As we approach final exams, and wrap up an academic year’s worth of blogging on student mental health, many of us feel an accentuated sense of stress and anxiety. That is normal, and sometimes even healthy – stress, in reasonable quantities, is an adaptive response to improve motivation and performance. But many of us also see students approach finals in unhealthy ways – where the subjective feeling of stress is beyond any rational appraisal. Might there be little things we can do as faculty and academic staff to re-frame finals?
Though there is no magic solution, I often find myself talking to students this time of year about some simple cognitive-behavioral techniques to manage stress. Cognitive methods in psychology focus on identifying and challenging dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs to change subjective feelings. Though in-depth versions of these methods can be part of serious psychotherapy, simple versions are often popular parts of reasonable self-help techniques. They can work because the types of cognitive distortions and irrational beliefs we experience are remarkably common and consistent: we all sometimes “catastrophize” (exaggerate the critical importance of things like one bad exam) or engage in “all-or-nothing thinking” (see our work as either great or terrible with nothing in-between).
Sometimes just recognizing those types of thoughts, and providing some evidence to refute those thoughts, can help mitigate our negative emotional reactions. Sometimes, in other words, students might benefit from a little perspective on finals.
It’s worth noting that a little perspective is not enough for students with more serious mental health concerns – we should avoid minimizing real distress, and keep referring students in need to UP’s counseling services. But we might simultaneously be able to chip away at some of the common cognitive distortions and irrational thoughts that can go into overdrive for any student around finals week at UP. Here are just a few examples:
“If I don’t get a good grade on this final, my parents are going to kill me.” This is an easy one for the obviousness of its irrationality; the parents of our students love their children, and while they may express that love in different ways it never involves capital punishment!
“This final is going to be impossible.” Technically, an impossible final would be one that no one can pass. I know of no class at UP that fails every student. Sometimes students just need a friendly reminder that many students past, present, and future pass all of our exams – and even those that don’t do quite as well as they hope usually go on to get their degrees.
“How can I write this paper when I don’t know what you (the professor) expect?” Professors do sometimes have specific expectations for their assignments, and it can be good to clarify what to include. But all professors I know mostly want to see that students have engaged with course material and concepts, and have learned something through the process. When students focus on learning rather than the imagined expectations, they tend to do just fine.
“I have too much work to do; I’ll never make it through finals.” Students, and faculty, may indeed have lots to do before the end of finals. But sometimes it can be helpful this time of year to offer a simple reminder based on consistent experience: every year to date finals do, eventually, end.