June means that summer is near, but it also marks the end of the academic school year and across different educational institutions in Denmark students are preparing for exams. The examinations, however, is connected to great amount of anxiety for many young people. “Students calm the nerves with beta blockers” read the headline of an article brought by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, DR, on their website in early June. The danish media started reporting on a widespread use of drugs among students to help manage anxiety in relation with exams, putting focus on an important societal problem. For example, Bo Møhl, Professor of Psychology from Ålborg University, said on the evening news that “we have to see it as a sign of crisis when young people take medicine in order to perform. Then it says something about a sick culture.” Pernille Steen Pedersen also engaged in this public debate through a chronicle in Berlingske Tidende, which originally was titled “Safe study environments to prevent exam anxiety,” making clear, that she believes that changes need to be made within the study culture. The newspaper renamed the article “Researcher: more students are taking anxiety medicine – I have asked them why,” referring to Pedersen’s recent research project and interviews with students at CBS.
If students for example google ”good advice for exam anxiety”, Pedersen explains in the chronicle, they are predominately met with tips or offers tailored to the individual. In other words, the tendency is to place the responsibility on the individual, for both the reasons to why they are experiencing stress or anxiety, and for finding solutions. This is problematic, because not only can it for some lead to an additional sense of shame or blame, it also overlooks some underlying causes to why certain situations and environments trigger stress for many people. Stress, in Pedersen’s view, is never only about the individual. There will be reasons to find within the relations, specific types of situations and organizational culture that triggers responses of stress or anxiety. Surely, learning some individual tips to manage different kinds of worries and anxiety is useful, but in a larger picture it cannot solve the more fundamental problem of why people, in this case students, experience this level of stress in the first place. Therefore, instead of focusing on how individual students can manage their own exam anxiety, Pedersen raises another question to ponder: “How can educational institutions, including teachers, fellow students, and administrative staff, help to create a culture that can prevent exam anxiety from becoming such a major problem that anti-anxiety drugs are needed?” This inquiry sets the direction of Pedersen’s research project on stress and well-being among students at CBS.
Collective solutions and safe study environments
Six months into her 3-year research initiative, Pedersen already has some initial findings and ideas for preventative measures, based on over 20 qualitative interviews with students thus far. She has identified some different aspects in the study environment and culture around being a CBS student as potential triggers for stress (e.g., issues within group work, pressure from ideas of the ideal CBS student, pressure to perform and conduct studies like a career, sense of expectations to be social in specific ways). Solutions, then, must also be at the level of organizational culture and practices within the study programs. In the chronicle Pedersen shares an excerpt from an interview with a student that accentuates the need for collective “relational” ways to mitigate stress and lack of well-being:
”I have seen that there are educational institutions offering courses to us students on how to manage stress. But it is, after all, just as important to learn how to manage in order not to become stressed. If you experience stress, because you are not feeling safe in your study environment, then what can we do to make people feel safe in their studies? I mean, it is not helpful to say: this is how you manage stress. Then you will just learn to manage your stress symptoms, but that doesn’t help you feel safer. If I then recover from my stress, it is not like then I am back at my studies and think “now I have the courage to raise my hand, just a bit less stressed now”.
Pedersen suggests that safe study environment can help prevent stress among students, including the specific anxiety related to exams. “We need to stand together as an educational institution and think in terms of safety-invoking activities as an essential part of the work with well-being among students,” she writes in the chronicle.
A focus on transformation
Lifting the gaze from the individual to the collective also implies looking for long-term solutions and more foundational improvements for the benefit of the entire study culture. The ambition to create an environment that enhances well-being among students has been emphasized – and received increased focus – in CBS’s strategic plan for the next 5 years. With a vision to be “a transformational business school” CBS expresses a desire to take greater social responsibility in society but also when it comes to the well-being of the students. Working with transformation can be in different areas and ways. There is the transformation in society, which necessitates understanding societal challenges and close collaboration with practitioners. There is the potential for transformation in and through our academic work, like in the form of method development, collaborating across units (breaking silos), and creating new ways of teaching, and researching. And lastly, there is the transformative potential for the individual, which concerns growth and life-skills for both staff and students. There three aspects of course overlap and mutually influence each other, and the vision of Pedersen’s project is to interweave them. To further define and refine what these aspects means and practically entails, as well as to develop the specific measures, are work that will be developed throughout the project. Six months into the project, Pedersen is in the process of mapping the areas, topics. and situations where stress becomes an issue among students at CBS. This will build the base of understanding necessary to tackle given issues, as well as set the direction of where efforts are most needed. Some areas Pedersen currently have identified, where she is in the process of developing measures includes, for example:
- Introduction week: Pedersen is creating a package with informative material, presentation, and exercises to address stress and well-being at the introduction week of a few programs. A part of this includes the doubts and insecurities students can feel about their choice of study. This material be tested in the fall, evaluated, and further developed and refined.
- Challenges in group work: The research has shown that group work is quite significant as a potential trigger for stress. Pedersen is exploring this topic deeper, looking into underlying reasons and nuances, while also drafting methods, material, and exercises to address these challenges in new ways.
- Culture around “the ideal CBS student”: Interviews have identified that many students experience a pressure from ideas of an ideal CBS students, which they cannot live up to – this includes topics like grades, student job, ambitions, ways to be social etc.
These are some of the areas Pedersen currently is working on in close collaboration with both student and staff, from an explorative point of departure that keeps asking new questions and going deeper to uncover underlying reasons to why and how students experience stress.