The Impact of Providing Students With Greater Autonomy on Stress, Anxiety, and Project Management

February 27, 2024 | By Nadia Ibrahim-Taney

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TAGS: best practices, journal,

A pilot study conducted among cooperative education students at University of Cincinnati tested the value of providing students with flexible due dates to help them manage their mental well-being and grow their project management skills.

NACE Journal / Winter 2024

Increased Mental Health Challenges Experienced by University Students

As a professor teaching at a public, four-year urban-based U.S. university, I have found several factors contributing to the increased prevalence of mental health issues among the information technology and cybersecurity students I work with at the University of Cincinnati. These include academic, financial, and social pressures as well as the issues students face in adjusting to the college experience, including a lack of support networks and irregular schedules resulting in sleep deprivation. In addition, despite the increasing awareness of mental health, there is still a stigma associated with seeking help, which may prevent some students from seeking support.

Universities are becoming increasingly aware of the mental health challenges students face and are implementing various support services and initiatives to address the issue. In the School of Information Technology at University of Cincinnati’s College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services (CECH), information technology and cybersecurity students have access to a dedicated mental health counselor from the central University of Cincinnati counseling and psychological services department. The counselor only works with CECH students and focuses on building unique support programs for the majors of this college, including the School of Information Technology.

Student Feedback on Static Due Dates as Mental Stressors

As part of the information technology and cybersecurity bachelor’s degrees at the University of Cincinnati (UC), students must complete at three to five cooperative education experiences in addition to their academic coursework to be certified for graduation.

Before engaging in a co-op experience, students must successfully complete Introduction to Cooperative Education (PD1010), which is designed to introduce them to the cooperative education (co-op) learning model and how it is executed through the UC’s professional development programs. The course prepares students to maximize learning and develop strategies and necessary skills for effective participation in the cooperative education program.

Feedback from students who had taken part in the course suggested that providing them with flexibility in assignment submissions could help alleviate the pressure and anxiety they felt associated with strict deadlines. The students theorized that if they could better manage their time and workload, they would likely experience a reduction of stress levels and improved mental well-being. They argued that they should have more autonomy and direction over their own learning if the classroom is to help prepare them for job placements; they also noted that by giving students the freedom to decide when to submit their work, educators would foster a sense of autonomy and responsibility, mimicking the real-world scenario of managing projects and tasks independently.

In addition, in course surveys, students often noted they believed they could engage more deeply with course materials if they were allowed to choose when they approached assignments in alignment with their optimal learning times. Noting that big or significant point-based assignments were often due on the same date or same time periods in multiple classes congruently, especially during the mid-term week and the final week of classes, students explained that this often led to them missing or not completing assignments in a satisfactory manner.

Lastly, students felt flexible due dates would better accommodate diverse learning styles, allowing individual students with individual needs the ability to adapt their learning approach to suit specific strengths and weakness and would result in a more inclusive and supportive learning environment.

It is important to recognize that while the advantages of flexible due dates are significant in student eyes, the approach may not be suitable for all courses or all student types. Striking a balance between autonomy and structure is essential to ensure academic rigor and accountability while promoting student well-being and learning success. It is for these reasons, coupled with published work showing increased mental health strain amongst university students, that a pilot study was launched in summer 2023 to better understand how school-related stress and anxiety could be impacted by the removal of assignment due dates.

Class Demographic Profile

The Pilot

The pilot was conducted among students taking part in in the summer 2023 section of PD 1010. A total of 21 students began the course; 19 completed it. The end goal was to give students more autonomy in their work, which simulates the time and project management responsibilities they would need to demonstrate in their co-op experiences.

The pilot allowed students taking part self-direction over when assignments were completed and turned in for review. The summer course was conducted over seven weeks.

Quantitative data from assignment submission patterns and performance metrics plus final grades were also used to compare this sample population to a similar modality-based course from spring 2023.

The instructor provided students with a recommended schedule to submit assignments that best correlated with the delivery of instructional content presented in each of the course’s learning modules. Students were given a choice to turn in assignments in alignment to the recommended schedule or create their own schedule so long as all assignments were submitted prior to the course deadline listed in Canvas.

Additionally, the instructor sent weekly Canvas announcements informing students of important module content, recommended assignment completion options, and holistic/collective feedback about each assignment to help students succeed in completing assignments before the end of the term. Lastly, the instructor sent individual messages to students who had not completed assignments at least two weeks after the corresponding module content was presented as a reminder that while students can submit all assignments on the last day of the course, it was in their best interest to start submitting work so as not to get too far behind in the course.

Overall, the instructor involvement and grading in this course was more than average compared to previous course iterations. In attempts to balance giving students the autonomy to work at their own pace and ensure they completed the work, the instructor was more mindful and aware of students falling behind and tried to compensate with increased communications.

Pre-Course Survey Findings

Overall, 48% of students self-reported they were very stressed and anxious on a daily basis when taking classes. (See Figure 1.)

Students expressed varying levels of stress or anxiety regarding assignment due dates, with more than three-quarters expressing average levels of stress to extreme levels of stress. (See Figure 2.)

Figure: 1

Figure: 2

A qualitative question aimed at identifying common causes of stress and anxiety. Student responses revealed four common themes:

  • Financial challenges, such as working full or part time, paying tuition, or paying for daily living expenses.
  • Competing interests, such as balancing a schedule between school, work, and social life; being a parent; or having family obligations.
  • Pre-existing challenges, such as depression, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, procrastination, sleep deprivation, or other physical health issues.
  • School stresses, such as workload rigor, assignment due dates, group assignments, or coursework or exams due in a compressed time period.

Students were also asked if there was anything about working with flexible assignment due dates that concerned them. (See Figure 3.) Some reported nervousness or anxiety regarding their ability to self-manage both themselves and their time, with one noting, “I struggle to keep on track unless there is a set schedule that I have to follow. I end up leaving flexible courses like this until the last minute to complete.” Others, however, felt supported by the suggested due dates. One student reported, “I am slightly nervous that I will procrastinate without the strict deadline. However, I plan to follow the suggested guideline of the class and utilize self-discipline.” Finally, some students reported little or no concern about the flexible due dates.

Figure: 3

Students were also asked to assess their stress or anxiety levels when considering the idea of the pilot: The majority—71%—reported no or only some stress/anxiety about the pilot. In addition, students were generally positive about the pilot, with many emphasizing they welcomed the “freedom” provided by the flexible due dates. That emphasis in connection with the pilot suggests that students do not feel they have the freedom to work/study at their own pace; this was true even among the adult learners in the class.

Most students also expressed confidence in their ability to manage flexible due dates. In particular, one student said, “I'm excited about maybe not worrying as much about school because the deadlines are more flexible. This makes me feel a lot safer [about forgetting] an assignment.” This points to students’ needs for mental and academic safety in course, which could potentially be supported by flexible due dates or instructor support.

Additionally, students voiced their inexperience with this level of autonomy and self-management, with one noting, “I have not experienced flexible due dates taking previous classes. In my opinion, this sounds like a great idea that will be beneficiary to those of us attending full time over the summer.” Not surprisingly, some students were apprehensive about the idea of flexible due dates as they did not have experience with that level of choice in their education.

Students also supported the idea of having a suggested due date schedule, including weekly reminders.

Quantitively, nearly all students were positive about how the flexible due dates would affect their level of stress and anxiety and about the idea of being able to manage their course schedule. (See Figures 4 and 5.)

Figure: 4 - 5

Student Submissions

Assignments were graded by the instructor once per week, totaling eight grading days. Out of a total of 432 potential assignment submissions, 321 were submitted—a 74% completion rate. Of the 111 not submitted, 85 missed assignments were due to students withdrawing from the course; only 26 assignments were not turned in from enrolled students.

Unfortunately, more than half of assignments were submitted in the last two weeks of the course: 34% (108) of the submitted assignments came in the last week and 23% (74) were submitted the second to last week. The second week of the course had the lowest assignment submission participation with just six submissions, followed by the fifth week, with just 10 submissions.

Final Grades: Comparison With Pilot Class Versus Previous Classes

Overall, the average final course grade for this group of students was 70.81%—a C- according to our scale. Grades ranged from a low of 33.73% to a high of 98.07%, with 13 out 19 students earning a B or higher. (See Figure 6.)

In terms of overall course average, student achievement in summer 2023 is remarkably lower than was the case in previous semesters. In terms of how the course was provided, the only significant difference among the classes was the use of flexible due dates, except in terms of length of course, which was longer in the fall 2022 semester. (See Figure 7.)

Figure: 6

Figure 7


Impact of Flexible Due Dates on Student Achievement

Based on student final course grades, flexible due dates seemed to have a negative impact on student achievement.

Additionally, individual assignment average grades in some major learning outcome-focused assignments were very low. For example, the average score for the interviewing assignment was a 26.3%, with several students choosing not to complete the assignment at all. (See Figure 8.) This assignment, while available from the start of the course, was introduced to students in the latter half of the course in the Interviewing module, which is presented in week six of the seven-week course. It could be that students ran out of time to complete the assignment or that they strategically calculated their final grade in the course as already passing and chose not to complete the assignment.

Another area of concern is the resume assignment, which is the most important assignment of the course. Student grades averaged 81.2%, compared with the high 80s to low 90s percents that other iterations of the course averaged. In addition, for this assignment, students are provided several templates, previous student examples, and a detailed grading rubric. They also must submit their resume draft to an online resume-review tool that leverages data-science, machine learning, and natural language processing to provide instant personalized feedback to student resumes. Grades are expected to be high due to the amount of support resources in place for this assignment.

Lastly, grading demand on the instructor was very high in the last two weeks of the course, and this resulted in minimal constructive assignment feedback. Moreover, had this been a course with 50-plus students, grading this way would not have been possible without assistance to meet university grading deadlines.

Overall, from an academic perspective, the flexible due date is not advantageous to student academic success, and it is in question how well students achieved and demonstrated course outcomes. Additionally, this was not a positive teaching experience for the instructor.

Figure: 8

Post-Course Survey Findings

In the post-course survey, students reported lower levels of stress and anxiety in the course and regarding assignment due dates than they did prior to the course. For example, in the pre-course survey, 48% of students self-reported they were very stressed and anxious on a daily basis when taking classes; in the post-course survey, no student reported this. (See Figure 9.)

Additionally, post-course, 53% of students reported no stress or anxiety about assignment due dates; that was not the case in the pre-course survey, when all students reported some level of concern. (See Figure 10.) Lastly, post-course, 63% said they were less stressed and anxious because of the flexible due dates. (See Figure 11.)

Figure: 9

Figure: 10

Figure 11

Students were also asked about the recommended assignment submission schedule provided. Only 11% of students said they followed the recommended schedule all the time; 63% said they followed it some of the time; and more than one-quarter (26%) reported that they never followed the recommended schedule.

Qualitative Findings: Appreciation for Flexibility

Students reported many challenges with their experience with flexible due dates, most notably in terms of time management and motivation. One student wrote, “I found that with the flexibility, I procrastinated [with] assignments past the recommended due dates. The last few weeks would have been less stressful if I had followed the original guideline.”

Some students expressed regret and frustration with themselves for not managing their time better. Others took the pilot as an opportunity, with one student reporting, “It's a great concept, [although] I think I fell behind on a lot of assignments. It made things a lot less stressful, not having to worry about turning things in late.” Some students were not only challenged by time management but also struggled with creating their own schedules. One student wrote, “I found it difficult to set a schedule for myself. I was almost always a week behind and did a bit of catching up in the last two weeks.”

Some students saw the pilot as a learning opportunity. One student noted, “I learned to keep an eye out for the assignments that were not assigned due dates, which is something I am not really used to. Normally, I just look at when the due date is on the home page of Canvas, but this semester I had to learn how to do long-term time management.”

Students also expressed appreciation for the pilot. One student reported, “I personally loved the flexible due date system due to my busy life and [because I was] still trying to enjoy what little summer I have while taking a few summer courses. I wish more courses were set up this way.”

Some students still preferred mandatory due dates. One student wrote, “I think that having flexible due dates was nice in some scenarios, but I personally prefer to have set dates for each week. It helps me stay on track much better. Even though I did fine and finished the course just fine, I would personally prefer mandatory due dates.”

Overall, student satisfaction in the course was average to above average. One student wrote, “I loved participating in this course.” Another wrote, “This is a great concept that I wish was implemented in all my courses! It really teaches you to have your own schedule and calendar [thereby] preparing you for the real world.” Another wrote, “I want to express my gratitude for your approach, as it has been very helpful. Thanks to your advice, I was able to complete this task without feeling stressed, and I could focus on my other course assignments while also going to work.”

The Impact of Flexible Due Dates on Mental Health, Satisfaction, and Academic Achievement

Overall, quantitative data support students feeling less stress and anxiety when presented with a flexible assignment due date option. Even though the academic achievement of this student group was notably lower than past student groups, they were still very satisfied with the course and found value in the content and structure.

Qualitative responses indicate students were proud of their achievement in this course. While they struggled with time management, motivation, and procrastination, they were proud of themselves for finishing the course and learning strategies and tactics on how to manage themselves in the classroom environment, which they could take with them into professional settings.

As an instructor, I believe that flexible due dates are not academically in the best interest of students, as evident by lower student achievement compared to previous terms. However, although their academic achievement was lower, the opportunity given to students to learn how to self-manage, self-motivate, and develop ways to be successful with little to no oversight is in service to what students can expect in professional settings. In this regard, the pilot offered an opportunity to explore an ancillary learning outcome just as important as the core elements of the course.

Let’s Give Students Space to Self-Prioritize

Students bring challenges into the classroom—mental health stresses; strained finances; and interests that compete for the student’s time, such as family or work obligations. Recognizing this, classroom instruction must evolve to give students greater academic freedom and autonomy in how they navigate their higher education. For too long, students have simply been asked to march to the beat of an instructor’s drum, learning what the instructor wants them to know, when they want them to know it.

Despite the downsides, I advocate we give students the space to create their own way through their education, with guidelines of course, but teaching them valuable skills and ways of thinking beyond assimilating subject content.

Eventually, students will need to know how to self-prioritize their time and energy, what needs to be done right now, how that impacts other competing interests, and how work impacts them mentally, physically, and emotionally. These are all elements of being a working professional. As a professor of cooperative education, I can see no greater service to my students than exercises and spaces that help them learn who they are now, who they want to be as a working professional, and how to get there.

Nadia Ibrahim Taney Nadia Ibrahim-Taney is an assistant professor in the College of Cooperative Education and Professional Studies at the University of Cincinnati. In this role, she works with students from the School of Information Technology majoring in information technology and cybersecurity. From 2018 - 2021, she was assistant director of career development at the Carl H. Linder College of Business at the University of Cincinnati, where she coached business students majoring in information systems.

She holds a Master of Science degree in marketing from University of Cincinnati, a Master of Arts degree in education leadership and management from the University of Roehampton, a Master of Education degree in administration of higher education from Suffolk University, and a Bachelor of Science in administration of justice and sociology from University of Louisville.

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