Wednesday, January 24, 2018

How much stress is too much?

stress by Alex McDonnell

  My school is giving mid-year exams for the first time in a long time. I'm not a fan of this decision for all sorts of pedagogical and logistical reasons. In speaking to a respected colleague who is in favor of giving these exams, he shared his thoughts that our students will face many challenging and stressful situations in their lives. He feels that exams such as these are good practice. 

I heard Alfie Kohn once say only in education do we justify doing bad things to kids now to prepare them for bad things later. But is that too glib? Does my colleague raise a fair point?

Context matters and we know that American kids report being more stressed than ever.  Should we dial back stressors or should we let kids get practice in pushing through stress?

An October 2017, NYT article noted "Over the last decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services. In its annual survey of stutdents, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at symptoms related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent."

I'm the father of three 18 year olds. I try really hard to not pressure them about grades and academic achievement. I tell them that they'll get into college. My kids are as stressed as I've ever seen them. Is it me? Is it exams? Is it societal? 

Whether or not kids should be stressed is besides the point. They are. Is my colleague right to say we are doing them a service by letting them work through this stress in a somewhat lower stakes environment? I'd counter this argument by saying the seniors who are not yet into college have never had a higher stakes test than these exams this week. It is hardly low stakes. I'd also say that the fact of the matter is that this is an overwhelmed generation and as teachers we should consider how we feed this stress. 

Student stress is far down on my list of reasons I don't like one size fits all exams. And I can't say my colleague speaks for all exam proponents when he makes his case that exams offer good practice opportunities to push through challenges and stressful situations. Yet, his is an argument I've heard before and I think it has salience. 

Reader, what do you think? 

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