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How to Reduce Stress in Online Classes

Posted on Friday December 7, 2012 by Michael Keathley

It’s no secret that going to college can be stressful, even more so for online students. On top of meeting academic requirements, paying for school, perhaps supporting a family, balancing multiple adult responsibilities, and worrying if earning a degree is truly worth it, many online students are often intimidated by the differences in virtual delivery, technology, and perhaps even age as the average online student has been out of high school for over a decade.

Arizona State University posted some statistics about stress and their students that are indicative of schools around the United States:

    • 74.9% of ASU students reported experiencing stress within the last school year.
    • 27.4% of ASU students reported that stress affected their academic performance.
    • 29.6% of ASU students reported that being overcommitted affected their academic performance.
    • 27.3% of ASU students reported that being overcommitted had a high or very high effect on their stress levels.

Among these same students, the following were identified as the chief causes of their stress:

    • 36.6% academic responsibilities
    • 27.3% being overcommitted
    • 21.2% career-related issues
    • 20.4% financial concerns
    • 17.6% personal emotional issues (2011)

The high percentage of students feeling stressed, the detrimental influence it has on their academic performance, and the effects of stress on other areas of students’ lives, make this a topic worthy of addressing.

A look at each of these identified stressors and two additional ones I have encountered in my own work with online students should allow students to see that there are ways to reduce stress, even in online courses.

Academic Responsibilities
Students worry about grades, having the level of academic achievement to win or keep scholarships, gaining entry into good programs, etc. The non-traditional online students who at an average age of 34 are working (80%) and perhaps supporting families have the additional anxieties about having been out of high school for about 16 years and trying to focus on coursework in the midst of their work and family obligations ( “Online Student Demographics Infographic,” 2011).

In addition to academic rigors, students must juggle jobs, families, and other responsibilities of adulthood. The feeling of isolation many online students feel because they are alone in front of a lifeless computer screen as opposed to being in a classroom with others exacerbates the multitasking and the detrimental effect on academic progress. For example, 85% of students feel the need to connect with others daily via social media while working on assignments even though this has proven detrimental to their academic progress.

Career-related Issues
Students face a host of decisions about their future that only begins with the choice to go to college. Non-traditional students in online classes may be dealing with job loss and retraining; a mid-life career change; the pressure of needing to update their credentials to stay employed and relevant in an existing profession; and other such concerns. As if planning for this future isn’t stressful enough, work life in the present may be causing anxiety as students may be seeking internships to earn valuable experience or trying to do well at a current position to pay the bills.

Financial Concerns
Closely connected to career-related issues are financial concerns. Students must not only pay school expenses, but they must also meet the cost of living while attending school. Not only does the tuition need to be paid, so do the rent and utilities. The future is also a concern of students. Most are well aware of the student debt statistics that indicate they will most likely be part of those who graduate with a bachelor’s degree and an average of $25,000 in debt. Many non-traditional online students may be facing the reality that they have lost seniority in a former career and that they will enter their new profession at an entry level salary.

Personal Issues
Adult life can produce a host of other issues. Not only are there the social pressures for younger students (e.g., campus parties), but also the older, non-traditional online student may be caught at the difficult stage of being a parent to small children while also acting as a caregiver to aging parents. Stress may exacerbate existing mental or physical health issues with students or help to foster new ones. Even without a major crisis, life is full of little annoyances: the need to go grocery shopping, get a car repaired, attend work events, etc., and most of these things will probably happen during finals week or when a major project is due.

In addition to what the ASU students shared, I see technology as being a major source of stress for students, especially online learners. They must make sure that they not only have the right equipment, but that they also know how to use it. Students must quickly become familiar with the course site, its functions, where to find information, and how to interpret it more independently than in a physical classroom. Online students often feel some anxiety about having their responses to assignment prompts published within the course site (e.g., a discussion response) for everyone to see, or that the virtual modality makes them more, rather than less, visible to professors.

Finally, one of the most frequent questions sent in to me on the “Ask Our Advisor” page, and one I have heard frequently as an educator is: “Am I Too Old to Go to College” (3 October, 2012). At the core of this seems to be the concern that these students have been out of school for some time. For instance, some are worried they will not remember how to write a paper after a decade outside of academia or that technology has advanced so far advanced that they will not be able to catch onto how to learn online.

Some ways of reducing stress may already have started to seem obvious based on the above. Here are some tips for lessening your worry:

Realize stress is normal and that it can be a good motivator. Stress is a part of our survival instinct, so harness this primal feeling to help you stay focused on finishing assignments and meeting academic goals.

Reduce your commitments and expenses in all areas of your life as much as possible. Consider attending college part-time instead of full-time to reduce commitments and lessen the financial strain. Using a career ladder approach.

Take advantage of the low-cost or free services offered by your school which match up nicely to ease each of the top stressors above.

Realize that the odds of your making more money in the long run and having better job security will eventually offset your current investment in school and all the stress being experienced.

The reality is that going to college—as with most worthwhile pursuits in life—is stressful. Identifying the main causes of your stress; then taking action on ways to ease your anxiety can help. To a large extent, reducing stress comes down to how you choose to perceive and respond to it. Make the decision to control use stress positively to energize you toward the completion of your goals.

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