Stressed from teaching so many stressed students?

IMG_0790By Pia Harbers

Media have been reporting about increased levels of stress and psychological problems among students in Higher Education. While some question to what extent this really is a serious problem, others describe this as the “biggest generational challenge” that we are currently confronted with.

Reasons for these increased levels of stress and psychological problems among students increase are not yet clear, though many potential causes have been suggested, including social media, perfectionism, financial problems, and societal pressure. In addition, the growing amount of regulations in Higher Education may be causing more unnecessary stress for students. The Dutch Minister for Education, for example, has suggested to lower Binding Study Advice thresholds to reduce stress, but it has been questioned whether this is the right solution.

While scholars are currently still in the process of diagnosing the problem, potential cures have already been suggested. At Maastricht University, for instance, new workshops to increase students’ well-being and resilience are currently being developed by the Student Services Centre. Other scholars, including Paula Wilcox and colleagues, even suggest specifically training staff to deal with this.

I doubt whether this is necessary. I do not think that students need a fundamentally different academic coach. The problem does not necessarily lie with what and how we teach; this is not fundamentally different from 20 years ago. I would rather say it is about creating more clarity about one’s role as a tutor, mentor or supervisor.

As a tutor in PBL, youare a facilitator of the learning process in the tutorial group. This includes ensuring that the group works well and reflecting on the learning process of the group and of individual students. You can coach in terms of study progress, choices to me made, etc. Yet, you need to listen, be open to what students tell. In addition, you need to make sure that the PBL group is a safe environment, but that does not make you responsible for the student wellbeing or for finding a solution to the students’ problem. Nor does it mean that you have to treat a troubled student differently. It’s about listening, signalling problems, and referring students to the right person, service, etc. (just as it always was).

I do not think specialised staff training is necessary, although maybe some of you lack a bit of courage or self-assurance while talking to an emotional student. Remember that you are not responsible for the issue, nor do you have to solve it. It’s OK to feel uncomfortable and to tell the student that it may be best to contact someone else. It is even better if you show that you care and asking questions is good way to do so. “Are you OK?” “You look a bit tired.” “This is the second time that you’re late; do you want to talk about it?”

In other words, basic questions that you’d ask your friends and family too! And it’s OK to share your experience with your students, for instance when discussing study skills. You may have also struggled with time management (you probably still do!), have been worried about a sick family member, etc. It is all about showing interest.

Obviously, you are not a doctor or a psychologist, nor are you students’ parent or their friend. Therefore, you should not meet outside of the working environment and keep a professional distance at all times.  You cansignal potential challenges, though, and issues that students are struggling with – research shows that tutors in PBL tend to have a good insight into students’ chances of becoming successful in their studies.

By keeping on asking you will not complicate things; it may trigger emotions, but it will certainly also help. You can always ask if you can call someone to take the student home. Find a balance between doing nothing and becoming personally involved! Don’t wait for the student to come to you, but act when you signal something. You are the student’s first-hand contact with university.

So here are a few tips to support students:

  1. Make compliments/give positive feedback.
  2. Pro-actively approach students (don’t wait for them to take the initiative).
  3. Make time for students and answer your email.
  4. Help students by giving practical (SMART) tips.
  5. Refer to student adviser or student psychologist in case of serious personal issues.

And if you have questions, you can always contact me!

About the author

Pia Harbers is student advisor at Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Pia has a background in clinical psychology and worked as a psychologist in special education and in (study) career counselling for more than 10 years. In 2002 she started working as a student adviser for the BA CW at FASoS. Currently Pia mainly works with students from the BA ES, the Masters EPA, ES and GDS, and the Research Master ES. She is also closely involved in Matching and in the BA ES mentor programme and contributes to PBL and UTQ training sessions for teaching staff.