Learning and memory can be affected by stress. Although an optimal
level of stress can enhance learning ability (Kaplan & Sadock,
2000), too much stress can cause physical and mental health problems
(Campbell & Stevenson, 1992; Carver & Scheier, 1994; Greenberg,
1981; Niemi & Vainiomaki, 1999; Laio, Lu & Yi, 2007), reduce
self-esteem (Bressler & Bressler, 2007; Linn & Zeppa, 1984;
Silver & Glicken, 1990) and may affect the academic achievement of
students (Amirkhan, 1998; Beck & Srivastava, 1991; Calderon, Hey,
& Seabert, 2001; Choi, Abbott, Arthur & Hill, 2007; Covington,
1993; Elliot, Shell, Henry & Maeir, 2005; Hammer, Grigsby, &
Wood, 1998; Hatcher & Prus, 1991; Hofer, 2007; Kelly, Kelly, &
Clanton, 2001; Marcos & Tillema, 2006; Rafidah, Azizah, &
Noraini, 2007; Robbins, Allen, Casillas, Peterson, & Lee, 2006;
Sanders & Kurt, 2001; Trockel, Barnes, & Egget, 2000; Quaye,
Eyob, & Ikem, 2005; Vitaliano, Maiuro, Mitchell, & Russo, 1989;
Was, Woltz, & Drew, 2006; Watering & Rijt, 2006).
A review of literature indicates that university students might
experience stress due to multitude of ways such as (1) health
factors--amount of exercise (Field, Diego & Sanders, 2003; Gruber,
1975; Hammer et al., 1998; Jerome, 1996; Ryan, 2004; Turbow, 1985;
Trockel et al., 2000), sleeping habits (Hammer et al., 1998; Kelly et
al., 2001; Lack, 1986; Pilcher & Walter, 1997; Wolfson, 1998; Ryan,
2004; Trockel et al., 2000) and nutritional routines (Benton &
Sargent, 1992; Hammer et al., 1998; Kalman, 1997; Meyers, 1989; Rafidah
et al., 2007; Ryan, 2004; Trockel et al., 2000); (2) academic factors
(Aldwin & Greenberger, 1987; Blumberg & Flaherty, 1985; Clark
& Rieker, 1986; Duckworth & Seligman, 2006; Evans &
Fitzgibbon, 1992; Felsten & Wilcox, 1992; Fisher, 1994; Kohn &
Frazer, 1986; Lesko & Summerfield, 1989; Linn & Zeppa, 1984;
Mallinckrodt, Leong, & Kralj, 1989; Pfeiffer, 2001; Ratana, 2003;
Rafidah et al., 2007; Schafer, 1996; Struthers, Perry, & Menec,
2000); and (3) social factors--family and social support (Cutrona, Cole,
Colangelo, Assouline, & Russel, 1994; Hackett, Betz, Casas, &
Rocha-Singh, 1992; Hudson and O'Regan, 1994; Orpen, 1996; Trockel
et al., 2000; Williams, 1996); finance (Hudson & O'Regan, 1994)
and problems with roommates (Blai, 1972; Ryan, 2004).
Notwithstanding the overwhelming research on factors leading to
stress and its influence on academic achievements among university
students, many of the studies were conducted in isolation without
incorporating a comprehensive list of stress factors. The majority of
investigations have taken place in the United States, which concentrated
mainly on students in the medical field. There also arises a question of
which stress factor(s) has/have substantial influential on the academic
achievement of students. Many of prior studies have either reported
inconclusive or inconsistent results. Prior studies have also
concentrated on collecting cross-sectional rather than longitudinal
data. This paper thus attempts to address these gaps by incorporating a
comprehensive list of stress factors and empirically test them against
the academic performance of college students based on different periods
of a semester. Specifically, this study is conducted based upon the
following research questions:
1. Are there any statistical significant differences in the level
of perceived stress among students at the beginning, middle and at the
end of the semester?
2. Is there a statistical significant correlation between the level
of perceived stress at the beginning, middle and the end of the semester
and academic performance of students?
3. What are the stress factors that statistical significantly
influence the academic performance of students?
In the following sections, the methodology used in this study is
described, followed by analysis of the results. The findings are then
discussed and implications of the results are presented before
concluding the paper.
The subjects involved in the present study comprise of Pre-Diploma
Science students of Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), Negeri Sembilan
campus of Malaysia. The Pre-Diploma Science is a one to two semester
bridging program with the objective to help the weak students
academically, especially in the science subjects before they are
admitted into any science or technological-based Diploma courses in any
UiTM campuses throughout the country. There are currently 3 satellite
campuses, 12 branch campuses, 8 city campuses, 19 affiliated colleges of
UiTM in Malaysia.
Upon completion of this preparatory course, students are then able
to pursue the Diploma programs if they obtained at least a Cumulative
Grade Point Average (CGPA) of 3.00 in the first semester. If the
students fail to achieve the required point, they have to undergo the
program for another semester. Since the population size of the
Pre-Diploma Science students for the June--November 2005 intake at UiTM
Negeri Sembilan was 242, all of them were chosen as subjects for the
survey. Out of the 242 students, 154 complete responses were returned,
yielding a response rate of 63.6%. The t-test analysis revealed that
there are no statistical significant differences between the
characteristics of respondents and nonrespondents, and thus, there is no
A structured, self-administered questionnaire was developed as a
mode of data collection. The questionnaire comprised of three sections,
students' profile; Perceived Stress Scale (PSS); and Stress Factors
In section A, the respondents were asked to furnish demographic
information such as names, gender and previous schools enrolled
(boarding or non-boarding). This information is required to allow
matching of data in the three stages of data collection (beginning,
middle and end of semester) with the data on academic performance.
The questions in Section B were intended to measure
individual's perception of stress using the PSS developed by Cohen,
Kamarck, and Mermelstein (1983), using a five-point Likert-type scale
ranging from 1 (Never) to 5 (Very Often). The 14-item self-report
instruments have demonstrated reputable reliability and validity (Cohen
et al., 1983). The PSS scores were obtained by reversing the scores on
the six negative items (e.g., 1=5, 2=4, 3=3, 4=2, 5=1) and then summing
across all items. Items 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12 and 13 are positively
stated items. Individual scores on the PSS can range from 14 to 70 with
lower scores indicating lower perceived stress and higher scores
indicating higher perceived stress at that particular point of time. The
items can be easily understood and very general in nature that they are
free of content specific to any subpopulation groups. Therefore, they
are easy to score and can be administered within a short period of time.
The Cronbach alpha values of the 14-item PSS for the three periods of
data collection (beginning, middle and end of semester) are 0.67, 0.78
and 0.76, respectively, indicating acceptable internal consistencies
(Norzaidi, Chong, Intan Salwani, & Rafidah, in press; Norzaidi,
Chong, Murali, & Intan Salwani, 2007; Sekaran, 2004).
In Section C, the Stress Factor Survey was used to determine the
sources of stress that have been found to influence the academic
performance of students. This section requires the participants to
identify the factors of stress that they experience during the given
period by answering Yes/No questions. Eleven factors of stress were
developed and respondents may indicate more than one factor which they
perceive as relevant to them. Due to the nature of the nominal scale
used, descriptive statistics using percentage (%) was used to explain
the percentage of each stress factor in each corresponding period of the
semester. Since the questionnaires were distributed at three different
periods of time throughout the semester namely, at the beginning, middle
and end of the semester, the number of occurrence of each stress factors
is categorized as never (the stress factors never exist at all 3
periods); sometimes (the stress factors occur at least once); often (the
stress factors occur twice); and very often (the stress factors occur at
all 3 periods).
The data on the academic performance of students, i.e. the GPAs,
were obtained by the researchers from the Academic Affairs Department
after their final examination results were released. The reason of
obtaining their GPAs is to find out whether the stress they experienced
leaves an impact on their academic performance. The university's
GPA system is classified into five categories (A=3.50-4.00; B=3.00-3.49;
C=2.50=2.99; D=2.00-2.49; E=less than 2.00).
The 4-page self-reported questionnaires were distributed to the
students at three different times; one month after the semester started
(beginning), one week after the semester break (middle) and the final
one was given after their final exam ended (end). The purpose of doing
so is to answer the first objective of the study, which is to identify
the trend of stress among the students throughout that particular
semester. Because of the fact that there was no control group, the issue
of internal validity needed to be considered. To ensure that all
plausible threats of internal validity are minimized and to reduce and
control non-response error, the questionnaires were delivered and
collected personally by selected lecturers during classes. The lecturers
and subjects involved were thoroughly briefed on the purpose and the
implementation of the data collection process. The same lecturers were
asked to disseminate the questionnaires to the students throughout the
three periods and were required to maintain close contact with the
researchers during the study.
Questionnaires were administered during the same week to minimize
the effect of varying stress levels that may occur and also under the
same basic conditions. Respondents were asked to read the instructions
written in the questionnaire carefully. In addition, the subjects have
been kept apart so as to minimize the problems of the subjects
influencing each other's responses. They were required to complete
the questionnaire during the given time. The students were not given any
extra marks for participating in this survey.
The majority of students were female (77.9%) and the majority of
them came from non-boarding schools (87%). This is a common scenario in
higher institutions throughout the country whereby the percentage of
female students tend to outnumber the male. It is also common for the
majority of students to have received their education from non-boarding
schools as the places in boarding schools are usually limited in number.
The high numbers of respondents who came from non-boarding schools imply
that they have no prior experience of staying away from their families
and thus are assumed to be dependent on their parents and families.
Perceived Stress Scale
It was found that generally, the students experienced moderate
stress levels throughout the semester, judging from the figures which
are slightly more than half of the total score of 70 (beginning=37.90;
middle=39.17; end=38.40). It appears that the level of perceived stress
increases as the students move from beginning to the middle of the
semester, but drops slightly toward the end of the semester.
Stress Factor Survey
Table 1 shows the results of the Stress Factor Survey which
consists of eleven stressors at the beginning, middle and end of the
semester. The majority of students claimed that they were not getting
enough sleep at the three different periods of time throughout the
semester, with 53.4%, 57.1% and 53.9% respectively. This is followed by
the nutritional factor, with 53.2%, 53.9% and 51.9% respectively. This
suggests that the students are not satisfied with the food provided at
the college dining hall. In addition, the students also claimed that
they did not have enough exercises. This is probably due to the limited
sports and recreational facilities and activities available for the
students in the campus. Other factors that contribute to stress include
course load, finance, problems with roommate, social activities and
sleeping too much. Problems with girlfriends/boyfriends, class
attendance and over exercising seem not to contribute much stress to the
Four trends can be observed from Table 1. Stress factors associated
with nutrition, sleeping too much, social activities and finance
increased as the students moved towards the middle semester but dropped
as the students moved towards the end of the semester. Stress factors
associated with class attendance, problems with roommate, over
exercising and course load reduced as the students move towards the
middle of semester, but increased again towards the end of semester.
Problems with girlfriend/boyfriend and not enough exercising present
increasing stress while the stress level dropped for not getting enough
sleep as the students moved from beginning to middle and to the end of
Students' Academic Performance
Based on the report obtained from the Academic Affairs Department,
the majority of students scored GPAs of more than 3.00 (66.2%). Only
7.1% of the students scored GPAs of less than 2.00. This implies that on
an overall, the academic performance of the students is satisfactory.
Levels of Perceived Stress and Academic Performance
ANOVA was used to test the significant differences between the
level of perceived stress during the three periods of the semester.
Table 2 indicates that there is a statistical significant difference
between the level of perceived stress at the beginning and middle of the
semester, but no differences were found between the level of perceived
stress at the beginning and end of semester and between the middle and
end of semester at 0.05 level of significance. The results also suggest
that the level of perceived stress faced by the students at the
beginning of semester is less compared to the stress level experienced
at the middle of the semester. However, the level of perceived stress
experienced by the students from the middle towards the end of the
semester was slightly higher than the level of stress at the beginning
of the semester.
Table 3 shows the Pearson correlation coefficient results between
the level of perceived stress and the academic performance of the
students. The results indicate that there is no statistical significant
correlation between the level of perceived stress at the beginning and
at the middle of semester with their academic performance. However, a
statistical significant correlation was found between the perceived
level of stress at the end of semester and the academic performance of
students. The rho value (-0.206) indicates that there is a statistical
significant negative correlation between level of perceived stress at
the end of semester and the academic performance of students.
The results imply that although the students perceived a higher
level of stress at the beginning towards the middle of the semester, it
does not affect their overall academic performance. Their academic
performance will only be affected when their perceived level of stress
is higher at the end of the semester in which the level of perceived
stress is statistically no different with the level of perceived stress
at the middle of the semester.
Finally, the Chi-Square test of independence was employed to test
whether students' GPAs depend on the occurrence of stress factors.
The results are as presented in Table 4. The results indicate that at
p-value of 0.05, the GPAs of students do not statistical significantly
depend on the number of occurrence of stress factors throughout the
semester. It can be concluded that none of the stress factors
significantly affect the academic performance of the students.
DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
The study has fulfilled the three objectives set forth. In general,
we concluded that students did experience stress but at a moderate level
even though they were in their transition period from school to
university life and that the majority of them come from non-boarding
schools. In fact, the majority of students have performed satisfactorily
based on their GPAs. In addition, the findings that none of the stress
factors significantly affect the academic performance of the students
allow us to safely conclude that to some extent, the moderate stress
experienced by the students are desirable in attaining good academic
One of the possible reasons is due to the small student population
in the campus which was only 242 of them and the ratio between students
and lecturers was approximately 10:1. Therefore the relationship among
themselves as well as with the lecturers was very much closer. This
close relationship has also motivated them to attend classes throughout
the semester. Another possible reason was perhaps due to the course
workload which was slightly similar to the secondary school level. They
might be nervous during the beginning of the semester, but as they go
along, they started to spot similarity of the course contents to their
secondary schools. The level of stress reduces when they familiarized
themselves to the academic system. In addition, their relationships with
roommates improved as time passed. They were able to balance between
their academic and sport activities as well as time spent on sleeping.
The more specific objective of the present study was to find out if
there was any statistical significant difference in the level of
perceived stress among the students at the beginning, middle and at the
end of the semester. The results imply that generally, the level of
perceived stress increases as the students move to the middle but drops
slightly towards the end of the semester. One possible explanation to
this situation was perhaps students were not yet given any tests and
assignments at the beginning of the semester. However, as more tests and
assignments were presented to them at the middle of the semester, this
probably contributed to higher stress levels among the students compared
to the stress level experienced at the beginning of the semester even
though they are used to the course load. The non-statistical
significance of the level of perceived stress between middle and at the
end of the semester can probably be explained by the fact that the
students are already used to the system.
Our second objective was to find out whether there was a
correlation between the students' level of perceived stress at the
three different periods of time (beginning, middle, and at the end of
the semester) on their academic performance. Based on the test results,
we found that there was no statistical significant correlation between
the level of perceived stress at the beginning and middle semester with
the students' academic performance although there are statistical
significant differences in the levels of perceived stress. This finding
is not surprising, given the fact that these students are normally
school leavers and they are used to the school system where terms are
used and only final exams are counted. As they enter the tertiary level,
they still cannot see how the quizzes, tests, assignments held in
between of the semester contribute to their overall grades. They still
think that final exams are the most important criteria that make up
However, we found out that there was a statistical significant
correlation between the level of perceived stress at the end of semester
and the students' academic performance. The rho value was -0.206
which implied that when the level of perceived stress was higher, the
academic performance would be lower. However, it is important to note
that the correlation was rather weak. The implication is that the stress
level they experienced was not that high to the extent that they could
not cope with their academic activities. Hence, it was not surprising
that more than half (66.2%) of them scored GPA 3.00 and above.
Our final objective was to determine the possible stress factors
that the students perceived which may contribute to their academic
performance. While some of these factors show substantial percentage of
stress and that four trends were observed, the statistical results show
that the GPA of students did not significantly depend on the number of
occurrence of each of the stress factors.
The results have to be interpreted cautiously. Although no
significant effects were found between the stress factors and academic
performance, we strongly believe that this is merely an absence of
evidence for the effects, not evidence that there are no effects at all.
Further, the correlation is weak, suggesting that there are other
possible factors that mask the relationship. These will have
implications on the steps to be taken to mitigate all the stress factors
discussed and the role of future research in addressing this.
Based on the observations above, it could then be argued that the
stress factors such as nutrition, not getting enough sleep or sleeping
too much, social activities, finance, course loads and problems with
boyfriends/girlfriends should be addressed since these factors continued
to pose major problems to the students even to the end of the semester
which affect their academic performance.
Based on the findings and discussions above, we would like to bring
forward several suggestions and recommendations to relevant authorities.
First, it is suggested that the current student and lecturer ratio
available in the campus to be maintained. This is because the results
show that this was one the possible reasons that contributed to the low
level of stress experienced by the students. This is important as it
would ensure good academic performance among the students so that they
are able to pursue the Diploma programs of their choice after one
We also would like to urge the relevant ministry in-charge of
higher education and the student affairs division of respective
universities to consistently plan suitable activities or programs for
the students such as organizing talks on financial management,
motivation, time management, study skills and probably topics on
managing stress. These programs should be organized continuously, not
only during the orientation week (Sirca and Sulcic, 2005). Such programs
and activities would help the students to identify, understand and
manage their stress levels.
Further, it is also timely for the relevant ministry to embark on
the idea of involving parents in some parts of the orientation programs.
The financial problems of the students can be dealt with effectively if
the parents have good understanding about financial planning. It is also
important for the relevant authorities to disburse scholarships and
loans on time to the university and to the students so that they do not
have to worry about the financial burden shouldered by their parents.
Besides enlightening the students in preparing them for
university's life, parents must be involved in seminars on stress
management. Many of the parents of these students have not attended
universities and therefore, they do not understand how stressful their
children are while in the university. By understanding the causes of
stress facing their children, the parents are in better positions to
advise and motivate them. This indirectly leads to better academic
In addition, it is also suggested that the relevant authorities
should continuously monitor students food intake provided at the dining
hall. This is essential because good nutrition would contribute to good
health which indirectly results in producing good academic performance.
In addition, sports and recreational facilities or activities should
also be upgraded to provide more opportunities for the students to get
involved in sports and recreational activities. Obviously, getting
involved in those activities is one of the possible ways to help
students to reduce their stress.
While the problems of boyfriends/girlfriends are inevitable
especially for those who have already found the other half before or
after joining the institution, it is probably timely for the policy
makers and the university authorities to approach this issue with an
open mindset. Special programs can be arranged for couples or
individuals with boyfriends/girlfriends outside the institution on how
they could maintain a healthy relationship and motivate each other in
achieving better grades. Program such as emotional intelligence can also
play a pivotal role in ensuring that these students are not emotionally
disturbed when facing problems with their other halves (Hidi, 2006).
CONCLUSION AND SUGGESTIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
This study has addressed various important stress factors to the
academic performance of postsecondary level students. It is hoped that
the suggestions above shed some lights to the relevant authorities in
planning and conducting necessary programs for the students in ensuring
that they continue to produce excellent graduates in this
knowledge-based economy. Notwithstanding, the results would also benefit
the parents. By knowing and acknowledging the causes of stress, parents
are in better positions to give advice, motivation and/or moral support
to reduce the stress factors which could enhance the academic
performance of their children.
Perhaps the most significant limitation of the study is the small
sample size and that the study was confined to Malaysia. The small
sample size might have contributed to the weak correlation and the
absence of evidence on the effects of the stress factors on academic
performance. A larger sample size from different institutions and
geographical locations might yield different yet interesting results.
The statistical techniques used might also influence the results. Since
this is an exploratory study, it is hoped that more advanced analyses
could be used in future studies in order to reach general conclusions
about the perceived stress factors, stress levels and academic
performance of students. For example, it is possible that some of the
stress factors hang together which allows for the creation of scores for
sub-areas, i.e. the social and health factors. MLM could also be used to
create growth curves of stress over the semester and the stress factors
themselves can then be used as predictors of the slopes and intercepts
of the factors.
This study can be used as a basis for further exploration on the
influences of stress level on academic performance of students at
diploma, degree or even postgraduate levels. The level of difficulties
inherent in the coursework and exams may present different stress levels
to the students. For instance, studies on the pattern of stress they
experience in a different environment with different student population,
facilities, subjects taught and others. Besides that, other possible
factors which may contribute to stress that were not examined in this
study such as environmental factors, family background, previous
academic achievement and detailed background of the students could be
further explored by future researchers. This might help to overcome the
weak correlation found in this study. However, researchers have to be
vary of the threats of internal validity if future the future studies
conducted are longitudinal in nature.
Finally, while this study posited that the amount of stress
experienced by the students are desirable in attaining good academic
results, it is equally important to identify what constitute good and
bad stress and how good stress can be enhanced and bad stress can be
This research was supported by a grant from the Universiti
Teknologi MARA, Malaysia. The authors wish to thank the chief-in-editor,
associate editor and reviewers for their helpful comments.
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Aris Azizah, Universiti Teknologi MARA
Mohd Daud Norzaidi, Universiti Teknologi MARA
Siong Choy Chong, Putra International College
Mohamed Intan Salwani, Universiti Teknologi MARA
Ibrahim Noraini, Universiti Teknologi MARA
Table 1: Percentage of Students Experiencing
Stress during Different Periods of the Semester
Stress Factors Percentage of Students
Begin Middle End
Semester Semester Semester
Nutrition 53.20 53.90 51.90
Sleeping too much 21.40 23.40 20.10
Not getting enough sleep 58.40 57.10 53.90
Problems with boyfriend/girlfriend 6.50 7.80 10.40
Class Attendance 4.50 3.20 5.30
Problems with roommate 28.60 18.20 30.50
Over Exercising 1.30 0.60 1.30
Not enough exercising 44.20 50.00 55.80
Social Activities 23.40 25.30 20.10
Finances 31.80 41.60 26.60
Course load 44.80 32.50 37.00
Table 2: ANOVA Results on the Differences of Stress
Levels between Beginning, Middle and End of Semester
Sum of df Mean F Significance
Between groups 2498.07 47 53.150 3.536 0.000
Within groups 1593.15 106 15.030
Total 4091.23 153
Post Hoc (LSD)
N Mean Mean
(1) Beginning 32 2.11 (1)--(2) -1.17 .000
(2) Middle 60 3.28 (1)--(3) -0.68 .160
(3) End 62 2.79 (2)--(3) 0.49 .339
Total 154 2.73
Table 3: Pearson Correlation Coefficient Results between
Academic Performance and Level of Perceived Stress
Perceived Stress Perceived Stress
End Semester Middle Semester
Perceived Stress End Semester
Perceived Stress Middle Semester 0.30 (**)
Perceived Stress Beginning
Semester 0.20 (*) 0.41 (**)
Grade Point Average -0.201 (*) -0.11
Beginning Grade Point
Perceived Stress End Semester
Perceived Stress Middle Semester
Perceived Stress Beginning
Grade Point Average -0.05
** Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed);
* Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (2-tailed).
Table 4: Chi-Square Results of the Stress Factors
Stress Factors p-value
Sleeping too much 0.364
Not getting enough sleep 0.082
Problems with boyfriend/girlfriend 0.232
Class Attendance 0.628
Problems with roommate 0.412
Over Exercising 0.730
Not enough exercising 0.361
Social Activities 0.194
Course load 0.455