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Stress and the Online Student: Is Failure an Option?

By Craig Gilman
Faculty, American Military University

As a professor at American Military University teaching many servicemembers and veterans, I often encounter students who get off to a good start early in a course, but whose performance or attendance soon takes a dramatic turn for the worst. With so much at stake, why do they do this to themselves?

One possibility is that they simply did not plan for the additional stress of adding college to their already busy and complicated lives. A commitment to higher education entails dedication of significant time and effort; something these students may not have fully anticipated. In addition to the everyday stresses of life, servicemembers who have signed up for classes face the never-ending possibility of sudden deployment and recently transitioned veterans often face re-integration hurdles. This adds an additional and unique set of circumstances that create their own anxiety.

According to the American Institute of Stress (AIS) a popular definition of stress is, “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” When considering college as a working adult the most valuable resource will be time. Demand for this time will come from the requirement to meet deadlines for school work and a student’s personal desire to succeed.

For these students, this unique combination of stress must be planned for prior to entering the classroom. Standard stress management theories suggest that first an effort to avoid stress must be considered, and then stress that cannot be avoided must be managed.

Learn to recognize the signs of stress.

Are you tired, over-eating, anxious, irritable, or procrastinating? Do you feel overwhelmed? Once recognized, WebMD’s Stress Management Health Center provides useful suggestions regarding how to avoid and relieve stress.

Find better ways of managing time.

One is to “learn better ways to manage your time,” but for an otherwise successful working adult, time management might not be the issue. However, any student should put some serious thought into the time needed to add school to an already demanding life. Most education counselors will recommend 12-15 hours per week per class. Plan in advance to registering for classes by creating a proposed schedule that includes dedicated time for studies.

Take care of yourself.

Another method to keeping your stress in check is to “take good care of yourself.” Students who think they will add school to their schedule by lighting the candle at both ends, more often than not, burn out. The importance of sleep, proper nutrition, and both physical and mental fitness cannot be overstated. Allow yourself an outlet, such as regular trips to the gym. Also, reward yourself for accomplishing incremental steps, such as time for your hobby.

Also, adult students often have a family, regular community involvement, and professional networking that they have come to rely on. Include them in your educational pursuits. Let work know you might occasionally need some time to keep up with school. Ask the in-laws to take the kids, so you can find sufficient study time. Ask a friend to help by proof-reading your papers.

The ability to identify and overcome stress is a major contributing factor of student success. Failure to do so can cause otherwise driven, intelligent students to fail a course that in itself should not prove challenging. A failed course, especially for first-time or returning students, often becomes an insurmountable roadblock. Be proactive by understanding the signs of stress and having a schedule in place. This will help to make room in your schedule to add school, and to have a stress avoidance and relief plan, just in case.

Finally, consider the flexibility of online education. While the potential stress of meeting due dates with quality work that represents a student’s best effort will always be present, the ability to study when it is convenient to the student will put more power in the hands of the student and therefore help to eliminate the demands of traveling to and from a traditional classroom when it is more convenient to the teacher than the student.

About the Author

Craig Gilman is currently an online faculty member and Senior Manager of Military Outreach Operations with American Military University. Craig has an MA International Studies and MS Education, both from Old Dominion University. He is a veteran who served in the Marine Corps. Prior to joining APUS he taught secondary social studies in Virginian and Korea International School and English as a Foreign Language in Tokyo public schools. Craig often presents on the attributes of online education at local, state, and national conferences.

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