Survey Reveals Significant Student Stress

By Jay Panandiker (2013) and John Rowe (2013).

Given the recent Time Management Survey produced by Upper School administration, Canvass is republishing the April 2012 article “Survey Reveals Significant Student Stress” to provide some perspective concerning changes and/or the lack of changes in student schedules, behavior, and stress. The article, based on 204 student responses to questions similar to the Time Management Survey, produced telling results concerning not only stressors, but also sleep deprivation, time management, and Seven Hills’ responsiveness to such issues.

–Canvass Editorial Staff

Students of our generation face unparalleled pressure and challenges with society’s current emphasis on academic perfection. One of the most pressing challenges for students in recent times has been dealing with stress rooted in classroom expectations and onerous workloads. While many have argued that motivational and challenging stress is an instrumental part of the academic process, it is paramount that the stress is tactfully balanced to ensure the healthy lifestyle of the American high school student. A recent Canvass survey reveals that stress at Seven Hills is a major issue for a significant number of students.

It is not uncommon in a high school environment for a few scattered students to claim that they have too much to do, and that they are stressed. However, this survey indicates it was not just a few students who believed their stress levels were too high, but, in fact, a significant portion of students. Out of the 204 students surveyed, only eight believe that they had no stress whatsoever. This number is dwarfed by the 29% of students who said that they had high stress and the 42% students who said that they were moderately stressed. When asked about their preferred levels of stress, students almost unanimously report that they wanted to be less stressed than they currently are. Very few selected that they are satisfied with high stress. Instead, 45% students, a much more sizable group, believe that they should have limited stress. According to the students surveyed, their stress comes from any number of sources; however the major causes are schoolwork and college preparation. School work seems to be the primary stressor across all grades, with 93% of those surveyed listing it as the primary source of stress. However college preparation is not far behind with almost 70% of upperclassmen listing it as an important stressor. College prep seems to be less important in the sophomore and freshman demographics.

Another telling statistic is the amount of stress that came from the expectations of various groups, specifically parents, peers, teachers, and the school at large. Expectations from parents seem to be the largest stressor. Over 50% of those surveyed indicate that parental expectations are a source of moderate to high stress. On many surveys students claim that their parents had high expectations, especially in regards to Honors/AP classes. Others, however, claim that because their expectations of themselves are higher than those of their parents, they are less stressed. Many students report that teacher expectations are less of a stress source because teachers tend to be more accepting. Similarly, academic stress from peers seems not to be a huge issue, and it is frequently cited that friends are unconditionally supportive. Yet, some claim that their friends are academically competitive. Another revealing statistic is the pressure felt from expectations of the school at large: 50% indicated that the school as an institution caused moderate to extreme stress. Students frequently commented that the school’s high standards of excellence and the heavy emphasis on marketing has created a stressful environment. As opposed to school website from the 2010-2011 school year which featured five bullet points in a section titled “Just the Facts: Scholastic Achievement,” the current “Seven Hills by the Numbers” features twenty-six bullet points related to student performance on standardized test scores, which include new statistics about the amount of perfect scores achieved on tests.

The effects of school related stress vary from student to student. Therefore, it is impossible to create overarching generalizations about the effects of the stress. Yet, it is possible to determine that stress can have both positive and negative effects on the average student. Hans Selye, a psychologist and one of the world’s pioneering stress researchers, separates stress into two categories: distress (negative stress) and eustress (positive stress). According to Selye, stress is often considered only malicious, while the beneficial effects of stress are ignored. Many psychologists tell us that our level of performance is directly related to the level of stress we experience. Positive stress can inspire us to do better and significantly improve our performance. One argument supporting the need for limited to moderate levels of stress is that stress helps increase preparation. For example, if a person is stressed about a presentation or test, they may practice and prepare more, therefore increasing their levels of confidence and ultimately performance. According to some, stress pushes you to grow, change, fight, and adapt. All life events, even positive ones, cause a certain degree of stress. Without these stresses, only limited achievements would be made. The positive stress that is caused by the school can motivate us to push ourselves harder and perform beyond expectations.

However, the negative effects of stress seem to be much more well known. When someone thinks of stress they often think of mental clutter, sleep deprivation, and illness. The results of our survey indicate that sleep deprivation is a common problem at Seven Hills. According to the National Sleep Foundation, high school students are supposed to get close to eight hours of sleep per night. However, the Sleep Foundation reports that most teen suffer a sleep deficit. While losing an hour of sleep a night seems like a minor problem, over time this deficit can lead to more serious issues. More than half of teens surveyed by the Sleep Foundation reported that they have driven a car drowsy over the past year, and 15% of students in the 10th to 12th grades drive drowsy at least once a week. The signs of sleep deprivation, such as constant yawning and almost falling asleep in class, seem all too common for Seven Hills students. The Canvass survey results suggest that a large majority of students do not get enough sleep on an average night. 71% of students go to sleep after 11pm and 50% after 12. Going to sleep after midnight ensures that the student does not get enough sleep.  

Other problems that that are rooted in stress are academic honesty issues. Often those who cheat do not have malicious motives, but rather are feeling crunched by a deadline or a busy week. While impossible to confirm, high levels of stress can force those who would not traditionally cheat to share answers on a take-home test or consult the Internet. It is also hard to measure how common academic dishonesty is at Seven Hills, because it is a difficult topic to survey. However many recent surveys, including one from Johns Hopkins University have found that as many as 75-80% of high school students have cheated in some form. Yet, in middle school these percentages are closer to 50%. Many students have cited stress due to large assignments, high stakes testing, and high performance expectations as a reason for their dishonesty.

However, sentiments about stress seem to vary from student to student, often varying based on grade and course selection. According to the survey, freshmen and second-semester seniors seem to be the least stressed, while the bulk of the stress is found in the sophomore and junior classes. Because the surveys were anonymous, we also interviewed several students about their views on stress.

Junior Anu Vora claimed to be “very stressed. I get about four hours of sleep a night.” She also mentioned that her primary stressors were “a little bit of everything, to be honest. Seven Hills is such a competitive environment. I feel like nothing is ever good enough.” She also added that the stress, however, does have one major positive. She claims that the stress allows her to excel, even if its at the expense of a healthy sleeping cycle. She suggests that it is the “Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later” philosophy and that the high stress now will pay off over the long run.

When Canvass investigated student stress last year, many vividly and eloquently expressed their sentiments. Carson Quimby (12), who was interviewed as a junior, said, “School is not fun like going to the beach fun, it’s more like breaking off pieces of glass, rolling around in them, and then taking a bath in Tabasco sauce fun.” He cited Physics Honors as a main source of stress last year.

Junior Katherine King said that her stress varies from day to day. She claimed that this year, however, she is experiencing much more stress than in previous years. This is primarily due to the increased work on extracurriculars, namely piano, and preparing for college. King speculates that as the next few months progress her stress level will increase: “The magnitude of the stress is greater.” King claims that she does get enough sleep.

Sophomore Hannah Berger said that her stress was, “pretty high,” especially on the day we interviewed her. She mentioned multiple papers and large tests all due within the same week, an occurrence not uncommon amongst the student body. She also mentioned one instance where there was only a two day window between the time a paper was assigned and the day it was due. Yet, she said that her parents and teachers recognize when stress levels are high and are usually supportive. Berger suggested that she normally gets close to six hours of sleep, approximately two hours less than that which the Sleep Foundation considers a healthy level.

Senior Alex Baggott describes his stress as reasonable now, but his current stress level is a far cry from where it was last semester, before he got into college. He said, “I was most stressed about getting into college because I applied Early Decision and loved Davidson so much I really wanted to get in.” He also added, “I was still trying to adjust to senior year classes, which was stressing me out a bit, but I have really great teachers who helped me get through it.” He said that he does get enough sleep because he does as much work as he can during his free bells, which leaves less work for at night. Baggott said that he manages his stress by listening to music while he works, and trying not to procrastinate.

In addition to surveying students we also surveyed faculty for their opinions on student stress. When asked about the time that should be spent on homework for their subject there were clear divisions between Honors and CP classes. CP teachers are split amongst homework times with 28% of teachers suggesting their homework should take less than twenty minutes, and 42% saying homework should take from 30-45 minutes. 80% of Honors teachers suggest homework should take 30-45 minutes. However, many teachers indirectly suggested that the time spent on homework for their class should be more than the classes of their colleagues. This was a common complaint by students on their survey.

Teachers, however, did appear to be generally receptive to stress levels. 50% of the teachers surveyed suggested that stress levels were either high or extreme. All the teachers believed that the stress level should be closer to moderate or limited levels. Many teachers also cited that school culture leads to students overburdening themselves. All teachers recognized that the culture encouraged some stress, with 86% of teachers saying that school culture moderately or significantly encourages student stress. Many teachers also note that stress plays a role when planning their classes with 66% suggesting it was a significant consideration. Another 86% believed to some degree that the Seven Hills environment values product over process, with 30% suggesting that product was valued “a lot.” Many students corroborated this feeling by commenting on their surveys that they believed the emphasis placed on statistics and test scores, especially standardized test scores, greatly enhanced their stress.

As the survey results suggested, teachers had varying views on stress. They also showed this when interviewed.

English teacher Amy Wyatt said that usually the stress level was moderate and positive, but at times it could be extremely high. Compared with the previous school where she taught, Hanover High School in New Hampshire, she said that Seven Hills students tend to be less stressed and less high-strung.

Head of Upper and Health Teacher Nick Francis believes that stress varies from student to student, but there is some stress. He also made it clear that not all the stress is necessarily bad, specifically that the stress increases motivation. Ideally, Francis believes that the student body should have no negative stress, but everyone should have a healthy amount of eustress. He also said that stress from the school at large is hard to prevent, but is a consideration. He said often advertised statistics, like matriculation and standardized test scores, can lead to students feeling the need to meet high expectations. He also believes that the school did not actively encourage students to overburden themselves, and did not think that GPA competitiveness was a big deal. He said, “Parental expectations can often lead to stress especially with these statistics, but high schools tend to do what’s right for the kid.” Francis also added that one way to reduce stress caused by the school at large could be through not announcing college acceptances and National Merit Scholars. However, he said that not making these announcements would lead to a lack of deserved recognition. He also believed that societal factors such as school rankings, like the US News and World Report College List, can also cause stress. When asked about addressing the negative effects of stress that are often ignored outside of health class, he said, “The faculty often talk about [how to address stress]. The stress level of the students is definitely in the conversations, as are solutions.” He cited new ideas like block scheduling and midterm exam reform as potential solutions to the student stress problem. He also said that the already existing test calender, long lunch, and free bells helps relieve stress. Francis said that, “A large percentage of the students probably do not get enough sleep. Currently I do not have a brilliant solution to the problem. Sleep is also a problem across many schools.” He also said that the causes of academic honesty often vary between malicious intent, procrastination, overburdening, and stress.

History teacher Jen Faber said that she sees the stress level vary from student to student, but the general level is high. She said, “Often students can be very competitive.  Usually the stress seems to peak junior year and the first semester of senior year.” Faber believes that “time management is very important. However parental pressure especially about grades can be stressful.” She also said, “Process is definitely more important than product. However product will be important until there is systemic change.” Faber added that the number of opportunities that Seven Hills offers can be both a blessing and a curse. She said that while the extracurricular opportunities are important due to the fact that it exposes students to new experiences, it can also allow students to overburden themselves. Faber said that in her ideal class there would be no tests, and “I would give everyone an A on the first day…They would care more about the material and the process than the grade at the end of the quarter.” She believed that parents can be one of the biggest stressors even if the stress is subliminal: “Sometimes it seems like parents want to go to Seven Hills through their students.”

College Counselor Wynne Curry agreed that college preparation can be very stressful, particularly for upperclassmen. This opinion was also reflective of the survey results. She said that the stress can come from various sources, including college essays for the Common Application and supplements. In addition, she mentioned that students must balance this with other schoolwork, like homework, tests, and presentations. She also said, “the uncertainty of not knowing where you will be after your senior year can be stressful. Students want to know.” She added that stress levels can vary from student to student during the process. However, she believes that college counselors try to relive student stress. “What we try to help with is time management so [the assignments] are all not due on one weekend. We help them break down the tasks into discrete manageable tasks. We also talk to them about their fears and what their feeling.” Curry said that in the last few years students have become increasingly stressed about standardized testing. She said that students are beginning to prepare earlier, take more prep classes, and spend more time on individual preparation.

Curry, who is also Chair of the School Disciplinary Committee, said that in the last five years the number of stress related academic honesty issues has dramatically increased. She said that not all students have malicious intentions, but rather the issue was a result of a pressing deadline. Curry said, “[Stress] can cloud kids’ good judgement. When stress and anxiety levels are high, cognition and reasoning powers go down.”

This recent foray into school stress has revealed some insightful conclusions. While all sides in this matter seem to unanimously agree that a certain amount of stress is needed for optimum results, so too do they agree that currently the stress level at Seven Hills is above a healthy amount. Everyone seems to also agree that the overall health of the student is, above all, most important. So, as students get less sleep and develop worse judgement from the pressures of high expectations, it is still amazing to see what they are able to accomplish day in and day out. Yet, if students’ stress levels were decreased to a level that was largely beneficial, then students’ performances could increase to an even higher degree, but, more importantly, the students at Seven Hills could build healthy lifestyle habits with more balance in all facets of life, not just grades and test scores. Students, teachers, and the school itself seem to be working toward this goal with careful thought and perseverance to try and create an improved learning environment for the future.

The reporters would like to thank juniors Cullen Deimer, Nicholas Au-Yeung, Ian Hillenbrand, and Claire Romaine and the Journalism class for helping with data collection and compilation.