Distance Learning Postgraduate Student Stress While Writing a Dissertation or Thesis

By Silinda, Fortunate T.; Brubacher, Michael R. | Journal of Distance Education (Online), January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Distance Learning Postgraduate Student Stress While Writing a Dissertation or Thesis


Silinda, Fortunate T., Brubacher, Michael R., Journal of Distance Education (Online)


Introduction

The attrition of master's and doctoral students is a common problem for many universities. For instance, an estimated 40-50% of doctoral students leave university before completing their programmes in the U.S. (Golde, 2005) and in South Africa the attrition rate of doctoral students is up to 88% (Department of Higher Education and Training, 2013). Student attrition can bring costs and consequences for governments, communities, as well as the students themselves (Lovitts, 2001). For example, governments may waste resources, such as grants and subsidies, that are awarded to students who dropout. Communities lose the skills and knowledge that students could have brought with a completed education, and students can experience a sense of frustration and uncertainty during and after the dropout process.

Various factors can affect a master's or doctoral student's decision to leave or stay in university. Some of the psychological factors that can have an impact on attrition are the potential stressors and experienced stress that are posed to students (Ehrenberg, Jakubson, Groen, So, & Price, 2007; Lovitts & Nelson, 2000). According to Lazarus and Folkman (1984) stressors are objects or events in the environment that can put demands on an individual's external or internal resources. When a stressor is perceived by the individual as taxing, exceeding his or her resources, or endangering his or her wellbeing, then the individual can experience stress. While stress can be positive by increasing awareness and motivation, it can also be debilitating by reducing concentration and interfering with a student's performance (Seyle, 1978).

Some of the stressors that have typically been found to relate to postgraduate student stress include having too much academic work, along with issues regarding time management (Al-Saleh et al., 2010; Bhat & Basson, 2013; Bukhsh, Shahzad, & Nisa, 2011; Mazzola, Walker, Shockley, & Spector, 2011), professional isolation and lack of social support (Bukhsh et al., 2011; El-Ghoroury, Galper, Sawaqdeh, & Bufka, 2012; Mazzola et al., 2011), issues with personal relationships (El-Ghoroury et al., 2012; Muirhead & Locker, 2007), financial difficulties and debt (El-Ghoroury et al., 2012; Soares, Prestridge, & Soares, 1992), and concerns regarding the future (Soares et al., 1992). Although a number of studies have been conducted on the potential stressors and experienced stress of postgraduate students, the majority of these studies have been conducted with residential students. Such students attend classes and seminars on a university campus and can interact with their advisers and fellow students face-to-face. For distance learning students, however, the potential stressors, and the relationships between stressors and stress, may be different. For example, distance learning students may experience greater stress from feeling academically isolated, but may experience less stress from relationship difficulties, since they may live closer to their personal relations.

A limited amount of research has been conducted on the stressors and stress of distance learning postgraduate students. Furlonger and Gencic (2014) conducted a quantitative survey of both residential and distance learning students on their overall, experienced stress and found no difference between the groups but the researchers did not look at specific sources of stress. Other studies that focused exclusively on distance learning students took a qualitative approach and included a unique focus that makes them different from the current study. Kampfe et al. (2006) studied counselors transitioning into distance learning internships and specifically asked participants about stressors related to the transition. A second study by Maunganidze, Sodi, Mudhovozi, Mberi, and Mutasa (2010) asked distance learning postgraduate students about the sources of their academic counseling needs, a line of research that could shed light on the stressors and stress of this population, but which is still different. …

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