Are You Game? Understanding Student Stress and Making College Courses Fun

Most university students who are anxious about work, grades and outcomes, are stressed — particularly now when many are taking midterms. As faculty discuss rigor, and how many hours students should be working, we rarely engage in conversations about making learning fun.

As faculty, we offer office hours to coach further in our subject expertise, but most times I meet people like Susan, who comes to talk about her stress at having several mid-term exams in the same week just 5 weeks after she is first learning about a subject. She is tired, anxious, and ready to pull an all-nighter. She talks to me, because I don’t use exams in my courses so she feels safe.

Student anxiety is increasing. In a 2016 report, 400 university and college counseling centers provide an annual report on collegiate mental health that reveals “threats to self ( or non-suicidal self-injury and serious suicidal ideation) increased for the sixth year in a row.” The report states, “In addition, students’ self-reported distress levels for depression, generalized anxiety, and social anxiety continue to evidence slight but persistent increases each year for the past six years.”

Additionally, University of California at Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute’s The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2015 showcases data from 141,000 college freshmen who attended 199 four-year colleges and universities. The data was then weighted to reflect 1.5 million freshmen at over 1,500 four year establishments. Stress and anxiety are prevalent.

The stress starts much earlier than college with possibly unexpected predictors.

For instance, Bainbridge Island in Seattle is an affluent area with a more than 98 percent graduation rate. Still, the students report they are stressed as “72 percent of Bainbridge high school seniors report feeling bothered by: feeling nervous, anxious or on edge several days to nearly every day in the last two weeks,” according to the Bainbridge Island 2014 Healthy Youth Survey.

Another Bainbridge Island report, Bainbridge Healthy Youth Alliance,
states: “National statistics show our challenges aren’t unique. Youth from
communities with relative affluence, above-average parental education levels, and high academic expectations for children are often “at risk,” displaying higher levels of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse than their
middle-income peers. Bainbridge twelfth graders report significant rates of
mental distress — a trend in UCLA’s American Freshman Survey, which shows that the emotional health of incoming college freshmen is at its lowest point in three decades.”

Stress doesn’t just derive from school. Time management is a problem. Many students arrive as freshmen having starred academically in extracurricular activities in high school, so they want to join too many activities. Some with advance placement credits are assigned higher level courses and struggle to keep up. Some come on full scholarship and worry about the money that it takes to live in an affluent area.

One of my students reported she found it stressful that she had many group projects (and I am an assigning culprit.) But she worked every spare minute to earn money and didn’t have time to meet her groups for the assignments. I had a student two years ago who dropped a course because he couldn’t afford the books.

The younger students stress about internships. The older students stress about jobs post-graduation. They enter class with stress. Our job as educators is to not compound that stress. A learning environment should be an escape 
from stress and a march toward a valued and happy new brain experience.

At the university level, we don’t intend to produce anxious, stressed young people as a result of the curriculum load. But at times unwittingly we turn an excited freshman into a mass of seething anxiety.

Often as faculty we think that working in autonomous classrooms, assigning homework without regard for other coursework builds good skills such as resilience and priority setting.

Recently at Northwestern University, the journalism school where I am on faculty, took a look at the first quarter average work requirement for masters students as required by the teachers. The average workload added up to 70 hours a week. So what happens to the student who is behind, ill, or slower to 
 absorb and is not average?

Show Me The Fun

Certainly an engaging class cannot erase or eliminate the stress some students feel, but some intentional tactics can make courses more fun and less anxiety-producing. One way we could make school less stressful, more fun, hands-on and relevant, is to minimize the use of midterm and final exams.

Being able to cram for a test (and we all have done just that) does not guarantee long term memory of an answer. Exam stress or test anxiety is a known phenomenon. A study in Australia found that a teacher mentioning 
exams even delivered stress.

Creating a project, though, may ensure deeper student understanding and demonstrate contextual relevance. Examples include a Shark Tank-like exercise as each student team shows business understanding by developing the investor pitch.

Providing students the opportunity to work with community partners to showcase a project also provides fun learning. In one of my classes, students are in eight teams and work with eight local firms to create a marketing plan for the client including multimedia. In another class, students are provided a final challenge by a well-known consumer product company, and the teams compete to provide the most useful research, data and background to solve the provided puzzle.

To be sure, group projects have a built in stress level. Time management, unequal input, groupthink, all cause group work to be stressful. In order to
 mitigate that problem, all groups that I assign now create a “team charter”
 with explicit rules and solutions to possible pain points. There is a peer review so that students who do not pull their weight know their grade is affected by write-ups from other group members.

Optimally, students working in teams use cooperative learning strategies. They also value opportunities to experience the equivalent of the field trip for hands-on learning outside of the classroom. Universities make field trips
difficult because students have to be back for other classes. Scheduling
intensive classes that meet uninterruptedly for two or three weeks at a time
would help with incorporating experiential learning.

If the equipment and tools are available, instructors could assign more multimedia and visual work, from crafts to videos. In one of my classes, students design a sales strategy visual for a candy bar they invent. They have fun while analyzing the complex solutions required in a new product launch. They could have read a textbook and answered exam questions, but the learning wouldn’t have been as much fun nor do I think they would have recalled the information as readily.

In my experience, including games in the classroom stimulates fun and 
excitement. Our students have likely grown up on video games, board games
and other instructive forms of play. Games provide active learning, foster 
friendly competition, encourage abiding by rules.

Games provide participants an opportunity to consider strategy and practice differing methods of reaching a winning outcome, thus encouraging critical
thinking. The word strategy derives from military maneuvers and includes
tactics and campaigns. More importantly, games allow students the freedom to fail and play again, a more skillful way to teach resilience.

So many of us talk about accountability in education, but games ensure that there is a goal, winners, and a measure of performance. Many games provide degrees of difficulty so that players can proceed to new skill levels, representing personalized learning.

Gamification, or adding game concepts to learning precepts, is different than game-based learning where students are playing actual games. Both avenues have much to offer.

Instead of testing my students on their economic literacy, I have teams produce a game for the rest of the class. From a Jeopardy-like game to a creation of their own, the students have to comb the readings for questions to stump the other players. The students learn more and retain more.

Students across America have a poor sense of geography. According to a National Geographic survey in 2002, only 15 percent of young people could locate Iraq or Israel on the map, vital in the news of the day. Harder to believe, 11 percent of Americans could not locate America on a map.

When I first thought of creating a university wide game where everyone could play and learn about countries, I tested a few students. One student offered, “If I had really understood the border situation between Turkey and Syria, I would have understood the refugee concerns better.”

At Northwestern, we have the system of individual schools making up the whole, such as a school of communications, engineering, and more, so creating a university wide game was a year-long project. So many helped, including the Provost, the library, the academic technology team, the science data visualization team, and others, to devise a geography game that is open to everyone in the university community.

Once a day, a question is posed and the players may search for the answer before committing to a response. If a member of the Northwestern community gets 30 correct answers, he/she gets a pizza, funded by the Provost’s office. It is an experiment to see if a game can increase geographic literacy. Since the 
inception in mid-October, there have been more than 20,000 interactions with the game.

This game is not associated with a course so the students can play anytime during the day. There is no grade. But it has stimulated my thinking on
incorporating game learning into the classroom. At the very least, incorporating visuals, multimedia, and pictures into the environment is a valuable skill.

Most courses could use an injection of hands-on, active learning techniques.

Our evaluations stress rigor and time spent on work, but do not ask if the teacher made the learning fun. School isn’t a party, but it shouldn’t be
drudgery. Understanding how students arrive on campus already in a state
 of stress, perhaps it’s time to insert some joy into the classroom.

Dr. Candy Lee is a Professor at Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. She teaches courses in Content Strategy, Marketing, and Leadership and is an NU Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

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