Midterms Test College Students’ Mental Health


College students experience increased anxiety during midterms. (Courtesy of Flickr)

When October starts, Halloween is far from the scariest thing looming for college students. The dreaded midterm season begins and, during this time, students bond over how stressed and overwhelmed they are with academic demands. It is a time when complaints of anxiety are more than commonplace.

When students arrive on campus for their first semester of freshman year, they often find themselves burdened with an unexpectedly challenging amount of schoolwork. The transition from high school to college often leads students to question their academic abilities. While they may have been at the top of their class in high school, they now find themselves surrounded by students from schools all across the country.

According to NEA Today, around two-thirds of college students reported having “overwhelming anxiety” in 2016, up from 50% of students in 2011. Students struggling with academic anxiety often find themselves in a vicious cycle: They become anxious about not performing well, which negatively affects their academic performance further, resulting in even more anxiety.

Academic stress can have a variety of root causes. For the most part, it is a fear of failing to meet expectations. Due to the massive financial investment that college generally is for families, much of the pressure that students feel in terms of academics is self-inflicted. Like so many other aspects of life, we are our own worst enemies when it comes to academic performance.

Jeffrey Ng, Ph.D., director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Fordham University, explained that the academic stress that students feel can lead them to lose sight of learning.

“We seek to infuse the campus with a growth mindset, self-compassion and healthy thriving,” he explained. He emphasized the idea that students need to see their academic career as a work in progress, ultimately striving for success with bumps along the way.

Professors also make an effort to ensure that students feel challenged by their coursework, but not overwhelmed to a point of severe stress , according to Professor Cornelius Collins of the English department at Fordham College at Rose Hill.

“This is a topic that we as faculty members actually think about a lot each semester, and students’ issues with stress are real concerns for us,” he said.

Collins works to develop a growth mindset in his students over the course of the semester, as Ng recommends. “I think professors can mitigate stress by providing clear guidelines as well as rationales for assignments and by building up the complexity of assignments and expectations over the course of the term,” explained Collins.

Our thoughts can often be our own worst enemies. “Don’t believe everything you think,” Ng advises. Students often bombard themselves with paranoid fears about their futures once they receive a grade lower than they hoped for. One grade spirals into a failed class, then a loss of job opportunities and culminates in an unsuccessful life.

These spirals are often most frequent among those who tend to perform very well academically. It is not merely enough to know logically that this is not true. We are harder, and more unrealistic, with ourselves than with anyone else. We would never say the things we say in our own heads to any of our friends. When our peers complain about the stress that they are struggling with, we often feel that it is unnecessary, that they should not worry because they will definitely do well. Although our peers likely think this of our own worries, we lack the ability to understand ourselves.

“We are scared to be nice to ourselves for fear of a loss of motivation,” Ng explained. For some reason, many of us hold the belief that if we are more compassionate towards ourselves, we will lose the motivation to strive for more. Research has shown that this notion is misguided, and instead, a lack of self-compassion causes us to feel less motivated and more stressed in the long run.

The structure of college academics builds a competitive environment that starts breeding in high school. With an exceptionally competitive process of college admissions in the United States, academic achievement is often seen as something done in order to prove one’s worth as greater than his or her competing peers. One misstep may make the difference between one student and another.

Test anxiety is one common manifestation of academic anxiety in students of all ages. One exam becomes a symbol of a student’s entire future, and the perception of that pressure causes a bombardment of physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety. Though these fears are, of course, unrealistic, they are often the result of years of panicking about SATs and other standardized tests throughout elementary and high school.

Students as young as kindergarten sit for standardized testing that evaluates their academic abilities as compared to their peers. Academics have evolved greatly in the past few decades, and competition between students continues to increase.

Continuing this mindset into college does much more harm than good. While there remains a sense of competition for achievements like Dean’s List or later applications to graduate school programs, college is meant to prepare students for performance in their chosen field. The material learned in most of their classes is meant to stay with students as they embark on your professional path.

Hopefully, with increased awareness about the realities of academic anxieties, college students will be able to manage their fears in a more productive way. In addition, colleges and universities will continue to provide mental health resources to struggling students and strive to implement a growth mindset towards learning in their students.

After all, the focus must be on developing a deep understanding of the course material, rather than getting an A on every paper. This understanding often requires a few missteps along the way, but it is always worth the while.