The Science of Student Burnout

Precursors to College Student BurnoutDeep in Thought

In 2006, professor Richard West of the University of Southern Maine, working with his student Stephanie Cushman, launched a study to find out more about student burnout. They hoped to answer two questions:

  1. How many college students experience burnout?
  2. Why do they burnout?

I recently stumbled across this paper in the Journal of Qualitative Research Reports in Communication. As you might imagine, I was quite interested in what they found…

The Study

Dr. West’s gave 354 students in an introductory communications course the following survey:

  • Please define or interpret what is meant by college “burnout.”
  • Have you experienced burnout in college?
  • What were the factors that contributed to your burnout in college

He discarded the surveys from students who had not experience burnout or who had defined the term to be something different than the phenomenon being studied. A rigorous coding technique was then used to categorize the responses to the third question.

The Results

Of the 354 students, around 237 surveys were used. In other words, around 67% of the students reported having experienced burnout at college.

Half of these students (49%) reported assignment overload as the primary factor driving their burnout.

A quarter of these students (24%) reported outside influences — which include family and financial issues as well as time management problems. The latter often involved the demands of part-time work.

Around 13% of these students reported lack of personal motivation as the problem. This included students who were not interested in their major, as well as those who were enjoying what the researchers tactfully described as an “overactive social life.”

Around 5% of students reported that mental or physical health problems were to blame, and a similar percent cited issues with professors.

What This Means for You

The researchers were surprised by the impact of assignment overload. They had expected that mental health issues and problems with adjusting to the demands of college life would be the main culprits behind burnout.

We here at Study Hacks, however, know better. As I reported a few months back, overloaded course schedules are by far the most common source of major stress I hear about from students. If we assume that the sample in this study is more or less representative of college students in general, the conclusion is striking: around one third of all students will suffer from burnout due to their course load getting out of hand.

These odds are not in your favor!

Here’s my conclusion: this is further evidence that you need to be extremely vigilant about your course selection. Choosing your courses is the most important and potentially dangerous activity you perform as a college student. While you’re at it, don’t forget about your extracurriculars. If these become too demanding, even a light course schedule can still induce overload.

Below I have listed a collection of advice articles to help you protect yourself from assignment overload…

Course Selection Advice

Activity Selection Advice

Balanced Living Advice

12 thoughts on “The Science of Student Burnout”

  1. “A Simple Technique to Avoid Heart Attack Semesters”

    Cal, the above is great advice. The grading system seems like the ideal way to narrow down easy to hard courses. I usually estimate the degree of difficulty of a course, but having read you article, my estimations are arbitrary. I will deffinetly try to use the 1 to 5 ranking system.

    Any suggestions on how to rate courses? Total amount of exams + Total paper assigments + total problem sets for the week? : )

  2. Nice advice…

    Being a freshman at an extremely grade-inflated school with lots of “geniuses” (ugh) and grinds, I am infinitely tempted to do much more studying.

    Unfortunately, for this year, I don’t have much choice when it comes to courses. But thanks to your blog and book, I’ve adopted the Straight-A Method (and have a better idea of what impressiveness actually is).

    To get to the point, I have a few questions; I apologize, but I don’t know which recent blog to put these in (and don’t have Outlook), so I’ll ask here.

    1. How would you suggest taking notes for a foreign-language class?
    2. ” ” for a music theory classes?
    3. For a course that centers around multiple-choice questions (with few essays here and there), are focused question clusters still most effective?

  3. Hi cal, thanks for holding this blog it is quite interesting. i think the study is suspect, because colleges are different in their workload, communications courses are for people who are generally at the freshman level of college, the group surveyed was not a representative sample size of all college experiences. if the study was replicated that would be a different matter. i think you are correct, but what i would like to know is if there is any way to quantify a courses rigorous nature on the basis of a formula; eg: class hours * perception of class related reading hours / failure rate relative to professor or professor ratings. – this is not a perfect formula, thus why i am inquiring about a better one.

    Thanks in Advance

  4. Mike: I took 4APs in school, 2 online and joined 3 clubs during my junior year. I burned out, dropped out and ended up in homeschool for the remainder. It just depends on how much you can handle without worring too much.

  5. I find it odd that the study listed “lack of personal motivation” as a primary cause of burnout; it seems to me that motivation is a secondary/dependent concern. Consider this: if the person was never strongly motivated in the first place, how did they push themselves to the point of burnout? Instead, it seems more likely that one’s personal motivation goes down following other influences, including things such as the “overactive social life”, health problems, or external/”unrelated” issues.

    For me, “lack of personal motivation” came into effect my senior year at university, and it happened as a result of some serious external challenges, including the threat that I would not graduate on time. The external issues led to some level of depression and despair, which led to motivation issues, which led to burnout… basically in that order.

    (Then again, as this the students self-reported their results, they may simply have not been self-aware enough to recognize the preceeding cause.)

  6. I find it odd that the study listed “lack of personal motivation” as a primary cause of burnout; it seems to me that motivation is a secondary/dependent concern.

    I think it can be a primary cause. Some students start to lose motivation even though nothing externally has changed. Eventually, the same workload that was fine before starts to become a burden. (Think: the infamous sophomore slump.)

  7. I found it astounding that 67% of college students admit to having experienced student burnout at least once. It is incredible that half of these students experienced this due to “assignment overload.” Although I do believe the results. I have personally experienced this phenomenon from a few of the different factors. I have experienced it due to outside forces, personal motivation, and assignment overload.


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