Finals. A word that tends to bring dread and stress to most college students. This period is usually filled with hard deadlines, lots of intensity, and is the primary obstacle standing in the way of a well-earned break for students and professors alike.
I graduated from college exactly seven months ago today. In my transition from college student to social media data analyst in the higher education industry, I’ve spent some time reflecting on things that were especially challenging for me as a student that I think could be improved if educators and administrators knew more about the student experience and how students really felt and behaved.
Enter Social Listening
While there’s a general consensus that finals is a stressful time for all, I wanted to explore the topic further to better understand how students express their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors across social media platforms. By examining a year’s worth of online conversation about finals and identifying trends, I’m hopeful that professors and administrators will understand and empathize with students, assisting them in the areas that bring the most stress and anxiety.
Over a one-year period from June 01, 2018 to May 31, 2019 I analyzed more than 200,000 conversations about finals. I examined sentiment, students’ worries, and their shared beliefs.
The breakdowns of sentiment and emotion analysis provided an initial glimpse into students feelings about finals. The sentiment of all finals conversation was tagged as 10 percent positive, 8 percent negative, and 82 percent neutral. The emotion analysis provided additional insight, especially into the neutral segment. The mentions were classified as 29 percent fear, 29 percent joy, 27 percent sadness, 13 percent anger, and 2 percent disgust. I looked at the top topics, emojis, and mentions from specific platforms, to gain insights into how certain emotions arise when students take their final exams.
The majority of posts dealing with negative emotions occur before and during finals, where most students express nervousness about failing. Joy comes when finals are over and students find out they met or exceeded their expectations. This is also evident with the most used emoji (the sobbing emoji—😭). Students use it in a negative context when they discuss how much they have to study, but in a positive context to represent tears of joy when exams are finished. The dual meaning of this emoji is a nuance that software alone isn’t able to discern, emphasizing the value that the additional layer of human analysis adds.
One of the main sources of student complaints comes from the struggles of writing papers and studying for exams. While this alone isn't surprising considering it’s the basis of finals, we found a heightened presence of illicit paper writing and exam taking services. Many of these services (some of which are bots) advertise ways for students to cheat on their final papers, projects, and exams, and respond directly to students' social media posts—with notable ease. The increased pressure facing students also brings an elevated incentive to cheat.
While it’s essentially impossible to be aware of and prevent every illicit service, professors and administrators can help by understanding the temptations and encouraging students to stay focused. Acknowledging the existence of these services and enforcing strong academic integrity policies will hopefully deter students from using them.
Finals end with a lot of relief. Many students mention treating themselves once finals are over, but seem to neglect self-care leading up to and during final exams. This provides an opportunity for colleges to remind students to take time for self-care throughout finals. Several schools have started to use therapy dogs and stress-relief kits, however, nudging or guiding students to engage in sustained healthy habits throughout the semester might be even more beneficial. Finding time to exercise each day, get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, and take regular breaks to recharge your brain are all habits that increase productivity and happiness while reducing stress.
As a recent graduate, I remember how much finals heightened my stress levels compared to the rest of the semester. As a social media data analyst at Campus Sonar, I see how candidly students share their thoughts and feelings across various social media platforms. This knowledge provided an opportunity to use social listening as a way to truly understand how students’ thoughts and feelings manifest during this stressful time—something that’s important for colleges to think about in their efforts to retain students and continue to increase student yield. Hopefully gaining some understanding into students’ minds will allow you to assist students with healthy habits and self-care practices to create a more productive and positive environment.