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How do second-year psychology students describe their experiences of university stress?
Purposive sampling and semi-structured interviews were used as well as Interpretative phenomenological analysis being utilised to analyse the transcripts and quality checks were implemented to increase the validity of the analysis. Three superordinate themes were identified with each superordinate theme had two sub-themes each. Such qualitative research is rare in the university related stress literature for psychology students. Suggestions for further research regarding students coping with university stress.
There are now more students aiming to enter an increasingly competitive job market, which exacerbates the pressure to achieve a respectable degree (Robotham & Julian, 2006). In addition to financial and employment pressures, as well as completing exams and assignments is a period of significant change in a student’s life, with heightened levels of stress (Fisher & Hood, 1987). In a study conducted by Hirsch and Ellis (1996) the came to the conclusion that university students put extreme pressure on themselves to get a good grade, earn a degree, and get a job as soon as they finish their studies. Although, this is possible to achieve, the negative effects that come with sort of pressure could cause a student to do poorly in one assignment or exam due to the stress they have subjected themselves too and create even more stress for themselves by punishing themselves for not achieving as good of grade as they could have.
Moyle and Parkes (1999) believed that given the high levels of stress and change students are faced throughout university and the pressure placed on their coping resources, support from friends and family is invaluable during this period. McEwan (2000) also claimed that brain regions respond to acute and chronic stress and show changes in morphology and chemistry. Using the previous relevant research as a guideline its expected that the participants will describe their experiences of university stress by revealing the sources of their stress and how they deal with their stress.
Four second year students studying psychology at University participated in this piece of research. It was key to obtain information from a variety of different perspectives however is some homogeneity in some participants such as; gender, age, and subject of study (see Table 1). Purposive sampling was used in this piece of research because it means that the researcher can select participants based upon a particular purpose to meet their particular needs.
A semi-structured interview was used to collect data from the participants regarding their experiences of university stress. This was decidedly the best method because it meant that the researcher could collect data relating to university stress using prepared questions but could also delve deeper into a participant’s answer by using probing questions that encourage expansion on a certain point. The interviewer began fully informing the participant that the interview would be audio recorded and used anonymously to analyse later on. This was fully by a full explanation briefed about the purpose of the experiment and that the participant has the right to withdraw at anytime. The participant would be interviewed using the prepared questions along with any probing questions used, as well as debriefed and after the participants were interviews the recording was then transcribed.
A qualitative study was thought to be best because it meant that the researcher could gather more detailed data from the participants. Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was the chosen method of analysis in this piece of research because it allowed the interviewer to explore the subjective experiences of the participant, and help to describe and understand the respondent’s account of the processes by which they make sense of their experiences of university stress (Brocki, Wearden,2006). Critical realism is the ontological stance of IPA; this means that there is a reality however it is subjective because everyone interprets reality in different ways (Furlong, Marsh, 2010). This means that the epistemological stance of IPA is interpretive because it attempts to make sense of the subjective views (Furlong et al, 2010). IPA was used as a method of analysing the data by creating transcripts from each participant’s audio recording. Each transcript was read several times so that the researcher was familiar the data which was then coded in order to create emergent themes which would eventually become categorized into superordinate themes. The process was the same for each participant resulting in a table previewing the superordinate themes, sub-themes, and quotes from the transcripts to support the creation of the themes.
Qualitative analysis is a subjective process and IPA recognises that a researcher’s perspective usually affects the analysis (Golsworthy & Coyle, 2001). Having a good understanding of IPA means that the researcher’s personal perspective relative to the research topic is presented, to assist the readers interpret the analysis and for transparency (Elliott et al. 1999). The researcher’s interpretative framework has been influenced by: previous research in stress. It is also recognised that the analysis is influenced by the researcher’s perspective and the framework applied to understand the data.
Effects of student stress
The results of how the participants described their experiences of university related stress revealed that there were a range of different effects of stress that can stretch from physical effects to psychological effects, which were found to be a dominant effects of stress (see appendix 2 for themes and quotations). The psychological effects of stress can be seen in Iris’s transcript in which she stated that:
“I don’t know how to put it in words, not just stress, it was the worst feeling ever”.
When you consider what most people go through in their lives, for her to say it was “the worst feeling ever” goes to show the toll stress had taken on her causing her to feel the worst she has ever felt. There is also evidence in Jessica’s transcript in which she described one of her experiences in dealing with university related stress as feeling so much anxiety that it felt like she was drowning. There is also evidence in Anil’s transcript which reveals that he suffers from high levels of anxiety but without mention of a drowning sensation. There is further evidence of psychological effects of stress in Smokie’s transcript which suggest that he regularly suffers from mini breakdowns that help to motivate him to work but the motivation goes after a day or two which creates another mini breakdown due to the buildup of responsibilities.
There is also evidence to suggest that the participants suffered from physiological effects as well as psychological effects. The main evidence comes from Anil’s transcript in which he described one effect of his university related stress that stated:
“My face gets lots of spots when I am feeling stress.”
For the effects of stress to manifest in a physical way is worrying but not uncommon, for example in Smokie’s transcript he revealed that he cries a lot because of university related stress. In Iris’s transcript she describes an effect of university related stress by revealing that coping with all the responsibilities and stress of university makes her feel weak, which would be categorized as a physiological effect as well as a possible psychological effect due to the fact that you feel weakness rather than show it.
Sources of student stress
The results of how the participants described their experiences of university related stress revealed that there were a variety of different sources of stress for university students which range from university work such as assignments or exams, to life after graduation. Both are considered in these participant’s transcripts to be dominant sources of stress. University work as a source of stress for it’s students is evident in all transcripts with perhaps the most evident comes from Anil’s transcript in which he states that:
“A time umm when I experienced stress the most during university is when I have a massive report due.”
This not only reveals one source of stress for this student to be reports set by the university but it also goes to show that this participant feels most stressed at university when set reports. This also relates to Smokie’s transcript in which he described his stress levels as being high when it came to deadlines which isn’t that dissimilar to Anil’s quotation due to the fact that both feel highly stressed because of work set by the university. Further evidence can be found in Jessica’s transcript in which she described her feeling of drowning in anxiety to be a result of a lack of understanding when it came to analysing data.
Evidence for his future life as a source of stress for university student is evident in the transcripts but the most evident comes from Smokie’s transcript which stated that:
“teachers do things for me and like my parents do things for me, because I don’t feel ready to do things for myself.”
Again, this not only reveals his main fear for his future life to be, but it also shows how he has got as far as he has, which is down to the support he gets from those around him. This can also be support by Jessica’s transcript which described her opinion of her future life as one of confusion as to what her she would be doing in her future life and whether she would enjoy it or not. There is also evidence in Iris’s transcript which reveals that she is still struggling with dealing with all the university related stress but she is hopeful that her future life will be better.
Dealing with student stress
The results of how the participants described their experiences of university related stress revealed that there were several different methods of dealing with stress used by the participants ranging from the support of family and friends, to the amount of support they give themselves. Evidence of support from family and friends as a method of dealing with stress can be found in all the participants transcripts, however, the main evidence for this point comes from Iris’s transcript in which she states that:
“My mum is always being there for me and loves me and I have had some other woman in my life, I talk to her about my problems”.
This reveals evidence of support not only from her mother but also from another woman who isn’t a family member but would be regarded by her as a friend that supports her. This example is not unlike Jessica’s transcript in which she reveals that she uses her flatmates as a method of coping with her stress.
Another example of a participant using the support of family and friends as a method of dealing with university related stress comes from Smokie’s transcript in which he says that he gets a lot of help from his parents and when he usually gets stressed out with university work he talks to his friends.
Self-support is what a person does or doesn’t do to help themselves throughout their first two years of university. Evidence from Jessica’s transcription states that:
“I procrastinate a lot” […]
“whenever I have something to do for Uni, suddenly I get a major interest to do something else”.
This clearly shows the lack of self-support she gave herself which meant that instead of doing university work she would ignore her responsibilities and find something else to do. This results in a build up of responsibilities that can create an overwhelming feeling of stress and possibly cause other problems for the student according to the evidence previously discussed regarding the manifestation of psychological problems into physicals ones, for example Anil and his facial spots.
More evidence for a lack of self-support can be seen is all the transcripts, for example in Smokie’s transcript in which he describes himself as a corner-cutter who often does things he doesn’t enjoy with half of his effort even though he understands that this is one of the reasons why he gets behind on his university work creating more stress for himself. Further evidence can be found in Anil and Iris’s transcripts in which they both reveal that they struggle when it comes to self-support. Anil gets stressed when he attempts to tackle problems by himself, whereas Iris goes through periods of time where she feels like she cannot deal with problems by herself.
In summation, the analysis of the data has revealed that the participants all describe their experiences of university stress in a similar manner; the effects of stress on students, sources of stress for students, and dealing with student stress. Each superordinate theme had two sub-themes each, which were the result of a variety of emergent themes that were combined and adapted to equate to the final themes in the analysis.
The participant’s descriptions of the effects of university stress related to those described by McEwen (2000) who believed that stress began in the brain and affected all organs and muscles but none more so than the brain. Using his research combined with this experiments data means that it’s possible localize psychological effects of stress to the burden of chronic stress which can result in behavioral changes (smoking, excessive eating, binge drinking, little or no sleep). Physiological effects of stress can be localised using the same method in which McEwan (2000) claimed that brain regions respond to acute and chronic stress and show changes in morphology and chemistry. This could explain why the participants were affected the ways they were.
The difficulties related to university work but more specifically; exams and assignments, can be linked to Yumatov (2001) who reported that exams can influence a strong psychological and emotional reaction in students, with feelings of stress experienced before and during, that can persist until they receive their results afterwards, with many experiencing anxiety and stress over the outcome. Gadzella(1998) argued that it’s the uncertainty and anxiety that is the main cause of the stress as opposed to the exam itself. The pressure of graduation as well as post graduation life is as serious source of stress as any according to the data from this experiment and is also supported by Hirsch and Ellis (1996). This could explain what the sources of the participants university stress was.
The participant’s experience of dealing with university stress can be related to other similar cases such as Moyle and Parkes (1999) who believe that given the high levels of stress and change students are faced throughout university and the pressure placed on their coping resources, support from friends and family is invaluable during this period. Without friends, students have more limited resources at their disposal to assist them in the university work as well as emotional support. An absence of friends also makes it more likely to consider dropping out (Paul & Brier, 2001). This could explain why the participants used the supportive systems they used.
Using a qualitative approach provided depth and detail in that it looked deeper than analysing ranks and counts by recording attitudes, feelings and behaviours. Similar to the reason why a semi-structured interview was chosen because it allows the interviewer to be more spontaneous in their questioning without being too sporadic. That being said, there are usually fewer people are studied in qualitative report because a collection of data is generally more time consuming that quantitative data collection and therefore unless time, staff and budget allows it is generally necessary to include a smaller sample size. It also means that it’s difficult to generalise because fewer people are studied and it’s not possible to generalise results to that of the population. A qualitative report is also dependent on skills the of the researcher particularly in the case of conducting interviews, focus groups and observation. As an overall summation of this study it can be concluded that there is need for further research regarding university stress as a result of the data and previous relevant research.
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