Tag Archives: student

Two-thirds of college students are struggling with lack of sleep, poor sleep quality

The students are not all right, new research reports. According to the findings, around two-thirds of college students experience poor sleep quality, which affects their academic performance and can lead to the development of mental health issues.

Image credits Mohamed Hassan.

College has definitely been an enjoyable part of my life, but sleeping well was not really part of the deal. I think most of us can empathize with that statement. And college students enrolled today would likely say the same.

A new study working with a sample of 1,113 college-age students enrolled in university full-time reports that two-thirds are experiencing poor sleep quality. The data further shows that students reporting depressive symptoms are almost four times as likely to suffer from poor sleeping habits. Although female students were more likely to have trouble getting enough rest overall, poor sleep can lead to a number of health complications across the board and impair students’ ability to perform academically.

Sleeping in class

“Sleep disorders are especially harmful for college students because they’re associated with several negative effects on academic life,” says lead author Dr. Paulo Rodrigues from the Faculty of Nutrition, Federal University of Mato Grosso, Brazil. “These include failures in attention and perception, high absenteeism rate, and sometimes dropping out of the course”.

The study surveyed 1,113 undergraduates and postgraduates (aged 16 to 25) who were enrolled at the Federal University of Mato Grosso in Brazil. Participants were asked about their sleep quality, EDS, socioeconomic status, and their body mass index (BMI) was also assessed.

The authors say their findings raise an alarm about the fact that stressors associated with college life, such as heavy course demands, put students at an increased risk of developing sleeping disorders. In turn, such disorders pose a genuine threat to their academic performance and overall health. Universities, the authors conclude, should take steps to promote healthy sleep habits among their students, and take extra steps to safeguard their mental health.

Over half (55%) of the students enrolled in the study reported having issues with excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). This was more prevalent among female students overall. These 55% of students as a group were almost twice as likely to report feeling moderate to high levels of stress, and of exhibiting signs of depression.

The authors warn stressors, such as course demands, make college students vulnerable to sleep disorders which in turn affect academic performance and health. They’re calling on universities to do more to promote positive sleep habits and good mental health.

“The university environment offers greater exposure to factors that may compromise sleep habits such as academic stress and the demands of social life. It’s crucial to evaluate and monitor sleep habits, mental health, and the quality of life of students to reduce the risk of developing other chronic diseases,” Dr. Rodrigues adds. “University managers should plan the implementation of institutional actions and policies. This is to stimulate the development of activities that promote good sleep habits and benefit students’ mental health.”

Among the factors that make students likely to lose sleep include living away from home, on their own terms, for the first time in their lives; the use of stimulants such as coffee to impair sleep, and an erratic bedtime schedule. The same factors also increase the likelihood of students experiencing poor quality sleep even on days where they do get enough time to rest. On average, the participants of this study slept an estimated seven hours per day, compared to what is considered the ideal amount for adults, of nine hours per day.

The authors note that the issues of EDS prevalence and poor sleep among university students have been investigated and documented previously, but the link between these and stress or depression remained poorly understood. In addition, the study highlights a link between poor sleep quality and the ability of students to perform academically. Students enrolled in biological and health sciences were more likely to be affected, as were those enrolled in social and human sciences.

Despite this, the study cannot point to the exact mechanism that links sleep disturbance with depression, in the sense that it cannot tell if one causes the other or vice-versa. The authors note that further research is needed to understand this dynamic.

The paper “Poor sleep quality, excessive daytime sleepiness and association with mental health in college students” has been published in the Annals of Human Biology.

Student and stressed? Take 10 minutes and go to the park, a study suggests

Going to university can be more than stressful for many, especially when exams and deadlines start to pile up.

Understandably, many students deal with those high levels of stress.

Image credits: Lukasz Szmigiel.

According to a group of researchers, taking as few as 10 minutes in any natural setting every day can really make a difference for most of the students.

Up to 80% of the people studying in higher education said to have experienced stress or anxiety, according to a study by Uni Health in the UK, while a survey by NUS from 2016 said nine in 10 students experienced stress.

An interdisciplinary team from Cornell University reviewed previous studies to see what effects nature has on the mental health of college students.

They wanted to discover what was the right amount of time students should spend outside and what sort of activities they should carry out when they were in nature.

Gen Meredith, associate director of the Master of Public Health Program, and her team discovered that the best range of time to spend in natural areas was of 10 to 50 minutes and that this improved the mood, focus and physiological markers of the students.

Image credits: Wikipedia Commons

“It doesn’t take much time for the positive benefits to kick in — we’re talking 10 minutes outside in a space with nature,” said Meredith in a press release. “We firmly believe that every student, no matter what subject or how high their workload, has that much discretionary time each day, or at least a few times per week.”

Once outside, it’s enough with just sitting or walking to benefit from the positive effects of spending time in nature, according to the researchers. They focused their study on those two activities in order to quantify nature doses in just minutes.

Students in universities with a big and green campus will probably have plenty of places to spend their daily 10 minutes. While it might be trickier for urban universities, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. They can add green elements to build space and get the same results, the study argued.

“This is an opportunity to challenge our thinking around what nature can be,” says Meredith. “It is really all around us: trees, a planter with flowers, a grassy quad or a wooded area.”

The researchers decided to focus on this area of study as a way to encourage students to spend time in nature to deal with their stress or anxiety and gain positive physical and mental health outcomes. They hope that more universities will consider this, making spending time in nature a daily habit for their students.

“This nature dose is an upstream ‘prevention’ approach to, hopefully, reduce the number of people getting to the point where a pharmacological approach becomes necessary,” Donald Rakow, associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science and author of the study, said.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Backed by science: These annoying things that teachers do really do work

Image credits: Sam Balkye.

The struggle between teachers and students is long and storied — no doubt dating from the time of the very first teachers and the very first students.

Teachers do all sorts of things for seemingly no other reason than to annoy students — and the opposite also stands true. Although their goal is the same (passing knowledge from one group to the other), the struggle is real and oftentimes, there seems to be more conflict than collaboration.

There’s no perfect way to be a teacher, but some approaches are better than others. Here are three ideas that do work, as demonstrated by science and highlighted by Wharton Professor of Management Ethan Mollick.

Sit students randomly

It’s understandable that students don’t like to be moved around. Tests feel uncomfortable and stressful, and moving from your usual place can add even more pressure to an already unpleasant situation.

The problem, however, is that moving students around works. It helps prevent cheating, as illustrated by a 2019 paper published by researchers from Chicago University and Taiwan University.

It’s no surprise that many students want to cheat. Their future is impacted by their grades, and the consequences for cheating are often not that severe.

The paper found compelling evidence of cheating in at least 10% of the students taking a midterm exam (not a trivial amount, especially for two high-ranking universities) and these were just the compelling cases, not the suspected ones.

The true scale of the problem is probably even larger, as another paper found — but back to our business.

The study developed a simple algorithm for moving students around and found that it is highly effective. Students often cheat from one another, and even assigning them randomly can go a long way towards preventing cheating.

Honor systems just don’t work, researchers write. Moving students around — does.

“It is not surprising that students cheat—they have strong incentives to do so, and the likelihood of getting caught is low. What is perhaps more surprising is that so little effort is devoted to catching cheating students,” the study ominously reads.

Give tests often

If there’s something students hate more than taking a test, it’s taking a lot of tests. But there’s a very good reason why professors should give short and numerous quizzes: they help students learn better.

Image credits: Xin Wang.

At some point, we’ve probably all had the feeling that we only understood the subject after the test. In fact, we may have only understood it because of the test. Tests, for all the hate they receive, are very useful — as highlighted by a 2011 paper.

Tests are useful in a number of key ways. They boost student memory, identify gaps in knowledge, allowing professors to know which topics to focus on, and generally cause students to learn more.

Instead of seeing tests as ways to assess knowledge, we should see them more as a way to improve knowledge, the study authors note.

“Besides these direct effects of testing, there are also indirect effects that are quite positive. If students are quizzed frequently, they tend to study more and with more regularity,” the authors note.

So if you want your students to learn more, try giving more tests. They might hate you, but they’ll learn more in the process.

Emphasize attendance

Attendance is a controversial topic even among professors. Some make it important, offering bonus points or some kind of exam advantage for it — some even make it mandatory — while others simply disregard it completely.

But according to a recent meta-analysis, attendance is the best available predictor of academic performance — and if you want students to perform well, you’d better pay some attention to attendance.

The study reads:

“Attending class not only allows students to obtain information that is not contained in textbooks or lecture materials presented online but also allows students varied contact with material (lectures, review of notes, demonstrations, etc.). In addition, consistent class attendance represents a system of distributed practice that has been shown to be effective in increasing the retention of information while also offering the possibility for the overlearning of material.”

Results also show that class attendance explains large amounts of unique variance in college grades because — independent of SAT scores and school GPA. There is also surprisingly little connection between attendance and student characteristics such as conscientiousness and motivation. So class attendance helps raise grades, and it’s not that the most motivated students always have the highest attendance.

The relationship between attendance and grades is so strong that it suggests that dramatic improvements in average grades (and failure rates) could be achieved simply by increasing class attendance rates among college students.

So there you have it — QED. Want your students to perform better? Give them a lot of tests, sit them randomly, and emphasize attendance.

Is your professor giving you a lot of tests, sitting you randomly, and emphasizing attendance? Good! Then he or she has your best interest at heart — even though it may not always seem like it.

PhD students are 2.5 times more likely to develop psychiatric disorders than highly educated general population

Science has confirmed what PhD students worldwide already knew.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is the highest academic recognition you can get, but it doesn’t always come with the perks you might expect. Recognition — not so much. Money — way less than the industry. Mental satisfaction — well about that… A new study conducted by Belgian researchers found that PhD students are much more prone to developing mental disorders, even when compared to similarly educated groups.

In this day and age, being a PhD student is extremely stressful. I can’t imagine it being too mellow at any point in history, but nowadays, it’s probably worse than ever. You’re in a “publish or perish” environment, where you need to present deliverables constantly, to a committee which might have different ideas to your own. You’re working on a research project with (almost always) limited duration funding, but you’re never sure when you’ll cross the finish line. This, in turn, means you often feel like you’re not making any progress, or you’re lacking a breakthrough moment. There’s also an overwhelming feeling that even if you do manage to submit and publish your work, it will largely be ignored or be completely insignificant.

The fact that you’re living at or even below poverty line (you’re usually banned from outside working) and sometimes working insane hours doesn’t help. You’re also subjected to a professor (or a few professors) who, in theory, guide and support you — but the practice might be very different. In a book called  ‘A Survival Kit for Doctoral Students and Their Supervisors,’ authors describe several issues in which the views of the PhD student and that of the committee or guiding professor can clash, with dramatic consequences for the student’s mental state. This new study seems to not only back that idea up, but also put some figures on an extremely worrying trend. Here are their main findings:

  • One in two PhD students experiences psychological distress; one in three is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder.
  • The prevalence of mental health problems is higher in PhD students than in the highly educated general population, highly educated employees, and higher education students.
  • Work and organizational context are significant predictors of PhD students’ mental health.

They identify several factors which can negatively affect the student’s mental state: work-family interface, job demands and job control, the supervisor’s leadership style, team decision-making culture, and perception of a career outside academia. Speaking from personal experience, these feelings seem echoed by most (if not all) the PhD student community. Here’s what a Reddit commentator, Gibbie99 said about his PhD:

“Neither cared about my mental health, or made much of any attempt to mentor. Instead we were left to grinding away in the lab every day with little interaction, beyond the mandated 6 month check-in with the committee/advisor.”

Sure, you could argue that this comment comes from a random person on a Reddit thread and doesn’t carry much weight, but if you’ll have a look at PhD forums or engage with the community in any way, the odds are what they say will shock you. Most people feel that their work doesn’t matters, or at the very least that their professor/committee doesn’t care about it. Basically, we’re taking some of the world’s brightest minds, overworking and underpaying them, and filling them up with a sense of meaningless. It’s hard to imagine a world where they don’t suffer more from psychiatrical conditions. However, the fact that the work and organizational context can be used to predict mental health is significant — and it’s perhaps something universities and research institutes could pay more attention to.

Journal Reference: Katia Levecquea, Frederik Anseela, Alain De Beuckelaerd, Johan Van der Heydenf, Lydia Gislef — Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2017.02.008


Book review: ‘A Survival Kit for Doctoral Students and Their Supervisors’

A Survival Kit for Doctoral Students and Their Supervisors
By Lene Tanggaard & Charlotte Wegener
SAGE Publications, 192pp | Buy on Amazon

Branded as a practical guide for managing the supervisor-doctoral student relationship, the book tackles much more than just that. It offers some much-needed perspective on one of the most important but often neglected relationships in science – that between a research student and his or her mentor.

Whether it’s math, engineering or social sciences, research is certainly not your average field of work. The average day looks nothing like most jobs and the challenges and rewards are often completely different from what you’d expect in other fields. Yet just like in any other job, there are fixed deadlines and concrete outcomes which need to be achieved. How then, do we best manage this situation?

The first step, Tanggaard and Wegener argue, is to treat the PhD like an apprenticeship. After all, the biggest challenge is not the project in itself, but rather becoming accustomed – or even better, becoming integrated – to a science community. This is more difficult than it sounds, and sadly, it’s a point where many students fail before they even start.

The whole thing starts with a right match. Too many people rush into any doctoral project available to them, without thinking about their match with the project, and the professor. Then, as the project evolves, so too does the relationship. If there was a mismatch from the start, things will get even worse and frictions will occur.

This is greatly amplified by the fact that becoming a researcher is not something you do one-time. It’s a process, and even more – it’s a way of life.

The book writes:

“Living a life as a researcher is a never-ending iterative process of becoming. [..] The professional life as a researcher involves identity formation that is never fully accomplished, always in a process of learning and participation.”

I love that the book gives a lot of perspective on both ends, and it doesn’t shy away from hardcore topics, even some considered tabu. For example, one doctoral student tells of a failure which he couldn’t understand.

“I have lived through most doctoral students’ biggest nightmare – failing, being deemed not good enough, being fired.” He gained nothing from this experience, except a bit of perspective. “But I survived, the world kept turning [..] Failing dramatically in one’s doctoral research is not, thankfully, the end of the world.”

This is where I think the Survival Kit really shines — I only have my own doctoral experience (as a student) as a source of information, but it seems that everyone has their own, different, idea on PhD mentoring. This being said, it also does what it says in the title: it is a survival kit. It offers practical advice in every chapter, covering a broad range of topics.

There is also a distinct quality in the way the book, a charming clearness to the way the ideas are expressed, even when the topic is complex or delicate. Therefore, I recommend the book to all doctoral students and professors. Furthermore, I think reading it would benefit everyone working in science engaged in such a relationship – no matter what end they are on. It’s rare to get good advice on such things, and A Survival Kit does just that.