Photo Credit: Esther Mae Wilcoxson

I understand that stress is a normal/needed biological reaction, but doesn’t it seem a little ridiculous to you that our body has the same reaction to schoolwork as it does to being chased by a bear?

I go to great lengths to decrease the level of stress in my life. I take a lighter course load even if it means I stay in college well nigh forever. I miss the hippest parties so I can recharge after a busy week. Unchecked stress causes both physical and mental illness for me, and the trade-off isn’t worth it.

Still. Being in college means that stress is inevitable. It swims in softly, circles around me, threatening, until dead week due-dates approach and it clamps down on my abdomen with its cold spiky teeth.

(In my head I imagine stress as looking somewhat like an angler fish.)

“It’s just a test,” I tell myself. “I could get a B. Or even a C. It wouldn’t really matter. I’d still graduate.”

But the angler fish seems immune to logic, and it never swims away until the tests are over and the slap-dash assignments are handed in.

So here’s a question: Is stress at school inevitable? Or are we doing it wrong?

I have several rants that are constantly simmering in my head, ready to boil over if anyone says a trigger word. This is one of them:

WHY is success in college measured by how much effort you put in instead of how much you actually learn?

College students are supposed to put in 2 hours of homework for every 1 hour of class time. Why is this? Who decided that this was a good idea?

In college, I’ve had a few classes that didn’t just teach me things, they fundamentally altered how I viewed the world and humanity. One of them was a history class at Linn Benton. I loved it so much I immediately signed up the next term for another history class from the same teacher. Another was a population geography class I took this term.

But here’s the thing: These classes were not stressful. They had almost no homework. In fact, the other day I realized that even though I took them at different colleges, the classes were structured almost identically:

  1. A short, relatively easy quiz every two weeks
  2. A discussion every week on something we’d talked about in class, with the scoring based more on scope of thought than on following a specific formula
  3. A bit of in-class work
  4. No final exam

So here’s a parting question: If learning and stress are not directly proportional, why do schools treat them like they are? Why is there an assumption that more homework = more learning?


3 responses to “Stress

  1. I’m intrigued. But as a Spanish teacher, I still think that doing mundane homework programs the brain. I know it gives me a very good idea whether the concept has been caught or not. So, does subject matter make the difference?


    • Emily Sara Smucker

      I’m sure subject matter does make a difference. Math, for instance, I wouldn’t have fully understood without working through the homework problems.


  2. The relationship between stress, learning, and academic success is not a simple one for sure. I suppose some professors might grade based on effort, but I am one who certainly does not and I’m not aware of any of my colleagues who do. At the same time, I think there is a perception among many students (doesn’t sound as though you’re one of them) that grades SHOULD be based on effort or at least that students deserve good grades because they got good grades in high school. In other words, many professors are frustrated too. 🙂

    The history class you took sounds amazing, and I can assure you that the experience you describe is one that most professors dream of creating. We don’t enjoy grading any more than students enjoy taking exams. But the challenge for us is finding meaningful ways to engage students who are not as motivated to learn as you clearly are. I don’t like to think that added stress is the answer, but sometimes we all (including students) need that extra push of an assignment to get us started. Sometimes when students underestimate the level of effort required to become proficient, a little stress or realization that they are expected to put in a significant amount of study time outside of class gets their attention. Or so we hope. Frustratingly, often when I try to emphasize the “fun” aspects of a class, students interpret that as the promise of an easy A, and then get angry when they earn a mediocre or low grade. (Because obviously “fun” equals “no effort.” /sarcasm)

    So all that to say that professors are trying to figure out this conundrum too. Unfortunately, the scholarship of teaching and learning is still a fairly new area of research (ironically!) so we still have a lot to learn about effective instruction at the college level. If you have ideas for/examples of low-stress ways professors can engage students (especially unmotivated students), I’d love to read about them–maybe that could be a new blog post series?

    Liked by 1 person

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