November 6, 2015

Preventing Academic Burnout in Students

by Mary Afrane, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, MedStar Union Memorial Hospital

Stress in the day-to-day life of a college student is common and expected. However, if stress becomes unmanageable and interferes with academic performance and school-life balance, the student might be suffering from a more serious condition called academic burnout. Academic burnout is characterized by emotional exhaustion, educational pessimism, and feelings of incompetence.1-2 Academic burnout is an important topic in higher education because it can impact the relationship between students and faculty and increase dropout rates.

Speaking from personal experience after spending most of my adult life in school training for a career in healthcare, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the constant demands and responsibilities that drain your energy. Students who are in a state of burnout often become cynical and start to lose interest achieving the goals that led them to school in the first place.3 Students experiencing burnout may display signs such as excessive absenteeism, lack of interest in academic activities, and express a sense of meaninglessness toward educational assignments.1 Students may also display severe negative emotional symptoms such as hopelessness, helplessness, and depression.

Not surprisingly, academic burnout is negatively associated with academic performance and the quality of student’s learning experience.1 Causes of academic burnout are multifactorial, including environmental and individual reasons. Stress and low self-efficacy are two variables that influence academic engagement.2

Many students will demonstrate signs of burnout towards the end of the academic semester or near the completion of their thesis or dissertation program. This is generally not of major concern, given that a break for recovery is in sight and most students are able to successfully complete the remaining work. However, burnout becomes a concern if it occurs early on in the semester and the student lacks tools for dealing with the chronic exhaustion, depersonalization, and feelings of low personal achievement.

Burnout can be managed by using the “Three R” approach:3
Recognize the warning signs of burnout.
Reverse the damage by managing stress and seeking support.
Resilience towards stress can be built upon by improving physical and emotional health.

There are other practical steps that can be taken by students and teachers to reduce academic burnout. Faculty can help to minimize student cynicism by developing instructional plans that stimulate students’ thinking. Course assignments can be purposefully designed such that the assignments are not perceived as “busy work,” but something that adds meaningful value to the students’ educational journey. College students can mitigate burnout by selecting courses of interest to them. Recognizing one’s personal limitations to handle a heavy academic load can help to prevent chronic exhaustion. In addition, students can take steps to address person matters such as low self-efficacy. Students with high self-efficacy are able to cope with a failure better because they able to attribute the failure to factors such as low effort or gaps in knowledge and skills. By making the proper attributions, those with high self-efficacy are able to bounce back.1 Addressing issues of low self-efficacy enables students to withstand overwhelming pressures when faced with difficult tasks.

Poor time management can give rise to feelings of being overwhelmed. It is imperative that steps are taken to achieve adequate preparation for exams and completing major tasks. Properly prioritizing assignments and achieving balance between personal and academic life can give students control of stressful situations and reduce feelings of chronic exhausting. Stress coping programs employing cognitive-behavioral therapy have been shown to reduce exhaustion in students, with benefits often lasting 1 to 2 months after program paritcipation.4 Stress coping programs are conducted with the primary purpose of highlighting the student’s maladaptive response to stress and developing better stress coping skills. The participants reflect on their thought process and are guided on converting negative thoughts to positive ones. Physical exercise and relaxation can reduce stress levels and can reduce academic burnout.4

Having a strong support system and realistic expectations, when facing a heavy academic load can help students deal with the intensive demands. When I was a college student, I attempted to complete two science majors in four years by taking a 21 credit course-load each semester. After listening to close friends and mentors, I realized that my plan was unrealistic and was a set up for burnout. I reassessed my plans and made changes so that I was able to complete both degrees in five years, which allowed extra time to become involved in extracurricular activities — thing that gave more depth and meaning to my college experience.

Academic burnout adversely impacts students’ performance and the student-teacher relationship. Students without good coping skills might succumb to the pressures of a challenging academic workload. Students can take steps to address low self-efficacy and teachers can be more purposeful in designing academic instructional plans.

  1. Rahmati Z. The study of academic burnout in students with high and low level of self-efficacy. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 2015;171:49-55.  
  2. Charkhabi M, Abarghuei MA, Hayati D. The association of academic burnout with self-efficacy and quality of learning experience among Iranian students. SpringerPlus 2013;2:677.
  3. Fallon SJ. Burn out: how to recognize, prevent, or recover. [Internet]. June 2009. Accessed October 31, 2015.
  4. Sonmez GY, Capri B, Lisesi SP. The effects of stress coping program on burnout levels of high school students. Int J New Trends in Edu and Their Implications 2013;4:148-64.

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