Students testing their saliva to see how stressed a test can make them

Ashley Smith, News Editor

Stress is no stranger to college students. Even with stress relief workshops during finals, university offered counseling, and your family telling you “you’re doing too much,” students dedicated to university find themselves overwhelmed mentally and physically.

Some of these people are Dr. Emilie Beltzer, assistant professor of psychology, and Dr. David Bateman, associate professor of chemistry and director of undergraduate research, who set out to research the impact of stress during this transitional time in students’ lives. With help from Dr. Holly Morado, instructor of mathematics, the team of three began organizing and planning how the study was going to work. Though the research is at a standstill, for now, the possibility of knowing how the stress develops, where it comes from, and how to help students manage it was enough reason to begin collecting samples to start the tedious process.

Using students from Dr. Morado’s intermediate algebra classes, willing participants were swabbed on a lecture day to measure their cortisol level. A person also may not understand the toll stress takes on the body and the health issues that come with it.

Dr. Beltzer designed and handed out surveys before and after certain classes. Students were then swabbed before and after an exam; a day students were predicted to be more stressed than usual. Lecture day samples gave Dr. Beltzer and Dr. Bateman a baseline to compare exam day stress to because students were found not to be at a high level of stress. They saw that as the exam went on, cortisol levels went down. Anticipatory stress seemed to be higher than the actual pressure of taking the exam.

This anticipatory stress differs from our evolved flight or fight reaction. This reaction occurs when a person is faced with danger, and how they respond determines if they “get” away or if they confront the threat itself. With anticipatory stress, the danger is undefined and general rather than a physical occurrence.

“You can use that to look at something that is very important,” Dr. Beltzer said. “People can stress themselves out simply by what’s happening in their heads. It’s nothing that’s in real time, in front of you or an immediate reaction.”

Another way stress was tested used America’s number one fear: public speaking. Dr. Beltzer gathered two students and randomly assigned one to give a speech and one to observe the speech. After a bit of time to plan, the speaker would give their no notes, minimally prepared presentation in front of Dr. Beltzer and the observing student. The prediction was on point: the speaker showed signs of discomfort, began losing eye contact, and sometimes even went silent for the duration of the time they were supposed to speak. The observer’s reactions were unexpected, though. Empathy was shown through the observer becoming uncomfortable themselves. As the stress levels went up in the person speaking, stress levels also went up for the person observing.

“We had evaluated between two to three courses per semester for three semesters,” Colton Lechak, senior biochemistry major and student assistant to the study, said. “The analysis [of the data] took about an hour per course sample. Naturally, time added up.”

Collecting the samples became the biggest obstacle. For willing students and the professors to find the same time to meet to collect samples is a hard enough task on its own, and asking for spit in a tube didn’t help.

“We had a couple of students that were up and coming, really excited for it, but you can never plan for that,” Dr. Bateman said. “It’s the training and getting people certified to work with human subjects, that is very detailed and very tedious to learn.”

Once they are trained and ready to go, things tend to run smoothly. “It makes it a lot easier for everyone involved.” Dr. Bateman said.

A STEM field student himself, Lechak just wanted to look out for his peers. His chance to be in the study was the perfect opportunity for him, and students around him experienced the familiar and well-known problem of test anxiety.

“One of the potential outcomes is improving aspects of education like student study habits, administration procedures or even to improve teaching style,” Lechak said. “These possibilities only help the knowledge given by instructors and received by students. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

For Dr. Bateman, it’s the little things. Over the years, he and his colleagues had seen a rise in students wanting to major in STEM studies, but few graduated within the fields. This decline applied not only to his place of teaching but to the whole state as well. Other studies have shown that the best predictors of persistence in the STEM are their performance in college algebra, a subject students tended to struggle.

“I’ve given my class a more structured approach because of this research,” Dr. Bateman said. “I know where they’re coming from now. When they know what to expect, they are more at ease, prepared and therefore less stressed.”

Dr. Beltzer’s background in researching stress only sparked the interest even more.

“Being able to be curious about something and dig into it is what excites me,” Dr. Beltzer said. “[On researching stress] What can I learn from personality traits? What coping mechanisms will help them? Understanding individual differences are key to finding a solution.”

Compared to Dr. Bateman who would like a general stress coping approach, Dr. Beltzer wants to see how an individual’s background plays into how they approach and manage. Creating stress management methods for everyone may be possible, but individualizing methods may or may not prove to be more effective. Dr. Alan Reifman, professor of human and development studies at Texas Tech University, agrees with a unique approach.

“Some people are optimistic by nature and others pessimistic,” Dr. Reifman said. “Some coping strategies might be effective for one person but not for the other. It would be great if future research could sort that out.”

As the team of researchers trek on, preliminary results are just the beginning of finding a solution for stressed-out students. Eventually, more than students can benefit from these types of studies. As data is analyzed and results are recognized, aspects of education can be improved. Minds and bodies can be improved.

“We’re trying to give numbers to and do something about the stress that we have all felt for years when we go in to take a test,” Dr. Bateman said. “Whether it be a driving test or a math test, everyone needs to learn how to manage their stress better.”