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Keeping Stress from Evolving into Distress: A Guide on Managing Student Stress through Course Design

by Brielle Harbin Print Version
Cite this guide: Harbin, B. (2015). Keeping Stress from Evolving into Distress: A Guide on Managing Student Stress through Course Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved [todaysdate] from



Defining Stress, Distress and Their Origins

Stress is an omnipresent feature of most Americans lives (American Psychological Association 2010). The American Psychological Association defines stress as a “pattern of specific and nonspecific responses an organism makes to stimulus events that disturb its equilibrium and tax or exceed its ability to cope” (Gerrig and Zimbardo 2002) .

Stress affects all Americans regardless of age, gender, race, socioeconomic status or prior life experience. Typically those who are experiencing stress report feeling “overwhelmed, worried or run-down” (Alvord et al., n.d.). Now more than ever, college students feel stressed in the university setting (Yorke 2004). These feelings are particularly acute among first and second year students who may be away from home for the first time and trying to adjust to college life (Misra and McKean 2000).

Stress can be both beneficial and harmful. Stress is beneficial when it leads to the production of energy boosts that increase alertness and help individuals power through high stress situations such as exams and/or work deadlines. This type of stress is typically referred to as eustress. On the other hand, stress is harmful when it is experienced in excess (Alvord et al., n.d.). This form of stress is referred to as distress. According to the American Psychological Association, distress can lead to adverse health outcomes that affect the immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and central nervous systems (Alvord et al., n.d.).

While the Princeton Review recently found that Vanderbilt has the happiest students in the country, students in distress remain a concern for those who lead, and interact with, students in Vanderbilt classrooms.

Within the academic setting, causes of student distress may include:

  • Test anxiety, a form of performance anxiety where a person experiences high levels of distress or uneasiness before, during, or after an examination. Test anxiety interferes with students’ ability to perform in testing situations
  • Perfectionism, the need to be or appear perfect
  • Imposter syndrome, a persistent belief or feeling that one is inadequate even in the face of success
  • Stereotype threat, a self-confirming belief that one may be evaluated based on a negative stereotype of a group in which they belong
  • Generalized anxiety, ongoing anxiety and worry that interferes with day-to-day activities


How Distress Manifests in the College Setting

Vanderbilt University’s Office of Wellness Programs & Alcohol Education has identified several behavioral, emotional and psychological signs of student distress. The repeated occurrence of any combination of the following may indicate a student in distress:

Behavioral signs:

  • Academic performance concerns, uncharacteristic changes
  • Declining grades or reduced class participation
  • Incomplete or missing assignments
  • Repeated requests for extensions, incompletes, or withdraws
  • Increased absenteeism or tardiness
  • Disruptive classroom behavior
  • Apparent memory loss or difficulty concentrating
  • Cheating, rule breaking, or defiance
  • Poor organization skills or trouble with note taking
  • Bizarre, aggressive or morbid comments or written content
  • Expressions of feeling hopeless, helpless, guilty and/or worthless
  • Self injury or other self-destructive behavior

Psychological and emotional signs:

  • Chronic fatigue, falling asleep in class
  • Symptoms of being easily distracted, “spacey,” or a tendency to daydream
  • Nervousness or tearfulness
  • Marked changes in regular habits or activities
  • Significant weight gain or loss
  • Signs of intoxication, dilated or constricted puplis, or apparent hangovers
  • Poor or declining physical apperance, hygiene, and grooming
  • Hyperactivity or rapid, pressured speech
  • Extreme boredom, negativism, defensiveness, and secretiveness
  • Comments by others about alcohol or drug use
  • Erratic behavior, sudden mood swings, inappropriate anger, hostility, and irritability
  • Hyper-expansiveness or grandiosity
  • Withdrawal from others or loss of pleasure in everyday activities
  • Talk of suicide or harm to self or others

Why Make an Effort to Reduce Distress Among Students?

High levels of stress:

  1. Affect students’ cognitive capabilities including information processing and memory (Sandi and Pinelo-Nava 2007; Sandi 2004);
  2. Inform the mood and mindset that students bring to the classroom (Felstein 2004); and
  3. Can lead to student burnout and unnecessary attrition, especially among students of color (Smedley, Myers, and Harrell 1993).

Being proactive about managing student stress is beneficial for course instructors and teaching assistants for several reasons:

  1. A stressful classroom climate often increases the personal stress level of course instructors and teaching assistants (Jennings and Greenberg 2009).
  2. Heightened stress among classroom leaders can reduce teachers’ ability to empathize with their students, an especially important issue when teaching in culturally diverse settings (Gault and Sabini 2000).
  3. Decreases in teachers’ ability to empathize with students may eventually lead to compassion fatigue, a form of burnout that is characterized by extreme mental, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion (Schutz and Zembylas 2009).
  4. Compassion fatigue can lead to teacher burnout, or overwhelming feelings of exhaustion, frustration and anger that impairs personal and social functioning and may lead individuals to quit their job (Maslach and Goldberg 1999).

Taking a proactive stance toward student stress also provides classroom leaders with a unique opportunity to help students:

  1. Engage in self-reflection about the ways that stress affects their daily lives including the feelings they bring to classroom, course assignments and interpersonal exchanges with faculty and teaching staff;
  2. Become more personally aware of how to manage stress in order to improve academic performance and position themselves to achieve their professional goals; and
  3. Develop healthy practices with respect to time management, general work practices and study skills.

Reducing Distress in the Classroom

When there is an imminent threat of harm of a life-endangering situation, take immediate action to ensure the safety of the student and others. Call Vanderbilt Police Department emergency line 615-421-1911.

In non-life threatening situations, special attention to issues of course design has the potential to reduce unhealthy levels of stress. Options available to course instructors include the following:

Syllabus Construction

  • Stagger due dates for course assignments
  • Include low stake assignments that help identify students who may need additional instruction early in the semester
  • For course-long assignments, incorporate periodic “check-ins” during office hours or cancel regular classroom sessions to meet with students one-on-one

Making Office Hours Productive

Advise students on how to prepare for meetings with you. You might instruct them to bring appropriate materials, such as their lecture notes, books, homework problems, drafts of their papers, or readings with troublesome passages marked. You might tell them to write out their questions or points of confusion to help clarify and prepare before meeting with you. In addition, remind them that office hours are not an opportunity to receive a recap of a lecture or lesson. Make your sessions with students a chance to continue teaching them, by helping them work through their own confusions or problems. It may be helpful to respond to their questions with further questions that will lead them to their own conclusions. Provide guidance toward problem-solving rather than simply giving students the answer.

For more information, visit the CFT “Office Hours and Email” Teaching Guide.

  • Allow students to have one “do over” that provides students with an opportunity to either correct missed test questions or resubmit a revised paper draft for partial credit
  • Provide a clearly written explanation of your late assignment and extension policies. Source: Pat James Consulting “Samples of online Course Policies”
  • Describe and/or model “unsatisfactory”, “sufficient” and “satisfactory” classroom participation for students.

What Does Class Participation Look Like?

Sample Participation Rubric
  • Voluntarily and frequently offering appropriate, relevant, and creative or original responses/interpretations/observations beyond the obvious,
  • consistently offering plenty of effective textual support for observations,
  • involving others in class discussion by asking questions, seeking others’ responses, etc.
  • eagerly and thoughtfully attempting to answer questions,
  • offering follow-up responses, and
  • treating classmates and the professor respectfully

See the full participation rubric developed by Dr. Nancy Chick, Assistant Director at the CFT.

  • Incorporate multiple methods of assessing student participation in courses where it is a component of students’ final grade (e.g. completing a worksheet of main concepts, themes, etc. and turning in for a grade)
  • Provide students with a grading rubric prior to giving assignments or at the beginning of the semester
  • Provide grade and feedback for assignments before the next assignment is due

Providing Meaningful Feedback to Students

  • Use your comments to teach rather than to justify your grade, focusing on what you’d most like students to address in future work.
  • Link your comments and feedback to the goals for an assignment.
  • Comment primarily on patterns — representative strengths and weaknesses.
  • Avoid over-commenting or “picking apart” students’ work.
  • In your final comments, ask questions that will guide further inquiry by students rather than provide answers for them.

Suggestions About Making Marginal and End Comments on Student Writing

For more information, visit the CFT “Grading Student Work” Teaching Guide

Campus Resources
  • Include links to on-campus and/or online resources that educate students about how to study, write, prepare citations, etc. (e.g. The Writing Studio)
  • Alert students to other resources on campus that can aid in stress management
Communication Policy
  • Clearly articulate communication practices and preferences (i.e. email response policy, etc.)

Email Office Hours

If you’ve published office hours, students know when they can expect to find you to ask a question about the class. It would be helpful to them also to know when they might expect a response to an email message about the class. The notice here could be something rather general (e.g., “I generally check email only once a day.”) or specific (e.g., “I will respond to student email messages between 2:00 and 3:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”) You are free to respond at other times, just as you are free to be available for student appointments at times other than your stipulated office hours. But it’s important for students to know when they can reasonably expect an answer to an email message.

Find more ideas on how to communicate with students by visiting  our “Office Hours and Email” Teaching Guide.

Course Management

  • Allow students to select which date(s) they will take on a leadership role in class (i.e. leading discussion, presenting their work, etc.)
  • Consult with other faculty members in your department about due dates and assignments they have implemented on a regular basis
  • Ask students to communicate days/weeks that are especially packed with assignments in their other classes at the beginning of the semester

In-Class Meetings

  • Interact with students with an awareness of the effect of one’s body language (i.e. frowning, smiling, etc.) on student behavior and performance
Nonverbal communication forms a social language that is in many ways richer and more fundamental than our words. Our nonverbal sensors are so powerful that just the movements associated with body language – that is, minus the actual bodies – are enough to engender within us the ability to accurately perceive emotion.

Source: Psychology Today “How We Communicate Through Body Language”

  • Use affirming language when students provide correct answers, but more importantly, when they make an effort to contribute in class
  • Incorporate ongoing mindfulness practices that provide students with tools to cope with anxiety and stress in the moment

Course Communication

  • Provide students with a syllabus that includes complete course readings, assignments and due dates the first day of class
  • Promptly return student emails, particularly prior to assignment due dates and major exams

Exam Preparation

  • Organize review sessions outside of class prior to tests
  • Hold extra office hours the week prior to an exam or paper due date
  • Establish work groups for students at the beginning of the semester and encourage collaboration when preparing for major exams

Teaching about Learning

  • Schedule periodic workshops that impart skills and information needed to successfully demonstrate learning (i.e. how to construct a thesis statement, how to structure a analytical essay, etc.)
  • Post templates of model work on assignments in conjunction with providing students with feedback on their submitted work

Further Resources

Vanderbilt Campus Resources

Office of Wellness Programs & Alcohol Education provides outreach and support services that assist and empower students in identifying and managing interpersonal, academic and healthcare concerns. Phone 615-32(2-0480)

Liaisons Educating & Advocating for Psychological Support (LEAPS) is a group of undergraduate students who serve as liaisons between the PCC and the campus and serve as peer educators to promote positive mental health and well being on the Vanderbilt campus.

Psychological and Counseling Center Faculty and Staff Resources features information on online interactive training for identifying signs of psychological distress and suicide prevention. Phone 615-32(2-2571)

Students in Distress: A Guide for Faculty and Staff provides tools for how to approach students who may be in distress, make referrals and receive further training.

Vanderbilt Recovery Support provides support service to assist students who are in recovery from substance use issues and are working towards success in their academic, social, personal and professional lives.

“Back to Campus” Faculty Guide on Student Mental Health is a resource the Mary Christie Institute developed through focus groups and nine students from six different universities, during the summer of 2021.

National Resources

Anxiety and Depression Association of America promotes the prevention, treatment, and cure of anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD and related disorders and works to improve the lives of those who suffer from these diseases through education, practice and research.

American College Health Association champions the health of college students and campus communities through advocacy, education and research.


Alvord, Mary, Karina Davidson, Jennifer Kelly, Kevin McGuiness, and Steven Tovian. n.d. “Understanding Chronic Stress.” American Psychological Association.

American Psychological Association. 2010. Stress in America: Findings.

Felstein, Gary. 2004. “Stress Reacitivity and Vulnerability to Depressed Mood in College Students.” Personality and Individual Differences 36 (4): 789–800.

Gault, Barbara A., and John Sabini. 2000. “The Roles of Empathy, Anger, and Gender in Predicting Attitudes toward Punitive, Reparative, and Preventative Public Policies.” Cognition & Emotion 14 (4): 495–520.

Gerrig, Richard J., and Philip G. Zimbardo. 2002. Psychology and Life. 16th ed. Boston, Mass., United States: Allyn and Bacon.

Jennings, Patricia A., and Mark T. Greenberg. 2009. “The Prosocial Classroom: Teacher Social and Emotional Competence in Relation to Student and Classroom Outcomes.” Review of Educational Research 79 (1): 491–525. doi:10.3102/0034654308325693.

Maslach, Christina, and Julie Goldberg. 1999. “Prevention of Burnout: New Perspectives.” Applied and Preventive Psychology 7 (1): 63–74.

Misra, Ranjita, and Michelle McKean. 2000. “COLLEGE STUDENTS’ACADEMIC STRESS AND ITS RELATION TO THEIR ANXIETY, TIME MANAGEMENT, AND LEISURE SATISFACTION.” American Journal of Health Studies 16 (1): 41–51.

Sandi, Carmen. 2004. “Stress, Cognitive Impairment and Cell Adhesion Molecules.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5 (12): 917. doi:10.1038/nrn1555.

Sandi, Carmen, and M. Teresa Pinelo-Nava. 2007. “Stress and Memory: Behavioral Effects and Neurobiological Mechanisms.” Neural Plasticity 2007 (April): e78970. doi:10.1155/2007/78970.

Schutz, Paul A., and Michalinos Zembylas. 2009. Advances in Teacher Emotion Research: The Impact on Teachers’ Lives. Springer Science & Business Media.

Smedley, Brian D., Hector F. Myers, and Shelly P. Harrell. 1993. “Minority-Status Stresses and the College Adjustment of Ethnic Minority Freshmen.” The Journal of Higher Education 64 (4): 434–52. doi:10.2307/2960051.

Yorke, Mantz. 2004. Leaving Early: Undergraduate Non-Completion in Higher Education. Routledge.


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