Being validated in an academic context by any member of authority is intoxicating. But it is also mentally exhausting. The never-ending loop of feedback will routinely lead to suffering expectations. While having high hopes for one’s studies and general success is not necessarily a bad thing outright, it is beyond harmful to associate letter grades and percentages with one’s self-worth. Yet, as university students, we are essentially conditioned to make that connection. The more this notion is pushed, the more the line between academic and personal identity becomes blurred. Because of this association, academic validation and academic burnout often go hand in hand. The desire to do well in school becomes the need to do well in school which drives us to disappointment.
During my very first semester at Queen’s, I took a quiz that I thought I had aced. I studied more than I felt I should have needed to and felt like I had peaked when I submitted it. It wasn’t worth much at all in the long run, only about 0.4% of my final grade in the class. But, when my grade came back as a ‘C-’, I was devastated. It was the end-all-be-all of my own intelligence and I sobbed uncontrollably in my dorm room. Maybe this is a niche experience. Or maybe this sounds like a pathetic unsolicited brag. But regardless, it was devastating to me for one reason – I had, and continue to have, a toxic relationship with my homework.
The toxicity surrounding productivity has been thoroughly glamourized, dubbed ‘hustle culture’. This attracts the idea that the more you want to succeed, the more you will have to struggle to get there. Without the hustle, or the struggle, the value of one’s achievements is perceived as lesser than or not as rightfully obtained. But thinking practically, there’s no way this can be true. I am not claiming that becoming a surgeon or a lawyer or anything with lengthy education requisites doesn’t require some degree of effort. I am merely suggesting there are healthier ways to grasp these milestone achievements.
The first issue is how to break this cycle. Personally, I think comparison seems to be at the forefront of blame. Throughout my high school career, inquiring about classmates’ grades was meant to either boost or bruise ego (and the result was often the latter).. Worrying so much about others’ progress ultimately hinders your own. An initial sense of pride quickly becomes a sense of envy when realizing someone else did better. It’s heartbreaking because you worked hard, you studied, you put in the extra hours, you did your best, but someone still did better. Ultimately, another’s grades are not a reflection of your ability as a student so grade sharing and comparative-based inquiry need to go.
A study conducted in 2020 revealed that 66% of students in secondary and tertiary education systems reported feeling stressed about poor grades. This statistic of self-reported stress is also heavily associated with the development of severe mental health issues including anxiety and depression. Interestingly though,, “students with higher perceived stress are likely to have lower academic achievement”. The internal pressure to please and succeed ironically hinders efforts to do well in academia, rather than fuel them. Pressure often equates to the neglect of other aspects of life, particularly mental health. While there is no singular answer to this phenomenon or distinct solutions per se, this lifestyle transparently lacks the balance necessary to flourish.
Especially in the virtual space created in academic spheres amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, students’ personal and academic lives are increasingly indistinguishable. Because the virtual realm has seemingly taken over, physical and digital spaces become shared when students must work from home. This further inhibits identity development outside of a scholarly setting. Balance is the key to bridging and building healthy relationships between one’s academic and personal life. Realistically, caring about schoolwork to the point of burnout exhaustion will only get worse the longer you pursue these habits. Hobbies and interests, as cliché as it might sound, are so important to defining a balanced character.
Nearing each exam season , TAs and professors deliver well-intentioned advice on coping with the augmented stress surrounding midterms and finals. Recommendations include staying hydrated, engaging in physical activity, organizing your schedule, sleeping eight hours, and taking frequent breaks. While this advice is useful to many, students who tie their grades to their identity often find it hard to engage in these forms of self-care. That being said, stressful pre-exam periods are the ideal and most beneficial times to utilize balance and establish clear boundaries separating academic and personal life. This is where hobbies and interests come in. It is important to remember that no two students are alike, meaning one singular mode of instruction or coping suggestion cannot cater to everyone. Making time for activities you enjoy is equally important, be that a chess match with a friend, reading a book separate from school, journaling, or crocheting.
The elimination of peer grade comparison, the discovery of life aside from academia, and establishing boundaries are truly the best things you can do for your grades. I still struggle with practicing what I preach and am in no way an expert. While this craving is a near-universal phenomenon, a successful student doesn’t need to be a struggling one.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: Angela Yuan