June 20, 2024

UCalgary study shows stress is significant predictor of GPA for first-year engineering students

Researchers say personal resilience and institutional programs can help mental health and grades
Brittany and Rigel
Brittany Lindsay and Rigel Tormon have teamed up to evaluate the impact of stress on academics at the Schulich School of Engineering. Joe McFarland, Schulich School of Engineering

Rigel Tormon remembers what it was like getting used to life as a student at the University of Calgary

Coming to the Schulich School of Engineering out of high school, he says it was an adjustment in how he managed his time, how he learned and the coping mechanisms he used to handle the demands of engineering.

Brittany Lindsay found herself facing the same demands and challenges as she began her university studies in mathematics and psychology back in 2012.

As they continued along their respective educational journeys, a mutual interest in the overall impact of stress on academic performance led to an unexpected crossing of paths.

They began working together on a study to determine how much stress is being felt by first-year engineering students, how that stress impacts each student’s grade-point average (GPA) and what can be done to alleviate the stress.

With guidance from Dr. Kim Johnston , BSc (Eng)’05, PhD’17, and Dr. Robyn Mae Paul, BSc (Eng)’11, MSc’18, PhD'24, at the Schulich School of Engineering and Dr. Melissa Boyce, PhD, in the Faculty of Arts, the pair’s work  Predicting Academic Performance in First-Year Engineering Students: The Role of Stress, Resiliency, Student Engagement and Growth Mindset has been published in Learning and Individual Differences.

Getting into an engineering student’s mind

The goal of the study was to see if four psychological variables — perceived stress, student engagement, resilience and growth mindset — could help predict first-year engineering student performance through their GPA.

Using the Perceived Stress Scale, they analyzed data and measured the degree to which the 143 first-year UCalgary students who volunteered for the study felt the events in their lives were stressful.

“I was excited for an opportunity to be a part of something that analyzed the trends and describe the first-year population’s general sentiments,” says Tormon, who just graduated following his fourth year of chemical engineering with a minor in biomedical engineering. 

“It allowed me to gain insights on the effectiveness and impact of the project on my fellow students in hopes of making the experience better for the incoming batch of engineering students, all in the spirit of passing it on.”

They found perceived stress was a significant predictor of GPA, while personal resilience can help mitigate the impacts of stress.

The researchers say the findings show the value of resilience-skills training and supports for students.

More institutional tools and initiatives

To give students a better handle on stress and more success in their post-secondary studies, the team believes the answer is two-fold.

Lindsay, BSc’16, BA’16, MSC’20, who is now a PhD candidate in the Mental Health Lab in UCalgary’s Department of Psychology, says it begins as early as junior high or high school.

“Students should have realistic expectations of university, but they also need to be properly trained in the skills they need to succeed,” she says. “This includes both academic and wellness skills.”

Once students graduate and move on to post-secondary, the researchers say it’s important for universities and colleges to continue investing in well-being initiatives like UCalgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy, adding engineering schools can help make the first-year transition smoother.

Schulich Studio helps address stress

The results of the study have helped validate the work already being done at Schulich.

Johnston, Paul and Boyce, along with Destiny Dedemus, published a study titled The ‘Engineers Have Feelings’ Project, looking at integrating mental wellness and lifelong learning skills in first-year undergraduate engineering courses.

Their work helped land them the Taylor Institute Award for Education Leadership in 2020, and became part of the framework behind the newly started Schulich Studio.

Johnston, who is also Schulich’s associate dean (teaching and learning), says the studio is more than a way to bring lectures, tutorials, labs and collaborative opportunities together.

“The Schulich Studio model allows for students to reflect on their learning and work through assignments and projects with professors, teaching assistants and their peers,” she says. “This supportive environment has helped us destigmatize self-care, especially as students make that leap into engineering in a post-secondary institution.”

Johnston says the long-term goal is to make this approach become part of the entire academic journey for engineering students to create a cultural shift with less stigma and more inclusiveness.

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