University students more exhausted than normal during the coronavirus spring

Animated discussion in the media on the effects of distance learning in basic and upper secondary education has sidelined university students. Professor of Education Katariina Salmela-Aro is contributing to an international study conducted collaboratively in 28 countries. The study investigates how students have coped and found motivation in the new and uncertain circumstances.

Katariina Salmela-Aro  has compared the results from this spring’s survey with the cross-sectional study (Finnish Student Health and Wellbeing Survey KOTT) of students’ coping carried out at four-year intervals by the Finnish Student Health Service (FSHS). This year’s study shows a clear spike in burnouts.

“A total of 2,500 students from different fields responded to the survey,” Salmela-Aro says. “Based on the results, we are able to identify four profiles prevalent among students during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Of all respondents, 29% are highly motivated and committed to their studies, and feel no exhaustion. Another 29% consider their wellbeing to be fine and find their studies fairly interesting. At the same time, 18% of students were exhausted by distance learning and 24% were at risk of burning out.

Distance learning increases burnout

According to Salmela-Aro, the figures are high compared to the results of the previous survey in 2016, when roughly 7–10% of students had burnout. In other words, their share has doubled. Salmela-Aro also has FSHS material from 2008 and 2012 (KOTT surveys), thus being able to investigate data ranging over more than a decade. In no previous survey has the burnout ratio been as high as now.

“It would appear that the coronavirus situation is polarising. That’s to say that it is causing exhaustion particularly among university students, and that figure is now alarmingly high,” Salmela-Aro notes.

Students have a number of challenges to face, and their psychological basic needs are not being met, which means that the sense of community is perceived as weak.

“Students have autonomy, but currently a lot of self-direction is required of them, and that’s challenging for many. The future also presents challenges, with employment and financial prospects causing concern. Furthermore, it seems that those whose personal identity is yet to be fully formed are more exhausted than others.”

Salmela-Aro says that, contrary to previous surveys, the current one has highlighted burnout among younger students in particular. Earlier, it was observed that young students were inspired by their studies, only becoming overwhelmed as the studies progressed.

According to Salmela-Aro, the University could have given more consideration to promoting a sense of community among students.

“Schools have been the focus of discussion, but universities have been forgotten. The idea that distance learning and the coronavirus would not have a marked impact on the age group of university students appears to contradict reality.”

Further information: 

Katariina Salmela-Aro, +358 50 415 5283,