It is time for accounts in higher education. On February 3, Inside Higher Education reported that seven students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute have died since July 2021. Three of those students have died by suicide, and there are two other deaths that are still under investigation.
A single student death would be a tragedy for any university, but this STEM-oriented school in Massachusetts has come at a time of crisis, which reflects the national emergency recently declared by the surgeon general. WPI, as it is known in the community, is the latest institution to face the need to find better ways to care for students’ mental well-being, but it is far from the only one facing this problem, and – in fact[…]it is more the rule than the exception in this respect.
Because three of these WPI students died by suicide, campus leaders rightly focused their attention on student mental health and appointed a task force of 35 university employees in September 2021 to study the issue and to make recommendations for improving their student support structures.
The report, which was released in January, outlines many important steps to improve student well-being, but it only lightly addresses a key driver of student stress and, in doing so, makes a mistake that is sadly pervasive. in higher education. The report’s authors include data from a student survey they released as part of their survey. The survey, which garnered 704 student responses, found that up to 82% of undergraduate respondents believe there is “too much academic pressure” at WPI.
Academic pressure, of course, can come from a number of different sources. The culture of high-stakes testing in STEM courses is one source of this, as are control mindsets and heavy workloads. However, perhaps the biggest culprit of all is the one that is most deeply embedded in our educational infrastructure: grades. And while the report recommends that WPI institute better measures to identify struggling students, more effective programs to help students be resilient, and more programs designed to allow professors to be more introspective about their course design. and their teaching practices, it says almost nothing about grades and the enormous anxieties that traditional grading models cause students. Why not? Any institution that primarily identifies itself as “rigorous,” which is the very first word used to describe WPI in the report, has a vested interest in keeping the rating system responsible for engineering a veneer of rigor. Moreover, questioning grades is a bridge too far for many academics, as these assessment methods are embedded into the fabric of higher education.
Meanwhile, we have strong evidence to suggest grades make students physically, emotionally, and psychologically ill. Specifically, the stress kids, teens, and college-aged students feel about grades as well as the pressure they experience from parents and teachers are directly linked to the widely reported mental health crisis. in these age groups. Rates of anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation have increased dramatically, and school stress related to grades is one of the main causes of this escalation. We now have evidence from major research studies that these health conditions have gotten much worse over time and are not likely to get better without some kind of serious and sustained intervention. Part of our efforts on this front should be devoted to examining the damage caused by the ratings.
According to a 2019 report from the Pew Research Center, 70% of 13- to 17-year-olds surveyed think anxiety and depression are a major problem among their peers, and that same group — many of whom are now the students in our classrooms. college class – identifies pressure to get good grades as the most important factor leading to these mental health issues (88% said they felt “a lot” or “a little” pressure about grades). The number of teenagers who have suffered from depression (13% of 12 to 17 year olds in a 2017 survey) and who have attempted suicide (8.9% of respondents in ninth to tenth grade in 2019, according to the CDC) are even more troublesome. Statistics on depression, anxiety, and rates of suicidal ideation among college students tell a very similar story. School stress is directly linked to these health crises, and grades are a major source of this type of stress.
The situation at WPI is not the first time a university has faced similar tragic circumstances and has failed to adequately consider the role of grades in contributing to academic pressures that affect student well-being. and it won’t be the last time either. . In 2014, for example, the University of Pennsylvania set up a similar task force following several student deaths by suicide. The report itself acknowledges the types of academic stressors experienced by students on the Penn campus: “Like its peer institutions, Penn has a highly competitive academic and extracurricular culture that some students perceive as demanding perfection. Such perceptions can lead to pressures to succeed both academically and socially which can be unrealistic and lead to feelings of being overwhelmed. Some suffer from depression or other forms of distress often evidenced by behavioral changes” (p. 2). Despite this recognition, Penn’s solutions focus primarily on support programs. The report does not address the academic environment in any substantial way, and the words “grade” and “grades” barely appear. Such oversights are unfortunately common as more colleges and universities develop their responses to the mental health crisis.
We need a complete re-examination of our use of grades in higher education. There are many alternatives we can use instead of traditional, unfair scoring models, and we have long awaited the widespread adoption of these practices. Changing our focus on grades in no way means we have to abandon academic standards. Far from there. But if colleges and universities leave unexamined and unchanged teaching practices and grading models that serve false idols of rigor and control at the expense of our students’ well-being, then we become complicit in a system that continues to harm them.
Joshua Eyler is director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi, where he is also a clinical assistant professor of teacher education. He is the author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching (West Virginia University Press, 2018) and is currently writing a book titled Scarlet Letters: How Grades Harm Children and Young Adults, and What We Can Do About It (to be published by West Virginia University Press).