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Student mental health during COVID-19

From immediate impact to long-term implications: 4 articles exploring the effects of the pandemic on the student experience: Part II

What are the effects of coronavirus on student well-being?

A student’s experience is largely defined by the balance between work and leisure. Maintaining that balance can be a challenge: we all worry about academic performance, and we all fear missing out on having an active social life.

But what if, like the Force in Star Wars, that balance is disturbed? In this case, what if a pandemic disrupts both sides of the equation? How does this affect the usual stressors inherent in the student experience, like academic achievement and social acceptance?

To help us answer these questions, we once again talked to a recent graduate of the London School of Economics, whom we call Kate, as well as a recent Cambridge graduate, henceforth known as Leo (no, “Leo and Kate” is not the last cinematic reference in this piece).

Let’s pick up where we left off in the previous instalment: the Summer term exams.

Are remote exams more stressful?

Kate remembers her Summer Term assessments being “very tense, not least because some exam dates had been moved up with only a month’s notice.” As Leo recalls it, “there was a lot of waiting and not knowing what would happen, which was very stressful.”

Unfortunately, Kate and Leo are no exception. A poll taken by the Belgian Federation of French-speaking Students (FEF) showed that by late April, mere weeks before the start of exams, 70% of students had still not received all the information on how their assessments would proceed.

In addition to their timing, the exams’ format caused a lot of stress. In late May, shortly before exams were set to begin, a test at the university of Louvain-la-Neuve (UCL) caused the online examination system to collapse due to the number of students logging in.

Does academic pressure affect mental health?

Academic-related stress, which is caused by pressure and concerns related to achievement, can adversely impact academic performance, decrease motivation, and even increase the risk of leaving school.

In a survey conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “66% of students reported feeling stressed about poor grades”, and “as many as 37% of students reported feeling very tense when studying” (OECD, 2017).

That same survey also indicates a link between higher levels of academic-related stress and lower well-being. Unfortunately, student stress during COVID-19 has been higher than your average hippie at Woodstock.

How has the pandemic influenced mental health?

When their courses were moved online, Kate and Leo chose to put their well-being ahead of their studies, though Kate says it was hard to know what to prioritise: “With all the changes to the exams and the disappointment of how the year was ending, the last thing I wanted to do was start revising for exams I didn’t understand. I was also being told to prioritise my mental health and knew this was important. However, the fact that I was now stuck at home and couldn’t make the most of social aspects of university also meant I felt pressured to use this time to work harder, and at least finish my Master’s being happy with my academic performance if I couldn’t enjoy the rest.”

She wasn’t alone. Online learning, as we saw in the previous instalment, proved difficult for many students. A Swiss study compared the social networks and mental health of students before and during the COVID-19 crisis, and found that “interaction and co-studying networks had become sparser, and more students were studying alone. Furthermore, students’ levels of stress, anxiety, loneliness, and depressive symptoms got worse, compared to measures before the crisis. Stressors shifted from fears of missing out on social life to worries about health, family, friends, and their future.”

Similarly, a survey in the USA reported increased stress and anxiety due to the COVID-19 outbreak in the majority of students. The stressors that contributed to this included:

  • “fear and worry about their own health and of their loved ones (91% reported negative impacts of the pandemic),
  • difficulty in concentrating (89%),
  • disruptions to sleeping patterns (86%),
  • decreased social interactions due to physical distancing (86%),
  • and increased concerns on academic performance (82%).”

How can students improve their mental health?

Despite global efforts, it seems the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for the foreseeable future. This means that students - particularly in higher education - must be prepared to face at least several more months of remote and online learning. What’s more, once the pandemic ends, parts of their courses may still take place online.

That is why it is all the more important for students to know how to deal with the stress, anxiety, lack of motivation, and lack of physical exercise that has plagued many throughout the past year and into 2021. Below are some ideas to help cope with learning at home, but first:

Where to go for help

If the pandemic has made you feel anxious, lonely, or depressed, it’s important to share these feelings with someone. According to the National Health Service, simply talking to a friend, family member, tutor, or counsellor “may bring an immediate sense of relief”.

Most higher education institutions have their own counselling service to which tutors or other students could refer you. You can also turn to charities and non-profit organisations, like the UK’s Student Minds, for tips, resources, and support in the challenges you face.

If you’re looking for advice, information and guidance from other students, we encourage you to visit Students Against Depression, “a website by students, for students”.

Mental health tips for online learning

  • Try to learn with your friends: Kate and Leo often skyped with friends while studying, in an effort to recreate a “library” setting. Because concentrating at home proved difficult, they tried to reproduce an environment in which other people were working “near” or around them, which they both found improved their motivation and productivity.
  • Make a timetable: According to Prof Martin Weller, a specialist in educational tech at the Open University, online learning differs from on-site learning because of its lack of cues. On campus, the environment itself helps structure your day: lectures and seminars take place at a certain time and location, you have to go to the library to get resources, and so on. When learning online, you must organise those things yourself, by planning your assignments and deadlines in a timetable, for example. To remedy the absence of a daily structure, Kate adopted her sister’s professional working hours. Once she had her first “cues” (a time at which to start and end the day), she organised her days with coursework, exam preparations, and physical exercise.
  • Create a studying space: Prof Rhona Sharpe, director of Oxford University’s Centre for Teaching and Learning, says: “it’s important to have a space that you only use for studying, no matter how small.” This can be anything, from a room or a desk to a blanket on your bed, which you define as your working space.
  • Exercise: Leo says exercising is a big part of what got him through the pandemic. He would go cycling or running with a friend, or they would work out together online by following the same work-out, each in their own home. “You think, therefore you are, but also you jog, therefore you sleep, therefore you’re not overwhelmed by existential angst”, says comedian Tim Minchin. Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki puts it this way: “Physical activity can improve your mood, energy, memory, and attention. […] A single work-out can improve your ability to shift and focus attention, and that focus improvement will last for at least two hours.”
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself: A second year student at UCL said it best: “No matter what Instagram tells you, you don’t have to learn a new language, redecorate your house and get a first all in one day. Sometimes just getting out of bed is a victory, and that’s okay.”

What will the student experience look like after coronavirus?

In the action-packed year that was 2020, students had to worry about a lot more than grades. The student experience was marred by stress and financial uncertainty for some, loneliness and a lack of motivation for others, but everyone worried about their health and that of friends and family, in addition to their academic performance. Nevertheless, there is - as is often the case - a new hope (yes, this is the last cinematic reference).

For all the things that went wrong in education in 2020, many schools around the world have discovered new ways of teaching and learning. Once the pandemic ends, things may or may not go back to the way they used to be, but everything we have learned can be applied to improve education for all students. What will that look like?

That is a question for the next instalment of this series.

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Gauthier Lebbe

Gauthier Lebbe

Content Editor @ Wooclap, interested in and excited about applying EdTech to the educational needs of today’s students