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Academic coping of students

Marika Veisson, Mare Leino, Loone Ots, Viive-Riina Ruus and Ene-Silvia Sarv
Tallinn Pedagogical University, Estonia

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Crete, 22-25 September 2004

There are serious signs which demonstrate that the Estonian schools do not function satisfactorily: every year more than 1000 pupils drop out from compulsory education schools, the percentage of non-achievers at lower secondary education level is up to 7-8%. 70-75% of the students who do not cope in academic domains are boys. The perspectives of these students at the labour market are rather gloomy, especially at a time when growing social and economic inequality (more than 1/3 of the children live below official poverty level) has increased the inequality and selectiveness of schools: there are elite and ordinary schools in Estonia. Therefore, Estonia is in great risk for growing criminality, alcohol and drug abuse, as well for delinquency and suicidal behaviour.

1. Theoretical and methodological background of the study

On the basis of such a problematic situation, we started the project School as developmental environment and students’ coping. From the methodological point of view, the project is based upon the theory of ecological systems with Lewin’s field theory as a forerunner and has interconnections with Gibson’s and Barkers’s theories. We share the conviction that the development of a human being is not solely determined by nature (e.g. genes) or upbringing, but takes place within the interrelationship between the environment and individual (its historical and cultural parameters and pressure exerted by society or situations the individual has immediate contact with), it presents challenges to the individual (sometimes feasible, sometimes threatening), thus making him/her face problem solutions which require adaptability (Buss 1996). Through meeting challenges and solving problems, the individual (or a group) as an agent may decisively change the environment by means of social structures or institutions. Thus, it is not only individual or a group (e.g. the learner or teacher or school) who are undergoing changes and growth, but the whole system - individual (group) and the environment. The direct source of our research is Bronfenbrenner, who describes the environment as a context in which the child develops, distinguishing between several levels of the environment (micro, meso, exo and macro) depending on how immediate or mediated the contacts with the developing individual are (Bronfenbrenner, 1995).

In compliance with the aforementioned approach, socialisation is seen as a process, where the individual is simultaneously both the outcome of social interactions as well as an active agent, who at present or in future may give reason to social changes. We share the perspective that the central mechanism of socialisation is interaction (incl. communication), which expects immediate contact between the socialising agents and the individuals being socialised. Thus we emphasise a community-centred position in socialisation (according to Bronfenbrenner`s terminology micro- and meso-systems), whereas community means "a concrete grouping of interacting persons who are morally integrated by a set of relatively stable social institutions" (Harvey, 2002:184). Current project focuses on school and school classes as communities, which next to the family carry a central role in the process of socialisation (Fulcher and Scott, 2003:319). In accordance with the initial problem set in current study – school unadvancement – family is seen as a background variable and school/school class as "ecological units of school activity" (Oxley, 2000: 566-567). Observing the school as a community is important for finding support from strategic approaches of the community psychology, such as individual and group well-being, empowerment, prevention and intervention, when working out and implementing pedagogical suggestions and solutions (Handbook …, 2000). Pupils are seen as active beings, trying to work out strategies for academic coping.

On the basis of these postulates, we pose two questions: 1) which coping strategies our students’ use and 2) how and to what extent the learning environment affects formation of students’ coping strategies at different schools? Our basic hypothesis claims that school culture can either promote or inhibit the development of pupils’ constructive coping strategies. We will not discard the influence of macro environment (e.g. the national curriculum) and family background on students’ coping at school, but our main unit of analysis is the learner in his/her close contact with the academic environment that presents challenges, sets tasks the learner must cope with (e.g. examinations, tests, home assignments, discipline, relationships with teachers and peers), and failing this follow the sanctions (e.g. remaining a second year in the same form or even being expelled from school). Moreover, the key concept of the project is coping. According to Lazarus and Folkman (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984; Lazarus, 1991) coping is understood as consistently changing cognitive and behavioural efforts of an individual aimed at coping with external and/or internal requirements, which lay too heavy a burden on his/her resources. Current study uses the model of children’s coping in academic domain, created by Skinner and Wellborn (1997). They argue that in addition to the cultural, sociological, economic and psychological reasons linked to dropping out of school, another key factor affecting pupils’ learning success and feeling content with the school is their academic coping – the way pupils interpret the challenges, drawbacks and difficulties that arise in the process of learning. The coping categories developed by the authors are based on several presumptions. Firstly, substantial literature sources prove that school stress is affected not only by the objective parameters of the learning environment, but it develops within the interaction between the individual and environment and the cognitive appraisal of the situation is the central factor determining the reaction to the stressor. Secondly, besides problems related to home and age-mates, things happening at school are the main sources of anxiety for pupils. Thirdly, already at pre-school age, children are capable of naming the factors that strongly disturb them (i.e. stressors). The authors construct their system of coping categories on the basis of children’s appraisals to challenges and threats to their basic psychological needs – neglect (challenge or threat to relatedness), cognitive chaos (challenge or threat to competence), coercion (challenge or threat to autonomy), and their possible behavioural, emotional and orientational coping responses to these challenges/threats.

2. Research organisation and methods

Our research consists of several stages: I. Classification of schools according to school climate based on pupils’, parents’, teachers’ and school managers’ beliefs and evaluations (a representative sample of schools in Estonia with the inclusion of Russian language schools). The basic method in this stage was questionnaires. II. The first stage will be followed by a more profound analysis of coping strategies by pupils of different types of schools and their typical educational discourse. Special attention will be paid to the groups of pupils who are marked as successful or unsuccessful, differences in their coping strategies and the data will be compared with various other parameters (attitude towards school, relationships with teachers and peers, family background etc). During this stage, we also plan to carry out an ethnographic research of school milieu in order to detect basic regularities on which the actual school discourse functions, what kind of challenges and threats it presents to pupils and what kind of coping strategies it activates. III. If possible, in cooperation with physicians, further research takes us to the physiological level to find out the sources of pupils’ stress and other health indicators. Our final goal is of practical nature: we intend to give advice for persons and institutions involved in education in order to reduce pupils’ and teachers’ inability to cope and create conditions for the formation and reinforcement of constructive strategies in the school milieu.

Currently we have carried out questionnaires in 64 schools, among students from the 7th, 9th and 12th grades (N= 2467; 1307 female students, 1122 male students, 37 missing), thus forming roughly about 10 percentages of all general education schools in Estonia. This representative sample with 1561 students from urban and 860 from rural areas reflects also the general distribution of inhabitants in those areas. The questionnaire contains sets of questions about students’ coping, school climate, basic values at school, bullying, students’ certainty about future, and family background. Students’ typical coping strategies when an academic failure occurs are measured by 36 items (see Skinner and Wellborn, 1997:402). It must be underlined that in order to validate the questionnaire we carried out a preliminary research, which showed that the method works satisfactorily. For current analyses we have included the following blocks of the students’ answers:

  1. "Outcome" indicators: a) students’ coping strategies; b) students’ academic performance; c) absenteeism, perceived study load, doing home-work regularly; d) optimism/pessimism concerning their future at school; e) subjective health indicators.
  2. School climate indicators. We developed the following aggregated variables: a) students’ sense of general well-being at school (e.g. whether he/she feels bored, wants to attend school, feel belonging to the school, feels lonely at school, finds friends easily – the majority of these questions are identical to those in the PISA programme); b) how he/she perceives the teachers’ attitudes (incl. caring for the student) towards him/her (8 items); c) how he/she perceives his/her relations with peers (4 items), and whether he/she has been bullied or been bullying others; d) the studying atmosphere at school (incl. discipline); e) questions about the professional parameters of teachers as evaluated by the students (e.g. competence on the subject matter, their ability to awake interest in the subject, their own readiness to learn).
  3. The values of school as perceived by the students.

3. Results

3.1. Coping and other "outcome" variables

Most of the data presented below is aggregated. All the coping strategies presented in the questionnaire are divided into constructive (positive) and non-constructive (negative) strategies. For example, if school failure occurs "I try to find out more about it" (meaning "I try to reduce chaos") versus "I try to get out of it" (meaning "The world is unpredictable"). The aggregate of all self-reports shows that over a half of students (53%) indicate the use of positive strategies, about a 1/5 (19%) of answers indicate preference for negative strategies, about 1/3 hesitate making a choice.

Accordingly, the respondents choose to what extent these behaviours, emotions, and orientations are typical to them. For every person we found out his or her personal "coping indicator". The test for normality showed that the acceptance of normality hypothesis is absolutely justified (p < .000 by both the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test of normality and the Shapiro-Wilk test).

Next we found out the differences between schools, age and gender groups. The most important result is that there is a significant difference between the boys and girls (p < .000), in the whole sample girls appeared to have more constructive coping strategies compared to boys. Differences in coping between girls and boys were highly significant (p < .000) among the 14-16 year-olds, while there were no statistically significant differences between male and female students older than 17 years of age.

It must be emphasized that coping strategies (positive or negative) correlate with:

Figure 1 Significant correlations between coping and other "outcome" variables

It must be stressed that the percentage of respondents who feel permanently or often tired was 67%, while 48% of the respondents say that they feel tired already in morning.

3.2. Coping and school climate

According to our results the coping strategies of students correlate with:

Distances between students and teachers are high: about 37% of the students claim that none of the teachers they could turn to when having a problem at school are completely trustworthy. The situation is even more dramatic with negative attitudes of teachers towards pupils as attributed to them by the students: about 58% of pupils think that there is at least one teacher at school who dislikes him/her (38% thinks that there is more than one such teacher). Nevertheless, 77% of pupils agree, that most teachers treat them justly. To sum it up, at least one third of all pupils cannot consider their relationship with teachers satisfactory in some respect.

The other set of questions concerns mutual relationships between peers. The following correlations with the coping indicators were found:

Figure 2 Significant correlations between coping and school climate

It must be underlined that questions were asked about both, how often have the student been bullied at school as well as how often has he/she bullied others. The results indicated that 38% of students had been victims of bullying at school, while 45% admitted themselves having bullied their classmates. Still, the last variable was not statistically significantly correlated to coping.

Trying to evaluate the influences of different factors of the school climate to the coping strategies we applied the regression analyses. The influences of the second aforementioned set (e.g. mutual relations between peers) to coping strategies were small, thus we hereby presented only regression results with the first set of variables (e.g. students' well-being etc.). The regression analyses indicated that coping of students was statistically significantly predicted by three variables, accordingly by well-being at school (β = .298), teachers attitudes towards students (β = .246), and studying atmosphere (β = -.082). The teachers' professional qualities were not significant predictors of coping. ().

1.3. Basic values at school

Figure 3 Main values in all schools together

The respondents marked down the importance of 14 traditional pedagogical values of their school on a 7-point scale (Figure 3). The ranking of the mean values was the following: 1) academic achievement (m = 4,17), 2) politeness (m = 3,96), 3) self-fulfilment (m = 3,78), 4) honesty (m = 3,77), 5) discipline (m = 3,65), 6) widespread knowledge, erudition (m = 3,62), 7) security of students (m = 3,56), 8) good human relations (m = 3,51), 9) helpfulness, caring (m = 3,42), 10) students' health, 11) tolerance (m = 3,34), 12) novel thinking, curiosity (m = 3.33), 13) correct appearance (m = 3,21), and 14) joyful/happy school-life (m = 3,19). Note the two extremes: formal achievement and joyful, happy school-life.

3.4. The portraits of concrete schools

In the following paragraph we will explore briefly to what extent the learning environment affects formation of students’ coping strategies at different schools. We will describe schools from two extreme ends, one where students have positive coping strategies and the other with negative ones. A school that facilitates good coping can be described by the following criteria: the general well-being of students is high, teachers’ attitudes towards students and mutual relations between peers are very good, bullying at school is less frequent, and the studying atmosphere is above average. In such schools students value more academic achievement, politeness, self-fulfilment, honesty, discipline, widespread knowledge, security of students, helpfulness, students’ health, novel thinking, and happy school-life.

A school where students use more negative coping strategies can be described by lower general well-being, studying atmosphere, and students’ mutual relations between peers, and relatively higher rates of bullying. Students perceive that their school values less such qualities as academic achievement, self-fulfilment, widespread knowledge, security of students, helpfulness, students’ health, tolerance, novel thinking, and happy school-life. It is possible to find examples in 6 gymnasium (Figure 4) and 6 comprehensive schools (Figure 5)

Figure 4 Six Gymnasiums

Figure 5 Six Comprehensive Schools

4. Discussion and conclusions

According to our main hypothesis school culture can either promote or inhibit the development of pupils’ constructive coping strategies. The results of current study suggest that ca 20% of pupils constitute a risk group, since their typical coping strategies are unconstructive. Evaluating these results it is essential to stress that coping strategies are connected to such important factors at school, as academic achievement, students’ health, home-work completed in time, being absent without reason, study load as perceived by pupils, optimism about future, and fear of failure at school.

It is important to stress that the coping strategies of 14-16 year-old boys are substantially less constructive than those of girls at the same age group, although no gender differences can be observed among students older than 17 years of age. Consequently, most critical is the situation in compulsory education. One of the possible explanations to this is that the more "weak" boys have been expelled from gymnasium: when the proportions of girls and boys is approximately 50:50 at compulsory education level, then among the students aged 17 and more, there are considerably more girls in our sample (61%). Teachers' attitudes can also give reason to why girls have more constructive coping strategies, because girls get more attention, have lesser problems with discipline, and are perceived by teachers to cause less trouble at school.

Our results indicate that pupils' positive coping strategies are best predicted by students’ general well-being at school and how students perceive attitudes of teachers towards pupils. We want to emphasize that the teachers' favourable attitudes towards students (as perceived by them) can be considered one of the most important variables which has influence on the students' coping strategies. Remember that in our sample about 1/3 of the students suffer from unfavourable relationships with teachers. Consequently, we can set another hypothesis: the development of positive coping strategies of one third of students is inhibited because of poor school climate. On the other hand, teacher-student relations are not a finite phenomenon and can be improved in case of adequate intervention.

Some of the basic factors influencing school climate, are values accepted and promoted by schools. The ranking of values reveals a rather harsh school climate: our students think that their schools consider such "hard" values as academic achievement, politeness and discipline significantly higher than the "soft" ones – good human relations, caring, tolerance and curiosity, and joyful school-life. Whether and how much does the value-system of schools promotes or inhibits development of constructive coping attitudes by students is a question for further research.

Although statistically not significantly correlated to coping, school bullying is an important issue for further discussion, since current results indicate that nearly a half of the students are involved in bullying others while about a third have been subject to bullying themselves (among those there are pupils who have avoided attending school because of others bullying them). One can interpret this as another signal of the dominance of so to say "hard" values among our students, but whether this atmosphere inhibits formation of constructive coping strategies by more sensitive and vulnerable students is a question for further research. One thing clear is that most of our students are overloaded with schoolwork. Two thirds of the respondents in current study feel permanently or often tired and about half of the respondents say that they feel tired already in morning. Still, students with positive coping strategies experience lower rates of physical stress, such as fatigue, headaches etc.

The overall picture of school-life and students' coping in Estonia suggests that the school, as well as the country as a whole, continues in a period of differentiation and stratification where a considerably large amount of young people (about 20%-30% of the pupils) suffers from coping difficulties. Still, in order to give an adequate interpretation to the situation, international comparisons are highly desirable.


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Marika Veisson
Tallinn University
Faculty of Educational Sciences
10111 Tallinn

This document was added to the Education-line database on 10 March 2005