Stopping Academic Burnout in its Tracks

With nearly a third of the semester behind us, it’s right around that time of year where the motivation dips downward and focusing in class feels like it just got 10 times harder. 

Test grades are going up on Brightspace and the mere idea of checking it makes you anxious. Logging on only reminds you of the missing assignments that you still haven’t found the time to do. But who could blame you? You take five classes, work part-time, you’re involved with multiple clubs and of course, you need to have time to see your friends. And anyway, that class isn’t a part of your major; you just need to scrape by with a C for the credit. 

That voice in your head sounds nothing like the one you heard week one. That voice was full of energy and hope for a fun, productive semester ahead. You read the syllabus, wrote all the due dates in your brand-new planner and set up study and homework times in your Outlook calendar. Somehow, just like last semester, things still piled up and you wind up with another case of academic burnout. 

This experience of falling from a place of enthusiasm for learning to a place of apathy, anxiety and depression is widely experienced across college campuses. Researchers like Dr. Frances Jumoke Oloidi define this phenomenon; “Academic burnout refers to students’ feeling of debilitation, pessimism, and low self-efficacy. Academic burnout also refers to exhaustion and disengagement symptoms experienced by students due to long-term exposure to specific school demands.” 

Some students may have such a drastic case that they believe they aren’t smart enough or aren’t capable of handling their workload, so they feel the only answer may be changing their major or dropping out of school. These are not necessarily “bad” solutions. I changed my major from biology to journalism after a serious bout of academic burnout, and now I am much happier with what I have chosen to do with my life. There are also plenty of viable careers that don’t require a college degree, such as trade industries. However, a student shouldn’t have to give up on pursuing a career path that they still love due to burnout. So, what can they do about it? 

The First Step: Realizing You Are Burnt Out

Burnout can be difficult to spot in yourself, especially if it has become a part of your semester routine. Symptoms include feeling overwhelmed by work, often to the point of being unable to start any of the tasks at hand because it feels like too much — or, vice versa, only being able to focus on work and pushing everything else out. 

You may feel like you are lacking motivation and feeling apathetic about not just school work, but even things that were once enjoyable like hobbies or attending club meetings. Irritability and a short temper can come up and make social interactions unappealing, resulting in withdrawing from friends and family. 

The symptoms can be physical as well. Fatigue and lack of sleep due to a worrying mind only exacerbate the mental and emotional hardships. These can also lead to bodily aches and pains, like headaches. Feeling physically unwell only makes handling day-to-day life that much more stressful. 

How Can We Help Ourselves?

To pull yourself out of this slump, there are things you can do to make a comeback for the rest of the semester. First is to take care of your mental and physical health, as you are the priority. Depending on how deep in the burnout you are, this can start with taking a couple of hours a day where you make sure you eat, shower, brush your teeth and clean your room. 

This can also be exercising to lower your stress, instead of staring at a blank Word document with writer’s block. The answer may come to you when you stop thinking about it so hard; it sounds counterintuitive — but taking the pressure off can provide clarity. Stepping away is not the same as giving up. 

Another helpful practice is talking to your friends, who may be experiencing the same thing as you, and holding each other accountable. If you’re struggling with getting assignments done or studying for a test, meet up with friends and work together, yet separately. If you’re in the same class, quiz each other; explain concepts and bounce ideas off of each other. If not, you can work side-by-side on different things as a form of parallel play; existing in a space together and doing independent tasks. It reduces the feeling of isolation, gives a more strict time frame in which you have to work and you can hold each other accountable when you get distracted and go on your phone. It’s also a way of multitasking by seeing friends and completing assignments, making this a great use of your already limited free time.

If you’re already behind on assignments and struggling to catch up, don’t neglect new assignments to get the old ones done. They are already late and will be dealt with as such, but you can always prevent more late assignments. Taking time on the weekends to go back to those overdue assignments is a better use of your time than having them impede on the rest of your week. 

Letting your professor know what is going on can be a big help; they want to see their students succeed. It’s better to ask for an extension on an assignment and get a no, rather than not asking when you could have gotten a yes. They can also help you set up a “plan of attack” and show you which missing and upcoming assignments to focus on first. They would rather you turn in the late essay worth 20% of your final grade than the four homework assignments that combined would be 10% of your grade. 

How Can We Prevent it From Starting Next Time?

To prevent academic burnout next semester, get to know the signs you display so you can stop it as soon as it starts. Evaluate the plan you made at the start of last semester and see where things did and didn’t work for you. Once again, you are the priority, so take care of yourself.