September 9th, 2010

Less Stress at the Semester’s End


There is no question that many students experience pretty serious burnout by the end of the semester. It’s easy for us to recognize it because we experience it ourselves. Even so, I have to admit I was surprised by the findings of a survey of one cohort of business majors.

A faculty researcher surveyed students with a modified version of a widely used measure of emotional exhaustion. He administered it during the last week of the semester to 196 business majors enrolled in three introductory accounting courses. The mean score was 3.79 (standard deviation or SD 1.17), which the researcher described as “very high,” an apt description when compared with the mean score of 2.37 (SD 1.17) of those employed in the social services and the mean score of 1.88 (SD .99) for those working in mental health fields. But then this comparison: “Even the emotional exhaustion score (2.97; SD.98) for public accountants … measured during the height of the traditional busy season … was significantly lower than the level measured in university business students in the present study.” (p. 199)

I think that’s a finding that should concern us. Yes, we are talking about one cohort here, in one field, and at one institution, so generalizations are not in order. Even so, we all recognize that the end of a semester is a very stressful time. What this researcher (and many others) recommends are workshops on stress reduction for students. I’m sure those help, but since reading the article I’ve been wondering if the larger problem doesn’t result from how we organize student work during the semester and whether there are some alternatives.

Most of the assignments that really count are due at the end of the semester. That way students have all semester to work on them and can show how much they’ve learned. There’s an underlying assumption that students can’t do quality work at the beginning of the course when they don’t know anything about the content. Don’t students learn the material whenever they work on it? Can’t that happen anytime during the semester? Yes, the really big assignments (projects and papers) can still be due at the end, but stress would be less (and the quality of the work better) if those assignments were due (maybe even graded) piecemeal.

Big comprehensive finals are very stressful for students—that doesn’t mean we should stop giving them—but can we better prepare students for them? What if every test had a certain number of questions from the previous unit? I know how popular that would be with students, but if the benefits could be documented, they might not object as strongly. What if questions from previous material were asked regularly in class? And then there’s thinking really outside the box like Tena Golding’s innovative approach to the final, described in this month’s issue of the Teaching Professor.

Reference: Law, D. W. (2010). A measure of burnout for business students. Journal of Education for Business, 85, 195-202.