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Tackling Stress in UCD Biology Students

Overview

 

This Learning Enhancement project has been funded through the HEA and the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning.

PROJECT TITLE: Tackling Stress in UCD Biology Students
PROJECT COORDINATORS: Dr Gavin Stewart
COLLABORATORS: Dr Joanna Kacprzyk, Dr Tadhg O’Croinin and Dr Derek Costello
STUDENT COHORT: Phd Students and Undergraduate Stage 3 - 4 students on the UCD Biology Programme.

Background

Stress is defined as:

A state of mental or emotional strain or tension, resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.

It has previously been well documented that stress detrimentally affects both student mental health and academic performance (Shankar & Park, 2016). Student stress is therefore one of the biggest challenges to improving our third level educational system here in Ireland. Moreover, during the last 15 months, the COVID-19 global pandemic has led to probably the most prolonged stressful period faced by any cohort of students in the entire history of UCD.

Goals

Staff from the School of Biology & Environmental Science and the School of Biomolecular & Biomedical Science wanted to understand how stress was affecting both undergraduate and postgraduate students.

The aims of this project were therefore to:

  • Obtain information on precisely what levels of stress biology students were feeling.
  • Engage in active conversations with them to obtain detailed insight into their experiences.
  • Utilise all the information obtained to produce a strategic plan of action for the 2021-22 academic year to specifically assist biology students overcome the challenges of this stress.

The Innovative Approach

Our original plan for hosting a one-day conference event was prevented by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, we set up a series of on-line events, namely:

  1. In collaboration with student representatives, we performed two “perceived stress scale” surveys (Cohen et al., 1983) during trimester 1 (i.e. November) and trimester 2 (i.e. April).
  2. We ran four discussion workshops, hosted by postgraduate representatives, with one workshop explicitly dedicated to each undergraduate and postgraduate student cohort of the two schools.
  3. We hosted an on-line conference with UCD staff, postgraduate representatives and external visitors, who were teaching-focused biology lecturers from Belfast, Dundee & Manchester.

Results

This project revealed three key findings:

  1. Unsurprisingly, our surveys revealed many of the biology students were feeling high levels of stress throughout the 2020-21 academic year (i.e. both trimesters). Importantly, our Stage 3 undergraduates experienced significantly higher levels of stress (P<0.001, ANOVA) compared to the other student cohorts, potentially due to the reported stress from academic workload.
  2. The student workshops hosted by our postgraduate representatives provided extensive details of student experiences AND suggestions for various low-cost solutions. These student proposals have formed the basis of our action plan for helping students during the upcoming 2021-22 academic year – particularly the “stressed Stage 3 students” entering their crucial Stage 4 year.
  3. Finally, our on-line conference revealed high stress levels in biology staff and students from other universities, closely matching those here at UCD. This suggests that many of the contributory factors to the stress experienced by our biology students were universal.

Action Plan for 2021-2022 Academic Year

  1. Pro-actively engage with Stage 3 & 4 undergraduate students to facilitate their successful completion of degree programmes. For example, increased academic advice sessions to be held in trimesters 1 & 2. Apply for T&L funding to enable staff to have the required time to do this
  2. Increase social activities to develop students' sense of belonging within the school. These new activities will be co-ordinated by a newly formed social committee (e.g. school BBQ in September).
  3. Encourage greater feedback from student groups by having interactive sessions hosted by postgraduate volunteers (i.e. in the absence of staff).
  4. Introduce a new "buddy system" for postgraduate students, in which first year PhD students are paired with and established PhD student from another research group within the school.
  5. Reduce general stress levels by tackling long-standing issues (e.g. variable level of postgraduate demonstrator training across different modules).

References

  • Cohen S, Kamarck T, Mermelstein R (1983). "A global measure of perceived stress". Journal of Health and Social Behaviour. 24 (4): 385–396.
  • Shankar NL, Park C (2016). “Effects of stress on students’ physical and mental health and academic success”. International Journal of School & Educational Psychology. 4 (1): 5-9.