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Here’s What Universities Need to Do to Help Their Students

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There are many factors that can influence a university students’ ability to study and achieve the overall academic performance that they are aiming for. Demographic factors can include things such as home location, parental education level, types of family set-up and income of both the student themselves and the family. Factors such as these can encourage students to focus more upon trying to earn an income instead of dedicating time to develop their academic abilities. Nowadays, universities can be aware of these factors and how they may disadvantage students in some way. During recruitment processes, often lower income areas can be targeted (in a good way!) to try and encourage students of all abilities and backgrounds to apply for a degree.

Other factors which can influence a student’s academic ability are factors that may not be related to such demographics. These factors could include mental health issues. Mental health issues are becoming more apparent in the younger generations, with 75% of students under the age of 24 being diagnosed with some form of mental health symptom. Of course, these symptoms can be different for each student, but universities are now very aware of how to support students through the difficult times while they are studying.

Research has focussed upon three important factors which have been shown to be great influences in student academic lives. Depression, anxiety and stress are key factors which have been shown to negatively influence students’ academic achievements. Sometimes academic stress of a low level can be seen as a positive thing as it can prepare students for the times when they finish their degrees and need to engage with the wider world in a busy environment. Too much stress, however, can have a negative impact on students and the way in which they engage with their degrees, and it is often an important thing to provide students with information on how they can manage the stress in their academic lives. My experiences of speaking to students in stressful situations have helped me to understand how students can cope. I have met students who have managed stress in terms of creating revision timetables during busy exam times. I’ve also met other students who have looked at taking part in stress-relieving activities such as cycling and team sports.

In contrast to stress, anxiety and depression, are factors that may be less easily understood. These factors are seen as very important mental health issues as they can affect people of all ages and each person will respond differently to the support they are offered. Most universities have very good student support services where students can speak to trained mental health professionals if they are feeling anxious or depressed at any point during their degrees. These services do also support a wide range of other student issues and I have just used anxiety and depression as examples. In the institutions I have worked in, I have seen varying support offered to students, however I can say that all of the universities that I have worked in have had excellent support systems in place.

I have recently read a paper which investigated reasons for students feeling stressed, anxious or depressed when studying towards a degree. This paper was interesting as students were interviewed about their own university experiences. Researchers provided details to suggest that students (medical students) can feel overwhelmed by the expectations of their degree. Workload was another key factor discussed by the students and discussions were focused around times of exams where students were encouraged to work for long hours during the day. This may not be the same for other types of degrees (psychology or geography for example) as the research does tend to focus more upon the medical side of university. It may be an area of research that would be good to look at in terms of a variety of UK undergraduate degrees and universities.

The research on anxiety and depression is less clear as issues these can develop before university. Links have been found in the research, suggesting that students who have more anxiety and depression have lower academic achievement scores. This research does make it clear that the relationship could be bidirectional and that we cannot always be sure if the symptoms are causing the university issues or whether it could be the other way around.
Whichever way this link may be, universities are making clear attempts to try and further support students during their studies. Stress management workshops can be offered and talking support for anxiety, depression. Many other types of support can also be offered by most educational institutions as well as the outside support of the NHS and charities such as the Samaritans.

Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. 


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