Published Date

March 16, 1998

Resource Type

For the Classroom


Teaching Methods

AHA Topics

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education


United States

For the sake of imagining some stressful situations out of which we have to extract ourselves or learn to avoid, let us pretend we do not see all the beautiful and wonderful things around us. Cities and jungles can be beautiful. However, this board game in our minds is a bleak scenario in which modern life is an urban jungle full of dangerous corporate creatures, industrial plants, environmental hazards, bills in the mail, and road-enraged denizens. The university is part of modern life and can be seen as an educational jungle all its own. It is full of all kinds of obstacles and hazards that can produce great amounts of stress in someone who just wants to get a degree to get ahead. In other parts of this guide, I try to show you how to do both brief and comprehensive reality checks on yourself and how to integrate yourself into the university’s mission and into an academic course. If you are going to deal with all of the aspects of this complex environment and thrive in it, there are a few other things you need to add to your successful survival kit. Here, I am just going to focus on a few basic lessons on how to reduce and avoid stress.


The University Can Sometimes Be a Jungle

It should not be surprising that the university is a mirror of the high-pressure society in which we live. An institution designed to process 34,000 students in any given year is rarely capable of giving you all of the individualized care you need. Because of its great number of activities and the size of its bureaucracy, the university may not even give you enough advance information to enable you to do a good job of taking care of yourself. Many students do not realize this until it is too late, and they are already under a great deal of stress. They do not take proactive charge of their education for various reasons. They were not accustomed to doing it in high school. They may have other pressing issues in their lives. The advice that counselors and teachers give them may not sink in soon enough to avoid problems. They can also procrastinate too long in taking care of essential business related to their careers and in implementing a time-management plan.

Students often begin to feel the stress when they realize that the university requires so many courses that hardly anyone can finish in four years. Five years is more normal for a full-time student unless he or she goes to summer school. Students often want to load up on courses to get out fast. However, university courses are usually very demanding. They require more time and effort than the number of hours spent in the classroom. Some students find that their previous educational experiences did not raise their powers of reading, writing, and critical thinking skills to the level required for doing well at the university. The ingredients for a personal pressurecooker come together when you throw in the challenges of dealing with a bureaucratic system, the need to support oneself and family, the need to pay for an education, and the many life-problems that an ordinary person can experience. The result is that taking more than three courses at a time, especially when one is employed, actually undermines a student’s ability to appreciate or fulfill the mission of the university as a space in which reflection takes place.

Reflection is unrushed and deep thinking about a subject that leads to a fuller, subtler, and more complex understanding of life and the world, and eventually to the formulation of potential solutions and to the creation of additional new understandings, insights, and inventions. At its best, reflection leads to wisdom. This may sound like pie-in-the-sky idealism that has nothing to do with getting a degree to get a good-paying job; but this is actually what makes the university different from a vocational, technical, or trade school. Moreover, it is a deeply ingrained misconception in the popular mind that a conceptual education is irrelevant to real life. An enhanced power of reflection can greatly improve your performance in a vocational course or on your job, and it can improve the general quality of your life. The misconception stems from two main causes. One is the exaggerated emphasis in our society on the material American Dream in which happiness is measured in economic wealth. The other is that many people do not have the time and money to take advantage of the full benefits offered by the university. At this level, public education is definitely not free. A great number of students can only afford, or believe they can only afford, a stripped-down, practical educational package that is enough to get them the college degree that will certify them as fit for employment at a decent salary.

In this scenario of great pressures and high costs (even when you have a scholarship), you must either be proactive or the environment will determine what kind of education you receive. You must know your environment and how to cope with it or you will make very costly mistakes. If you do not drop out as a result, the lessons you learn through experience will cost you an unnecessarily high price in time, money, stress, and an academic record that will not be as good as you want. Too many students wait until the system crunches them. If they are lucky, a counselor, professor, or friend may rescue them, but not without the pain of a lesson learned in the proverbial school of hard knocks. Do not wait for this to happen to you.

Ways to Avoid the Tangle and Get Through the Jungle

Stress is normal at the university. You have to be able to determine how much you can handle and make the necessary adjustments. You can tell when you are under severe stress when you get so busy with competing demands on your life that you cannot concentrate on the reading for your courses or even on lectures or class discussions–the greater the pressure, the greater the inability to learn, retain information, analyze, and complete assignments. At this point, you may wonder about the use or relevance of going to college and sacrificing yourself just to jump through so many hoops in the circus being run by apparently insensitive professors and administrators caught in their own games of hoop-jumping.

If you are already caught hopelessly in a stressful tangle of homework, work, and home life and you feel overwhelmed, the easiest way to get out is to hit the escape button. You can relieve the pressure by dropping one or more courses even when you are more than halfway through the semester. Obviously, this will mean lost time, effort, and money; but it may be good for you as long as you do not keep repeating the same pattern semester after semester. Sometimes, you have too many things on your plate and some of them are spilling all over you. When you fall so far behind that you cannot catch up, you may have no choice. Sometimes the rest of life gets so hard that you just have to give it all of your attention. Taking time off to reassess your situation and reorganize your life may be the best thing to do. Next time, think ahead so that you do not sign up for a program you will not finish to your satisfaction.

Reevaluate the Environmental Tangle: Plan Your Expedition

The most successful student is the one who takes his or her education into his or her own hands in a proactive constructive way (as opposed to doing just anything you want when you want to do it). Some students quit too easily or too early and drop out or become part-time, occasional students before exploring all the options for dealing with a difficult situation and for developing a long-term strategy for getting their college degree in less than 10 years. Sometimes a little reflection with some assistance can lead to a reenergized perspective and a reorganized approach. Sometimes the tiredness need only be momentary.

Whether you are coming out of an emergency situation, or just catching your breath, resource and time management are essential to continued success. You need to plan for the year, for the semester, for the month, for the week, and for each day. Make a budget for each one. Be realistic about what support you can depend on from family, and friends; and about what support you have to give them that will compete with your educational goals. Above all, get a daily planner and calculate how you can best distribute your time among your competing life areas and classes. It is a lot easier to plan when you put things down on paper rather than try to work them out only in your head.

Leave Your Baggage Outside the Jungle

It is difficult not to bring the rest of your life into the educational jungle of the university. However, this is just like taking too much gear into the bush; it only gets you tangled in the vines and underbrush more quickly and thoroughly. As hard as it may be, you need to leave the baggage behind. When you do make time to study and you can identify an hour or two to devote to a schoolwork assignment, put all of your other concerns aside and concentrate only on that assignment. You are going to “lose” that time anyway to your other worries; so maximize your productivity by creating a quiet time and space for yourself in which you put down the burdens of the rest of your life for a short time. You can learn most effectively when you can be relaxed and allow yourself to sink into the subject and your mind can immerse itself in it calmly without external pressures. You have to be able to think about what the words mean in the chapter or assignment you are reading. If you bring your life worries into your study time, then you may as well not even open the book. If you can free yourself for a while from your other life pressures, then you might even find that your study time is therapeutic, and that it might even reenergize you for going back to the other parts of your life and dealing with them from a changed perspective.

Sharpen Your Mental Machete

Remember your mind is a powerful tool. Thinking conceptually will help you do well in every course you take–even if the instructor does not require it. No matter what the subject, it has to be organized conceptually to make sense. Otherwise it will be a boring, meaningless mess. You can help yourself by looking for, identifying, and using the organizing concepts in a course, in a chapter, in a lecture and in anything you read, hear, or discuss. Most students do it to one degree or another, but you get better at it if you do it consciously and consistently. If you hone your skills at playing with concepts, you will be able to better distinguish between what information is important and what is not. You will become more efficient and effective at your studies and at comprehending ideas and communicating them. You will get more satisfaction from a sense of achievement. You will even find that it can become fun. If you ever have the luxury of enough time to reread a chapter, a book or a set of class notes, you might find that you will discover you are getting even more out of it in ideas that you missed the first time around.

Befriend the Lords of the Jungle

In every course that you take, exercise the initiative of going to see the professor at least once or twice during the semester. If you consult with a professor now, you are more likely to understand what the course is about, where he or she is coming from, how to improve your performance, and you will be motivated to do even better. You will be more likely to go get help when problems arise rather than let them fester until it is too late. Some professors are too busy to even know all of their students’ names, much less seek them out for appointments. You will stand out by visiting a professor because 95 percent of the students who go to see a professor on their own will do it only when a serious problem arises and they need an extension or have to excuse a missed assignment. These are only the students who go at all. Unless a professor makes it a course requirement, most students avoid office visits to a professor like they avoid visits to the proverbial dentist. If you are going to apply to graduate school, for a job, or for a scholarship, you may need a letter of recommendation. A professor will be more able and more willing to write a letter if you make sure he or she gets to know you now. The professor has to be able to distinguish you from the hundreds of other students in his or her classes every year. Just the fact that you initiate a visit will enable the professor to say that you are serious and that you have initiative.

Become One of the Dominant Species Yourself

You can also be proactive by participating in class even when it is not a class requirement for your grade. The professor will take your participation into consideration, consciously or unconsciously, when grading you. Most professors prefer an interactive class with at least some students being active. Your participation will reinforce the positive impression made by the office visits. Proactive participation in class discussions will motivate you to keep up with the readings more effectively. Voicing your ideas and conclusions will help sharpen your thinking and analysis. You will also gain confidence that you can do well in your classes. You will have the confidence to speak out in other situations. Everyone has ideas and opinions in private and anonymously. Coming out and stepping up to do it in front of others takes you to another level. To be most effective, a good portion of your classroom participation should be based on your reading assignments. Anyone can ask informational questions that require no previous reading or knowledge. Outside of the classroom, do what any smart jungle denizen would do. Learn the location of the natural resources and use them. Labs, tutors, and other student services are part of the jungle’s resources. If you bluff too much in class and procrastinate too much outside of it, the jungle will eat you. If you work hard, you can become one of the dominant species in the educational jungle. Only the fittest survive and succeed. The undecided, unfocused, uncommitted, and unable–the weak–become extinct. With a little reflection and a lot of organization, you have the opportunity to avoid this fate and to manage stress successfully in our urban jungle university. When that happens, you will notice the beauty and the wonder around you again.