Probing Student Anxieties

I ran a quick anonymous survey in my undergraduate courses last week, as a way to find out what’s on students’ minds and how it might be affecting their academic performance. The survey’s four questions and an analysis of the responses are below. Results might be skewed because only 70% of the 54 students on my course rosters connected to class on Zoom when I administered the survey. In my experience, absenteeism correlates strongly with lousy academic performance, but this semester it could in part be a maladaptive response to greater than usual levels of stress and anxiety. I just don’t know.

The survey:

Five years from now, what outcome do you want to have achieved in your life? Nearly all the students who responded wrote that financial stability from a career was an important objective. Less than one-quarter listed happiness or enjoyment. Seven students wrote that travel was a goal. Only one specifically referenced being healthy.

What can you do in this course to make achieving your desired outcome more likely? About 40% of respondents commented in some fashion about practicing the application of conceptual knowledge. 30% mentioned getting a good or passing grade for the course. Only five students said anything related to understanding different cultures or perspectives. There were six comments about improving writing, time management, or note-taking skills.

What are you worried about? Here there were about a dozen comments each about employability after college, long term economic effects of the pandemic, and the election/condition of the country. Four students said they were concerned about not having a satisfying career or a fulfilling life. Two said that they were worried about the environment and the future of the planet.

What are some small, practical actions that you can take to respond to your worries and help you achieve your desired outcome? This is where I was surprised, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Few students listed any simple behavioral changes that might help them better manage stress. There were twenty comments about working harder, spending more time on coursework, or leveraging internships to create future employment or graduate study opportunities. Slightly more than 25% of respondents said they could focus more on the present or not try to control what can’t be controlled. Only two students discussed seeking emotional support from family or peers. No students mentioned getting sufficient sleep, eating healthily, or exercising.

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