Simple steps to lower student stress in a digital systems course while maintaining high standards and expectations

Conference Paper

Student stress is an important issue that is gaining more attention with time in our universities because of the increase in competition in every aspect of the educational process, from college admission to finding a good job that satisfies students' expectations. Some studies even conclude that Engineering and Medicine students are the ones who suffer the most from academic stress. Experiencing stress directly impacts students health and wellbeing, and might cause them to make behavioral changes and sacrifices which in turn also impact their health and academic performance, especially as they undergo long-term unhealthy levels of stress throughout their years of education. At our institution, the admission rate is usually about 10% and the students admitted often pursue double majors along with a minor, while at the same time getting some research experience, applying for internships every summer, and trying to achieve many tasks that would improve their resume to try to secure the best possible future job and life. On top of this pressure, some courses tend be harder than others and/or require more work. This paper discusses the work realized in the Digital Systems course at our institution that has an established reputation of being the course with heaviest load among our Electrical and Computer Engineering courses. This course has been taught for the past two semesters - Fall 2018 and Spring 2019 - by a new faculty member who taught it the first semester (Fall) nearly the same way it has been taught for years, studied students' data and feedback, and redesigned the course the next semester (Spring) aiming to reduce students' perceived load and stress while maintaining the same high course standards and expectations. Results show that by making a number of small changes to different aspects of the course, the course's likability increased and students' stress decreased from the first semester to the second. The small changes included adding a technical workshop at the beginning of the semester to better prepare students to use and debug the hardware description language they will be using throughout the course, combining every pair of homework assignments into one, carefully spreading out due dates on the schedule and never having two assignments due on one day, using a new learning management tool that enables students to submit their projects as often as they can and get instant feedback about their assignments, using a new scheduling tool to make it easier for students to schedule appointments with the instructor, using an always-active anonymous feedback survey for students to constantly provide feedback about different aspects of the course, providing some additional resources, and removing some barriers. Furthermore, these small changes had a surprisingly positive impact on the standards of the course. Students' raw grades - i.e., grades before final raise/curve - significantly improved and the class' final projects reached higher standards.

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Younes, R; Sadler, C

Published Date

  • June 22, 2020

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 2020-June /

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 2153-5965

Citation Source

  • Scopus