Student Well-Being Opinion

Chat Wrap-Up: Stress and Student Achievement

October 17, 2006 4 min read
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On Oct. 4, readers posed questions to Denise Clark Pope, a Stanford University lecturer who has written about the impact of pressure on students, and Herbert J. Walberg, an emeritus research professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, on the amount of stress students are facing in school. Below are excerpts from the discussion.

Question: We are learning about the positive effects of high expectations on student achievement. Is stress an additional effect of more challenging coursework?

Read the full transcript of this chat.

Pope: This is a terrific question. Often educators get confused by the message to reduce undue stress on students. I am not advocating dumbing down the curriculum or lowering expectations overall. When you have high expectations, you do often see positive effects when teachers scaffold the learning for students and work to authentically engage them in more challenging coursework. This goes back to Lev Vygotsky and the zone of proximal development, or the “just-right challenge” Deborah Stipek discusses. The trick is for educators to find that “just right” challenge for each student, and to help the individual reach new heights.

So, some—appropriate—stress can lead to greater learning. The problem is when a student perceives the challenge to be too great, doesn’t have an advocate to help him or her overcome the challenge, and/or doesn’t have adequate resources to complete the work alone. That’s when the challenge becomes too stressful and we do more harm than good.

Question: Given that America’s advanced math is at the same level as Singapore’s 6th grade regular math, that we spend only 180 six-hour days a year in school as opposed to Japan’s 240, and that we continue to perform below average on international comparisons, could it be that the alleged stress students feel actually is caused by the education establishment’s not wanting to do what is necessary to raise the level of academic achievement for all students, combined with a legal structure that prevents the same?

Walberg: Yes. In Horace’s Compromise, Theodore Sizer made this point more than two decades ago. Slack standards may make life easy for teachers and help them evade student complaints. They might even give mostly high grades. But objective tests make better known this ploy. The public, parents, and legislators want and deserve more than the K-12 status quo provides.

Question: In my opinion, the volume of knowledge a student is required to know is too small. Could this make our country lose its supremacy?

Pope: Actually, it depends on the kind of information that students are expected to know. There is no way that any one human being can memorize all of the nitty-gritty facts in every subject area these days. It is most important that we teach students skills—thinking skills, literacy skills, math skills, and media literacy—or, in other words, how to find the facts they need to know, discern if the source is credible, and figure out just what to do with these facts once they find them. The actual content that students need to know is not nearly as important as the skills they are learning in school. We will remain competitive (if that is the goal you are after) if we focus on fewer facts and, instead, on more skills and process exercises.

Question: Shouldn’t we be looking more at the ways we can make school relevant to life in the 21st century than pressuring our children with homework that is mostly preparing them to regurgitate memorized lists and “facts”? Wouldn’t we be better served by assessing how fully developed a student’s love of learning is, and whether the ability to self-teach has been nurtured? Now that would be a valuable and meaningful standardized assessment.

Walberg: Anything but knowledge? Actually, it’s difficult to find people who have deep and original insights about a field without knowledge of the facts and the normal skills required for mastery. From a psychometric view, tests of factual knowledge are usually highly correlated with “higher thinking processes,” such as comprehension and evaluation of arguments. Absence of knowledge hardly ensures higher-level thinking and contributions.

Question: Do you think that students on the advanced track, those taking honors and Advanced Placement classes, are working too hard and under too much pressure, while often students in regular classes are underchallenged?

Pope: I have found that students in all tracks may be suffering from unhealthy academic-achievement pressure. Many in the “regular” track feel overwhelmed by school and home pressures, and a number of these students are working several hours per week on top of their regular school obligations.

That said, when we try to convince students who are taking an overload of AP or honors courses to drop one or two and take a “regular” class instead, most of them worry that they will be bored to death in the regular track. In many high schools, the tracks are so distinct that it does make for a nearly impossible choice for students. One answer is to make all courses interesting and challenging, and to encourage more heterogeneous grouping and differentiated instruction within the courses themselves.

Question: If overly stressful schooling is a major problem, where are its adult victims? If there is a post-traumatic stress disorder type of fallout to overly rigorous schooling, I have never seen a case of it. To the contrary, I hear adults express appreciation for the demands placed on them by teachers and parents. Moreover, I hear parents say that they wish their parents had put more pressure on them to study and make use of their educational opportunities. Whatever risk is posed by pressures to study, a far greater risk is posed by insufficient effort and its life-altering consequences. Do you agree?

Walberg: Yes, I agree and wish more educators would.

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2006 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: Stress and Student Achievement


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