Psychological stress among college students has been getting a lot of attention recently, thanks to articles this year in the New York Times, Huffington Post, and Inside Higher Ed. Research on student stress goes back at least half a century, to David Mechanic's 1962 book Students Under Stress, which was on graduate students. Student stress research seems to have really become vigorous in the 1980s, however. One of the first research studies I ever worked on investigated student stress. In 1983, during the fall term of my senior year at UCLA, the professor of my survey-research course, Christine Dunkel-Schetter, had the class conduct a phone survey of stress on campus.
Think about what many college students go through. Leaving the family home, feeling intense pressure to obtain high grades in connection with career aspirations, taking final exams, trying to establish a romantic/social life, dealing with (often very high) costs of college and possibly working at a job during the school year. What kind of jobs (if any) students can get after college also remains tenuous given the multi-year recession. On top of all that, students in many parts of the U.S. must deal with snow and subfreezing temperatures that, in the words of a colleague who once taught in Buffalo, leave students "really dragging by December."
I ask you: Considering the above, how can college students not be highly stressed out?
Some will argue that college students are in many ways advantaged, compared to those who don't or can't attend a university. Point well taken, but that shouldn't diminish the stress experienced by students.
The New York Times article reports on Fall 2010 national findings from UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute -- based on students' reflections on their senior year of high school -- showing record levels of poor emotional health among incoming first-year undergraduates (UCLA press release). The actual survey questionnaire is available here (when the new page opens, scroll to "Questionnaire" under "The Freshman Survey").
Researchers understandably want to keep their questionnaires as short as possible, to encourage participation. Because the UCLA survey probes many different areas (e.g., politics, values, in addition to school-related matters), the measures of stress and emotional health are limited to isolated items. On a checklist of feelings and behaviors experienced during the past year, for example, appears the item "Felt overwhelmed by all I had to do," to which participants reply "frequently," "occasionally," or "not at all." Elsewhere in the survey, respondents were asked to rate themselves on a set of traits, including "Emotional health," compared to what they would see as the average person their age. Though brief measures may be necessary in some studies, I would recommend a more extensive one, such as the Undergraduate Stress Questionnaire developed by my friend and colleague Chris Crandall.
The Inside Higher Ed article focuses on studies of stress at Columbia University and the University of San Diego, which aimed to identify types of stress that different subgroups of students (e.g., according to field of study, race-ethnicity, sexual orientation, and holding a job while going to school) considered most pernicious. Examples of findings from USD are that "black students are the most stressed out by disrespectful remarks and property damage; campus climate is the only stressor with significantly worse impact for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) students than heterosexual ones; and students who hold jobs report much higher levels of stress from their families, finances and time management."
In addition to sources and experiences of stress, there is also a great deal of research on how people (including college students) attempt to cope with and manage the stress they're under. One general typology divides coping into two broad categories: problem-focused (attempting to tackle a problem directly at its source, such as asking one's dormitory Resident Assistant for a room change to escape a bothersome roommate) and emotion-focused (attempting to manage one's emotions, e.g., by putting things in perspective, when one cannot or chooses not to address the underlying source of the problem). As an example of stress-coping research, this 2009 article examines male and female college students' strategies for coping with stress.
What can be done about stress? The University of Georgia's University Health Center offers an online resource entitled "Managing Stress: A Guide for College Students." It offers modules on several specific topics, such as sleep, healthy relationships, and time-management. In addition, the University of Illinois's Counseling Center provides several stress-management tips for first-year students. At my university, Texas Tech, the Student Counseling Service has similar resources as at other institutions. Plus, rubberized stress-relief squeeze toys in the shape of the university's Double-T logo are available.
With the help of family, friends, and perhaps campus stress-management resources, many students are able to keep their stress levels relatively under control or even thrive in the college setting. However, for some students, the challenges and frustrations of campus life appear to lead to severe emotional problems. I address this topic in next month's column.
Are you searching for a great topic for your psychology paper? Sometimes it seems like coming up with a good idea for a paper is more challenging than the actual research and writing. Fortunately, there are plenty of great places to find inspiration and the following list contains just a few ideas to help get you started.
Finding a solid topic is one of the most important steps when writing any type of paper. It can be particularly important when you are writing a psychology research paper or essay. Psychology is such a broad topic, so you want to find a topic that allows you to adequately cover the subject without becoming overwhelmed with information.
As you begin your search for a topic for your psychology paper, it is first important to consider the guidelines established by your instructor. In some cases, such as in a general psychology class, you might have had the option to select any topic from within psychology's broad reaches. Other instances, such as in an abnormal psychology course, might require you to write your paper on a specific subject such as a psychological disorder.
Focus on a Topic Within a Particular Branch of Psychology
The key to selecting a good topic for your psychology paper is to select something that is narrow enough to allow you to really focus on the subject, but not so narrow that it is difficult to find sources or information to write about.
One approach is to narrow your focus down to a subject within a specific branch of psychology. For example, you might start by deciding that you want to write a paper on some sort of social psychology topic. Next, you might narrow your focus down to how persuasion can be used to influence behavior.
Other social psychology topics you might consider include:
Write About a Disorder or Type of Therapy
Exploring a psychological disorder or a specific treatment modality can also be a good topic for a psychology paper. Some potential abnormal psychology topics include specific psychological disorders or particular treatment modalities, including:
Choose a Topic Related to Human Cognition
Some of the possible topics you might explore in this area include thinking, language, intelligence, and decision-making. Other ideas might include:
Consider a Topic Related to Human Development
In this area, you might opt to focus on issues pertinent to early childhood such as language development, social learning, or childhood attachment or you might instead opt to concentrate on issues that affect older adults such as dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
Some other topics you might consider include:
Critique a Book or Academic Journal Article
One option is to consider writing a psychology critique paper of a published psychology book or academic journal article. For example, you might write a critical analysis of Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams or you might evaluate a more recent book such as Philip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.
Professional and academic journals are also a great place to find materials for a critique paper. Browse through the collection at your university library to find titles devoted to the subject that you are most interested in, then look through recent articles until you find what that grabs your attention.
Analyze a Famous Experiment
There have been many fascinating and groundbreaking experiments throughout the history of psychology, providing ample material for students looking for an interesting term paper topic. In your paper, you might choose to summarize the experiment, analyze the ethics of the research, or evaluate the implications of the study. Possible experiments that you might consider include:
Write a Paper About a Historical Figure
One of the simplest ways to find a great topic is to choose an interesting person in the history of psychology and write a paper about them. Your paper might focus on many different elements of the individual's life, such as their biography, professional history, theories, or influence on psychology.
While this type of paper may be historical in nature, there is no need for this assignment to be dry or boring. Psychology is full of fascinating figures rife with intriguing stories and anecdotes. Consider such famous individuals as Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, Harry Harlow, or one of the many other eminent psychologists.
Write About a Specific Psychology Career
Another possible topic, depending on the course in which you are enrolled, is to write about specific career paths within the field of psychology. This type of paper is especially appropriate if you are exploring different subtopics or considering which area interests you the most. In your paper, you might opt to explore the typical duties of a psychologist, how much people working in these fields typically earn, and different employment options that are available.
Create a Case Study of an Individual or Group of People
One potentially interesting idea is to write a psychology case study of a particular individual or group of people. In this type of paper, you will provide an in depth analysis of your subject, including a thorough biography. Generally, you will also assess the person, often using a major psychological theory such as Piaget's stages of cognitive development or Erikson's eight-stage theory of human development. It is also important to note that your paper doesn't necessarily have to be about someone you know personally. In fact, many professors encourage students to write case studies on historical figures or fictional characters from books, television programs, or films.
Conduct a Literature Review