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Stressed by exams? Campus research project explores resilience strategies

Team receives Teaching and Learning Grant to study exam coping mechanisms in veterinary medicine students

University of Calgary veterinary medicine students study at the Spyhill campus. Photo by Jager & Kokemor

Dr. Cathy Olsen, from Newell Veterinary Clinic in Brooks, Alberta, works with UCVM student Rebecca Wink during a clinical rotation. Wink graduated in 2016. Photo by Jager & Kokemor

By Gillian Edwards, University Relations

Exams are a part of student life and along with them come stress and anxiety. Stress can be related to better performance, but stress can also turn into a serious health concern when it becomes too much to deal with. Where is that line and how can students effectively manage their anxiety in a challenging time?

For a team on campus, this idea has been the focus of a Teaching and Learning Grant to study the stress and anxiety of veterinary medicine students and their coping mechanisms during their Objective Structured Clinical Examinations (OSCEs). Darlene Donszelmann, senior instructor in clinical and diagnostic sciences at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, is the lead of the interdisciplinary team of investigators.

“Our research set about to try and measure cortisol and anxiety in a cohort of first-year students heading into the OSCEs. The project is now continuing into a second year following the same group of students longitudinally,” says Donszelmann. “The OSCEs are fairly common through the health-care fields, where students have to demonstrate a skill, as well as critical thinking and knowledge application, over the course of eight to 12 stations.”

Learning resilience during times of stress

The study uses salivary cortisol testing, as well as Speilberg’s State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI), to evaluate stress levels in students immediately before and following completion of each of the three OSCE exams in their year. While the saliva is collected, students complete a brief survey to self-report their state of anxiety. Now in the qualitative second phase of the study, the research team is preparing to explore in interviews what coping skills students self-report that assist them through the exam process.

“Recent graduates of the program have commented that they feel that the OSCEs helped prepare them for their future in practice. We hope the OSCEs help build resiliency, as a student could do well at one station and not as well at the next. Students need to learn to walk into each situation with a fresh slate,” says Donszelmann.

“Veterinary medicine is a stressful career, where graduates need to navigate complex situations with their clients. Animal herds represent people’s livelihoods and pets are seen as family members — veterinarians have to make difficult decisions daily that have huge ripple effects.”

Mental health a critical issue in profession 

In a study by Jean Wallace, a professor of sociology at the University of Calgary, 21 per cent of veterinarians and 18 per cent of technicians surveyed had had suicidal thoughts in the previous 12 months. Weighing heavily on those surveyed were unrealistic client expectations, conflict between what is best for the animal and client wishes, and financial constraints of treatment. As well, veterinarians deal regularly with client grief—all of which can lead to burnout and high rates of attrition.

“We hope that the coping skills that we learn in this study can be used in peer sessions for students to learn how to be more resilient and manage their anxiety, in order to stay healthy and successful in their careers for the long term,” she says.

Early results have already influenced how the faculty prepares students for the OSCEs and will inform future debriefing for students following the completion of the exam. Students have been incredibly engaged in the study to date, with 100-per-cent participation from the class studied.

For more information on the Campus Mental Health Strategy, visit here. If you think you need help, please visit resources here. If you think someone you know needs help, find more information here.