The Relationship between Reported Workload, Stress and Employment Levels in First-Year Engineering Students

Article excerpt

1 INTRODUCTION

Engineering degree programs are notorious for placing considerable demands upon their students. Balancing study and other commitments, such as paid employment, is a challenge faced by an increasing number of undergraduate students (McInnis, 2001). These challenges are particularly difficult for first-year students who are also dealing with the transition from high school student to the university environment.

The Graduate Course Experience Questionnaire is a key indicator of the teaching performance of Australian universities, and engineering has historically underperformed against other degree programs. Average ratings on the Good Teaching Scale are consistently 10-20% lower for engineering programs than the overall national average (Graduate Careers Australia, 2006), with excessive workload issues being a common theme in graduate responses.

There are a wide range of factors that cause stress in undergraduate students (Garrett, 2001). In addition to academic-related issues, a significant number of non-academic-related factors also contribute heavily to the stress levels of students (Ross et al, 1999). In order to understand students' stress levels, it is necessary to understand the factors in their lives --and academic workload is often misunderstood.

The concept of workload is potentially misleading as students' self-reporting of workload does not necessarily represent their ability to cope with their learning load. Jonkman et al (2006) showed students' perceptions of workload are not correlated to the amount of work that they do, but instead show some correlation to the number of assignments that they are required to complete. Other studies have shown that the extent to which the work is perceived as meaningful impacts upon the students' ratings of workload (Kember, 2004; Marsh, 2001).

This paper explores the relationship between students' perceptions of their workloads and their stress levels. The study was carried out with a large cohort enrolled in a first-year Engineering Foundation Principles and Communication (EFPC) unit at Curtin University. Each week students were asked to complete an online survey to reflect on their week's activities. The surveys were available from Thursday until the Tuesday of the week following. The students' responses regarding their workload, stress and employment levels over a full semester (semester 2, 2007) are presented in this paper.

2 THE SURVEY INSTRUMENT

The EFPC unit includes an activity called the Weekly Workload Reflection. This activity is an 11-question survey that students are encouraged to complete as a reflective exercise to help them with developing their time and workload management skills.

This weekly reflection serves two purposes: firstly (and most importantly), as a tool for developing the students' professional skills; and secondly as a source of research data regarding student workloads. This multiple purpose approach places meant that the weekly survey was optimised for ease of use and for promoting student learning, rather than being optimised for the purposes of data collection. This constraint has the potential to confound the significance of any research findings.

2.1 The survey questions

The students were asked a range of questions dealing with the nature of their workload: How many tasks, of what size, difficulty and relevance? How many hours did they invest in their study? In paid work? What factors have contributed to their workload this week? Which one contributed the most? What strategies worked well this week? What will you do differently next week?

The students were also asked to provide a measure of their workload and of their stress levels. These were each implemented on a five point scale.

Q: How does your academic workload this week compare to your typical weekly academic workload?

A. This week requires much less work than normal

B. …