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Are midterms bad for faculty?

Abstract

Previous studies found that student health is adversely affected by examination stress. We compared faculty and student stress and health during midterm examination week. Although faculty and students reported similarly high levels of stress, fatigue, anger, vigor, and negative moods, faculty reported fewer physical health symptoms and less tension, depression, and confusion. These results may be due to differences in coping strategies. Faculty need to be aware that they are not immune to health-related issues at midterm examination time.

Introduction

Stressful life experiences positively correlate with both physical and mental illness (Hamrick, Cohen, & Rodriquez, 2002; Pandey & Srivastana, 2003; Roth, Wiebe, Fillingim, & Shay, 1989). Numerous studies have shown compelling evidence that stress affects major disease onset and progression (Cohen & Herbert, 1996; Seyle, 1950) and lowers general physical well being (Diong & Bishop, 1999). Because research has shown a dramatic increase in the levels of stress experienced by college students over the past 30 years (Sax, 1997), especially in regard to career plans (de Meis, Velloso, Lannes, Carmo, & de Meis, 2003), it is important to examine the relation between stress levels and mental and physical illness.

One high stress event experienced by most college students involves midterm examination week. Longitudinal research has shown that student stress fluctuates over the course of a semester, with marked peaks at midterm and finals weeks (Stilger, Etzel, & Lantz, 2001). These high stress levels are problematic because they can cause immune system depression (McClelland, Ross, & Patel, 1985) and subsequently lead to mental or physical illness. In fact, studies have shown that poor performance on midterm exams can lead to depression (Abela & Brozina, 2004; Pettit & Joiner, 2001).

Although all students (and faculty) are vulnerable to the effects of stress, different factors may mediate the impact of stress on health. Research suggests that certain coping tactics may decrease the impact of stress on psychological (Pearlin & Schooler, 1978) and physical (Feeney, 1995; James, 1997) outcomes. For example, studies have shown that problem-focused coping can help buffer the effects of stress on health (Parks & Adler, 2003). In addition, some studies report that problem-focused coping (addressing the stressor directly) is negatively related to depressive symptoms and emotion-focused coping (addressing the affective consequences of the stressor) is positively related to them (Kolenc, Hartley, & Murdock, 1990; Lapp & Collins, 1993; Moeller, Richards, Hooker, & Ursino, 1992). However, other studies have reported no relation or the opposite pattern (Arthur, 1998; Cobiella, Mabe, & Forehand, 1990; McQueeney, Stanton, & Sigmon, 1997). In addition, individuals who use the negative strategy of avoidant coping (denial of the problem) possess poorer emotional and physical health (Davis, Zautra, & Reich, 2001; Pakenham, 2001; Pandey & Srivastava, 2003; Penedo et al., 2001; Roesch & Weiner, 2001) and report more depression (Seiffge-Krenke & Klessinger, 2000) and more anxiety (Liverant, Hofmann, & Litz, 2004). In fact, choice of coping strategy directly relates to well-being around midterms. Zeidner (1995) found that emotion-focused coping had a direct impact on test anxiety, and problem-focused coping best predicted test performance. Importantly, Folkman and Lazarus (1985) found that coping predicted positive and negative emotional outcomes following midterm examinations.

The Present Study

Although some research has examined student well-being during midterm week, no extant studies have examined faculty well-being. Anecdotally, faculty often report being under more stress during midterm week as a result of the added pressure of preparing and grading midterm examinations. Thus, it seems likely that faculty might experience similar kinds of stress and health problems that students face at this time. This study examined student and faculty well-being during midterm examination week. We expected that faculty would report similar stress levels and mental and physical health symptoms as their students.

Method

Surveys were distributed to 80 undergraduate psychology and exercise science majors and 70 faculty members at the midterm examination period. Students were asked to complete the survey at the end of a class period on a volunteer basis. Faculty were sent surveys via campus mail and asked to return them within one week. Seventy-two students (73% women) and twenty faculty members (60% women) responded. Prior to initiating the study, the University Subcommittee for the Protection of Research Subjects approved procedures for this investigation.

Respondents were asked to respond to the Perceived Stress Scale, which contains six questions about their level of control and perception of stress in their lives (Cohen, Kamarck, & Mermelstein, 1983). Participants responded on a scale from 0 (never) to 4 (very often). Responses were averaged to create a scale score ([alpha] = .71).

Physical health was assessed by asking respondents how many days during the past month they had experienced any of 21 health symptoms (e.g., cold or flu, shortness of breath). Participants rated whether they had experienced each symptom on a 5-point scale (1 = never, 5 = 15+ days). Responses were summed to create a scale score (alpha= .80). This measure was used successfully by Pritchard and McIntosh (2003); McIntosh, Keywell, Reifman, and Ellsworth (1994); and Reifman, Bieruat, and Lang (1991). See Reifman et al. for information about the development of this questionnaire.

To measure psychological adaptation, students responded to a 30-item short version of the Profile of Mood States (POMS; McNair, Lorr, & Droppleman, 1981). The POMS assesses anxiety, tension, depression, anger, vigor, confusion, and fatigue. Responses were measured on a 5-point scale, from 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely). This measure has been tested on several populations and has shown to be reliable and valid (Gibson, 1997; Shin & Colling, 2000).

To assess what coping tactics students tend to use, participants reported how they would respond to a stressful event. Participants responded to a subset of items from the Brief COPE (Carver, 1997), which contains 14 tactics (active coping, planning, positive reframing, acceptance, humor, religion, using emotional support, using instrumental support, self-distraction, denial, venting, substance use, behavioral disengagement, and self-blame), with two items per scale. This measure has been tested on a variety of populations (Pritchard & McIntosh, 2003), and the measure has been validated and shown to be reliable (Carver 1997; Perczek, Carver, Price, & Pozo-Kaderman, 2000). Items were classified and grouped together as either emotion-focused (7 items), problem-focused (3 items), or avoidant coping tactics (4 items) based on previous research (Schaffer & Pritchard, 2003; Wilson, Pritchard, & Revalee, 2005).

Results

As expected, there were no differences in the average level of stress, t (42) = 1.71, or negative affect, t (42) = 1.50, experienced by faculty and students during midterm examination week. However, faculty displayed fewer physical health symptoms (M = 7.10, SD = 5.45) than did students (M = 12.28, SD = 7.50), t (42) = 2.88, p < .01. Although there were no differences in problem-focused, t (42) = .06 or avoidant coping, t (42) = 1.34, faculty did use less emotion-focused coping (M = 2.18, SD = .38) than did students (M = 2.42, SD = .43), t (42) = 2.33, p < .05.

Discussion

The purpose of this research was to examine whether faculty experience the same stress levels and negative health symptoms found in college students during midterms. To this end, we found some support for this hypothesis. Although there were no differences between faculty and students in average stress levels or in several of the health measures, significant differences were exhibited in measures of physical symptomology as well as psychological well-being, including tension, depression, and confusion. This might be explained by the fact that students utilized more emotion-focused coping than did faculty and emotion-focused coping has been linked to depression and other psychological problems (Kolenc et al., 1990; Lapp & Collins, 1993; Moeller et al., 1992) and is less effective at preventing physical illness than is problem-focused coping (Park & Adler, 2003). In addition, although stress levels might be similar between faculty and students at mid-term, it is possible that students will appraise the stress differently than do faculty. For example, students may view midterms as more threatening than faculty and may feel that they have less control over the outcome than faculty members do. Future studies might want to examine the process of appraisal in addition to the evaluation of overall stress levels.

Limitations

One limitation of this study is that it included only one time point--midterms. It would be interesting to see whether the differences we observed between faculty and students at finals or at a non-stressful period (e.g., third week of classes). Second, our faculty sample size was much smaller than our student sample size. This likely reflects the fact that faculty have more obligations than traditional college students. It is possible that either the faculty who did respond to our survey were less stressed and thus had time to respond or conversely, were the most stressed and had the most interest in our study. Perhaps future studies can try giving faculty incentives for participating. Finally, our research was conducted at a traditional, small, private institution. It would be interesting to see if the same results applied to students and faculty at a larger, state or non-traditional institution.

Conclusion

Despite repeated exposure to the stress of midterm week, faculty members do not appear to be immune to midterm examination stress. Faculty and students reported similar levels of overall stress, fatigue, anger, negative moods and lack of vigor. Hence, it is perhaps important for college faculty to be cognizant of the need to engage in more proactive coping to minimize the effect of midterm stress on mental health and well-being.

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Mary E. Pritchard, Boise State University

Gregory S. Wilson, University of Evansville

Pritchard, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Psychology, in the College of Social Science and Public Affairs, and Wilson, P.E.D. is Chair and Associate Professor of Human Kinetics and Sport Psychology in the School of Education.
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Author:Wilson, Gregory S.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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