There’s no question that today’s college students are excessively stressed. Relentless social media, 24-hour news cycles, economic and political uncertainty, climate change … these stressors, when added to the demands of a full course load or the simultaneous demands of family and work, can be overwhelming. Furthermore, many students attending college today have internalized the message that the path to economic security is narrow and intolerant of mistakes. This has resulted in students who exhibit a brittle response to failure and are reluctant to take risks. Ironically, often the highest achieving students are most likely to suffer from what is increasingly recognized as destructive perfectionism.

A young man looking at a laptop covered in stickers running his fingers through his hair.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Most university faculty have no formal training to assist students in dealing with stress and anxiety, and the stressors of today differ from those that many of us experienced during our college years. Fortunately, there are a number of small strategies we can employ in our courses to help build resilience in our students without sacrificing the high standards and rigor that should characterize higher education.

Break the shell of perfectionism

As human beings, we instructors are aware of our own shortcomings; but our students may not see us as fully human. The ‘sage on the stage’ model can perpetuate an image of infallibility and make disciplinary mastery seem unattainable to many students. We instructors can demonstrate lifelong learning by sharing stories about our path from novice to practitioner, pointing out mistakes we continue to learn from along the way. For example, in teaching figure critique in a data visualization class, I took students through a chronological tour of my own scientific publications, focusing on the good and bad, and emphasizing that developing a sense for data visualization takes time and practice. In addition to modeling imperfection, being a little vulnerable in front of your students — for example, by inviting critique of your own work — can help build trust and rapport.

Use high-challenge, low-stakes assessments

Are finals the best way to evaluate learning, or are they more a reflection of a student’s endurance or tolerance for stress? Consider assessing your students with more frequent, lower-stakes quizzes and assignments. You might take advantage of the low stakes by including a particularly challenging question or task. By making it worth a very small percentage of the total course grade, you can encourage students to focus less on the external risk of failure and more on the internal reward of accomplishment. Even if your course warrants a final summative assessment, including formative assessments can better prepare students for the final and can reduce stress by making the final worth a smaller percent of the overall course grade.

Give students off-ramps and rest stops

Well-defined course policies are helpful to both the instructor and the student. But are your policies overly rigid or punitive? Consider adopting a “$%^* happens” policy that grants each student one extension, no explanation required. Finally, allow your students some rest by not assigning any work over Thanksgiving and spring breaks. I surveyed my students recently and 67% indicated that they preferred the chance to rejuvenate over having additional time to complete coursework over spring break.

None of the actions described above diminish academic rigor, but they do help reduce stress and enhance resilience. Additional resources for supporting students can be found here.

This tip is the second in a series of Teaching Tips from UAF instructors working together to build innovative courses in the EPIC program.

Download this Teaching Tip as a PDF

Megan McPhee is an associate professor in UAF’s College of Fisheries & Ocean Sciences at the Juneau Fisheries Center. She holds a BS in fisheries from the University of Washington and a PhD in biology from the University of New Mexico, where she began her teaching career as a graduate teaching assistant.

Megan McPhee

associate professor