I’ll just go to sleep a couple of hours late.”

This aligns with the 2016 study presented by The Globe and Mail, which also found that university students are sleeping less, which greatly affects mental health. In the article, Janine Robb, the executive director of the Health & Wellness Centre at the University of Toronto, said, “It’s hard for students to see the importance of resting and taking time away. It’s counterintuitive to them when they feel they should be studying and doing an all-nighter.” This mentality is all too common, and these small weekly assignments only compound the issue. If we sleep at night, perhaps we’ll be able to do the homework without having a meltdown.

Students often face weekly assignments with exasperation and an attitude of, “No, I will not do this assignment with care, and I will not do it in a manner that allows me to absorb anything that I’d normally learn from it. I will complete it like an item on a laundry list just to get it done.” Due to this mentality, having these assignments on the syllabus is no longer efficient. It would be better for professors to add that extra 2% to one of the large assignments or exams that their students were already working on. Learning can just as easily be assessed by adding those couple of percentage points to a major paper as by stressing out students with random textbook questions.

In 2016, Huffington Post published an article which gathered a number of tips for new university students to manage the stress that comes with post-secondary life. It included study tips like those offered by SFU, as well as tips to manage stress through social interaction, such as “Don’t hide in your apartment or dorm. Make use of communal spaces” and “Attend parties/gatherings with other students.” This brings me to the other area where SFU could alter their approach: social events. While the occasional event aimed at helping students de-stress, such as puppy therapy, is all well and good, these events occur once or twice per semester on each campus, and last about 10 minutes for each student. They barely register as a break from the stress of everything.

For example, the President’s Winter Warm-up held in Convocation Mall, which offered music, snacks, hot chocolate, and an overall enjoyable social atmosphere for a couple of hours, opened the door for a break from the usually hectic routine of early to mid-December. This event should serve as a template for the university to host a greater number of similar events, especially during the most stressful times of the semester. These events could actually provide something to look forward to and break up the never ending cycle of school and work, a cycle which — from my experience — breeds further stress and anxiety.

While the university hosts small programs to help deal with the stress from school, if they want to help students cope better, they will need to change their approach. Instead of focusing on what can be done once students are already dealing with high levels of stress, the university should aim to help prevent students from entering overwhelming — seemingly endless — cycles of stress to begin with. While life itself is stressful, there are ways to manage it so that there is a healthy balance in one’s life. One of the biggest institutions involved in a student’s life should engage in a more proactive role in helping students strike that balance.

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