Student stress: A major barrier to completion

Stress takes a particularly large toll on first-generation and community college students

Colleges must do more to address the negative effects of stress on students' learning outcomes, Karen Costa writes for Inside Higher Ed

In her years of teaching college success strategies, Costa has learned that stress can be a huge obstacle to completion. She cites developmental molecular biologist John Medina, who has confirmed in his research what Costa long knew to be true: "Stressed brains don't learn the same way." Not only that, but stress also acts as a catalyst for a range of health problems, such as heart attack, stroke, and poor immune response.

Stress is particularly hard on certain groups of students. When Costa administered a stress index to a group of largely first-year, first-generation students, she found that their stress levels were sky-high.  Community college students, who often juggle numerous responsibilities outside the classroom, also face a great deal of stress that can prevent them from earning a degree. 

Two ways to help first-generation students navigate your college's 'hidden curriculum'

According to a report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, "The No. 1 reason students give for leaving school is the fact that they had to work and go to school at the same time and, despite their best efforts, the stress of trying to do both eventually took its toll."

Stress overload is a dire situation for many students, but it doesn't have to be this way, Costa argues. She points to two popular theories of success: Angela Duckworth's grit theory and Carol Dweck's mindset theory, which, Costa says, "further coalesce around the idea that stress sits at the core of persistence decisions."

Costa explains that grit theory, which encourages people to build up their resilience to life's challenges, is really just about stress management. The mindset theory posits that many people believe they have no control over their abilities and circumstances, but they can learn to change their perspectives. Why not teach students these concepts to help them approach stress in a more productive manner, Costa asks.

Costa also notes that research points to the positive effects of contemplative practices such as meditation. Mindfulness tools can help students take control of their stress in the moment.

Costa encourages institutions to develop a campus-wide "culture of care" that makes mental health a priority.

"Stress-management strategies based in sound brain science are one of our best hopes for improving student, faculty, and institutional success," Costa concludes (Costa, Inside Higher Ed, 8/9). 

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