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How to deal with academic pressure Part 1: The teachers’ perspective

The life of a University student can get very stressful and overwhelming. Sometimes it seems like there is a lab report or an essay due every week in addition to exams and quizzes. How does one deal with this academic pressure? Well why not ask the Professors! Their teaching experience as well as their experience as Academic Advisors will give us some useful insight into their perspective on academic pressure. Make sure to stay tuned for Part 2: the students’ perspective. But now let’s get to know the professors: 

Karen Smith Stegen

Prof. Dr. Karen Smith Stegen

has been teaching at Jacobs University since 2009. Her primary research interests are: Energy and Environmental Politics, Social and Transnational Movements, International Relations

I took two courses with her in my first and second semester: International Institutions and Social Movements & Political Participation. Both of them were incredibly eye-opening and a pleasure to attend. This is not really a surprise since Professor Smith Stegen received the “Teacher of the Year Award” – one student saying her “class was the perfect combination of intellectual rigor and hilarity”.

Alexander Lerchl

Professor Dr. Alexander Lerchl

has been a professor of Biology at Jacobs for 14 years now. His research interests are: Zoology, Neurophysiology, Neuroendocrinology, Chronobiology, Biostatistics.

I took two courses with him in my first year: General Biology and Neuroscience and Introduction to Neuroscience. As I am a Social Science major it was incredibly refreshing to take these courses and to learn about the brain, our body and the world around us from a natural science perspective. Professor Lerchl classes were very entertaining and he even gave us some sneak peeks into his own research.

Adalbert WilhelmImage by David Ausserhofer

Professor Dr. Adalbert F.X. Wilhelm

has been a Professor of Statistics at Jacobs University since 2001.His research interests are: Information and Knowledge Management, Statistical Visualization, Data Mining, Exploratory Data Analysis, Computational Statistics.

I am currently taking a course with Professor Wilhelm called Statistical Methods II: Classification, Modelling and Prediction (quite a mouthful, I know). Professor Wilhelm has managed to make an important course like Statistics enjoyable for somebody like me, who has no talent whatsoever when it comes to numbers. That is quite an achievement and the highest compliment coming from me!

  1. What general advice would you give to students about academic pressure?

Professor Dr. Smith Stegen:

I think students come under academic pressure when they attach too much importance to getting the highest possible grade on each assignment and in each class. My advice to students is to keep things in perspective. One way to do this is to project oneself into the future and imagine how important (or unimportant) a particular assignment or grade really will be in the scheme of things. Or to look back and ask themselves how truly important individual assignments were in the past. Quite often, the things we stress ourselves about are not so important in the long run and it is helpful to keep this in mind. To relieve immediate stress, I suggest students take breaks to do things they enjoy, such as sports, listening to music, reading something entertaining, or taking a walk. We have beautiful parks and a riverfront close to campus and they are great for walking, jogging or biking. In addition, I personally find that humor helps greatly with stress relief and even to combat fatigue. When I was working on my dissertation, I used to watch one episode of The Simpsons (which is about 20 minutes) in the afternoon instead of drinking a coffee. These types of mini-breaks also allow the brain to subconsciously work through some of the puzzles or problems one had been thinking about. Often, these kinds of “breaks” lead to insights and solutions. Indeed, some of my best ideas come to me while I am biking to work. If such techniques do not help and students are having problems coping with pressure, then they can also turn to our counseling center.

Professor Dr. Lerchl:

Academic pressure is a serious issue. On one hand, students are excited about the many courses they can register for. On the other, they will realize, sometimes after the drop-add-deadline, that they have chosen too many courses. The burden can become immense! My advice: register for the mandatory courses only, do not overload yourself.

Professor Dr. Wilhelm:

Learn both, how to cope with it and how to escape from it from time to time. The academic world is highly competitive, but there is more to life than grades and the accumulation of knowledge. Try hard, don’t look for the easy way out, but also have the confidence in yourself that you are capable to learn and decide what is best for you. Don’t let yourself get carried away with academic pressure and competition:  learn to prioritize, make a plan, develop a steady work routine, and keep in mind that the German word “Bildung” encompasses ways more than just learning for exams.

  1. What are three characteristics that you look for in a student?

Professor Dr. Smith Stegen:

When I write letters of recommendation for students, the top “standout” qualities are, not in order of importance, diligence, intelligence, and having a good attitude (which also encompasses “integrity”).

Professor Dr. Lerchl:

Alertness, open-mindedness, critical thinking.

 Professor Dr. Wilhelm:

Curiosity, Tolerance, Enthusiasm

  1. What is your number one advice against procrastination?

Professor Dr. Smith Stegen:

I think people–students and non-students–often procrastinate a job or task because it seems mountainous. A good coping mechanism is to break the task down into small parts and then tackle them one-by-one. There is a wonderful book called Bird-by-Bird (by Anne Lamott), in which the author’s father counsels his panicked son, who has procrastinated a report on birds until the last minute, to write the report “bird by bird”. This is how I approach my large, mountainous tasks and it often helps.

Professor Dr. Lerchl:

Do it NOW!

Professor Dr. Wilhelm:

Embrace it. There are people who are fairly immune against procrastination. If you are one of them, lucky you. For all others: don’t ignore procrastination and don’t let it happen. Be aware of it and include it into your plans and schedules. Be realistic and get to know yourself.  Be aware that some additional tasks will come in unexpected and be prepared for adaptations of your schedules. Stay in control about your time management and develop a realistic view on how large a pile of unfinished business you can handle and how much procrastination you need and how much you can accommodate.

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