Stress and academic performance: empirical evidence from university students.
This study investigates the relationship between stress factors, perceived stress and academic performance among 154 Pre-Diploma Science students in a Malaysian public institution of higher learning which to date has received very little research attention. The results indicate that the students experienced stress but at a moderate level. There is a statistical significant difference between the level of perceived stress at the beginning and middle of the semester but not statistical significant between the beginning and middle with the end of the semester. The correlation was not statistical significant between the level of perceived stress at the beginning and middle of the semester but statistical significant between the end of semester with academic performance of students. The practical implications of the results are discussed.

Article Type:
College students (Psychological aspects)
Stress (Psychology) (Evaluation)
Academic achievement (Psychological aspects)
Rafidah, Kamarudin
Azizah, Aris
Norzaidi, Mohd Daud
Chong, Siong Choy
Salwani, Mohamed Intan
Noraini, Ibrahim
Pub Date:
Name: Academy of Educational Leadership Journal Publisher: The DreamCatchers Group, LLC Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 The DreamCatchers Group, LLC ISSN: 1095-6328
Date: Jan, 2009 Source Volume: 13 Source Issue: 1
Product Code: E197500 Students, College
Geographic Scope: Malaysia Geographic Code: 9MALA Malaysia
Accession Number:
Full Text:

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

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 nonresponse bias.


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 Survey.

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.

Respondents' Profile

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 students.

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 the semester.

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.


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 performance.

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 their grades.

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 semester.

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 performance.

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).


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 eliminated.


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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Kamarudin Rafidah, Universiti Teknologi MARA

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
                 Squares            Square

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
                                  Difference           Significance

(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

                                    Perceived Stress
                                       Beginning         Grade Point
                                        Semester           Average
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

Nutrition                             0.340
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
Finances                              0.437
Course load                           0.455
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