It’s that time of the year: the trees are all bare, a coat of frost shines on the sidewalk, the smell of anxiety hangs in the air, and sleep-deprived students lumber around campus unshowered and unshaven. Ah, finals season!
Most of us intuitively understand that stress is connected to students’ failure to fulfill even the most basic self-care during finals, but why? After all, students usually don’t have class or other commitments during finals week, so they should be able to focus exclusively on studying without ignoring the basics like brushing their teeth and getting enough to eat.
Indeed, one might think that faced with the intense pressure of finals, students would renew their focus and effort. In fact, research suggests otherwise, demonstrating how stress alters the way we make decisions.
When stressed out we tend to focus on the short-term rewards and pleasurable outcomes of a decision while ignoring the less savory and long-term consequences. That’s why it’s so hard to resist eating that pint of ice cream in your freezer after a tough day or to forgo buying that new pair of shoes you covet (but can’t afford) after a miserable meeting at the office.
In other words, it is exactly because students have to study for five finals that a friend’s invitation to party tempts them so much. The stress causes them to focus on the immediate reward of going to the party (socializing and drinking) and not the downside of losing a night’s sleep to late night carousing (hang over and poor grades).
Stress also makes it more difficult for students to connect bad decisions to their consequences. Even if students go out the night before a test, stress will help them remember the pleasurable experience of socializing and drinking and forget the fact that they were horribly hung over for the exam. This is one reason why researchers also link stress to substance abuse and addiction. Under stress, you focus on the pleasures of the drug and lose sight of the negative consequences.
Am I saying that stress makes us short-sighted and irresponsible? Not quite. Another recent study shows that under stress some people are actually more likely to sacrifice their time to help someone they care about. The research supports the uplifting hypothesis that humankind’s default setting is to self-sacrifice (when it comes to close relationships). This is well and good for our species, but it also explains why some harried students take on big social commitments during finals week when they should be making more time for themselves.
All this rather paradoxically suggests that exactly when we need to buckle down and get the most done, we have the fewest cognitive resources to do so because stress saps our willpower. Given this fact, a nudge in the right direction might help students keep their cool and improve their grades.
A few common tips worth reminding students about:
Exercise (like walking) has long been touted as an important stress reliever and memory aid. Recent studies suggest that regular exercise also boosts creativity.
Mindfulness and meditation are also good ways to decompress and still the turbulent waters of daily life.
Also remind students to wait until after finals to make big decisions. The simple act of waiting can help students make better, more reflective choices.