The exploring stress


The aim of this study was to investigate stress amongst International post graduates at the LSE compared with their UK counterparts. It may be expected that International students face considerably more stress, as they must learn different cultural values and language in addition to academic preparation. However, studies in this area are sparse with inconsistent results. An exploratory investigation was undertaken to see whether International students differ in stress levels compared with UK students. Postgraduates in their first academic year were recruited on the grounds of LSE. A short questionnaire- comprising of eleven statements assessed on a five point Likert Scale and two open-ended questions- was administered to an International sample (n=15) and a UK sample (n=14). Comparisons on stress scores were made employing T-tests and ANCOVAs. Open-ended questions were coded into themes. International students did not score differently in stress in relation to their UK counterparts. However, highly significant gender differences were found, with women reporting considerably more stress. This gender difference was further reflected in the open ended questions. A small convenience sample was used, thus the findings should more likely be seen as a taster instead of a foundation for definite generalizations.



Lazarus and Launier (1978) define stress as a transaction between the individual and the environment and illustrate stress in terms of 'person environment fit'. A good 'person environment fit' results in no or low stress and poor fit results in higher stress. This notion of adaptation comes from from Selye's (1936) general adaptation syndrome, wherein a state of adaptation or adjustment must occur subsequent to a stressful experience as a state of alarm cannot be sustained over an extended period without causing exhaustion. In order for individuals to adapt to an environment successfully they must manage problems, challenges and demands in their daily lives (Simons, Kalichman, & Santrock, 1994). Reaction to stress may differ depending on the environment and the characteristics of the person (Mikhail, 1985). Nevertheless, all changes entailing adaptation, even when positive, can cause stress (McNamara, 2000).

Undoubtedly, university is a stressful time, as amongst a host of other factors, one must learn to balance academic and social life (Beck, Taylor, & Robbins, 2003) as well as coping with expectations from others and of the self (Blimling & Miltenberger, 1981). Studies have indeed supported the fact that university, especially in the first year can be stressful. For example, in Lapsley and colleagues (1989) study, 'freshmen' reported more psychological dependencies on their mothers and fathers as well as poorer social and personal-emotional adjustment to university life than did those in more senior years. Although numerous studies have evaluated the impact of stress on university students (e.g., Edwards, Hershberger, Russell, & Market, 2001) there has been scarce research looking at international students.

Do international students face considerably more academic stress when adjusting to university than native students? On the face of it, one would expect so; university is likely to be even more stressful for international students who coming to a completely different environment must additionally learn different cultural values and language in addition to academic preparation (e.g, Mori, 2000). However, studies in this realm are few and far between with inconsistent results. Investigations have been carried out in universities in the United States (Mistra and Castillo, 2004), Germany (Kramer, Prufer-Kramer, Stock, and Tshiananga, 2004) and Australia (DeDeyn, 2008). Indeed, in Germany (Kramer et al, 2004), it was found that international students had higher perceived academic stress and showed more reactions to these stressors than their native counterparts. However, contrary to the researchers expectations, when considering native US (Mistra and Castillo, 2004) and native Australian students (DeDeyn, 2008) compared with their international equivalents the opposite was found; international students reported lower academic stress and fewer reactions to stressors than their native equivalents. Reasons were given; for example, being so far removed from home may remove academic pressures from pushy parents (DeDyn, 2008). Additionally, credits (not grades) were often transferred back to an international student's home university (DeDeyn, 2008). Furthermore, self-disclosure of personal troubles may be regarded as a sign of weakness in some international students (Uba, 1994) so questionnaires were often not truthfully completed.

Research Question

No such work has been carried out in the United Kingdom at a 'competitive' academic institution. The London School of Economics is a cosmopolitan university, with students from over 140 different countries (LSE website, 2010). How do international students here compare with their UK counterparts? This study looks at full time (thus forgoing the problem of credits, i.e. everyone has equal opportunity in terms of grades), postgraduate students (in the first year of their prescribed postgraduate courses as adaptation to the new system is central) at a 'competitive' UK academic institution (unlike previous studies whereby good grades were perhaps not of utmost importance). UK students are compared with international students in terms of general stress levels. Directionality will be explored as previous research lacks consistency. Thus;

Hypothesis: 'International students will score differently in relation to stress to their UK counterparts' (two-tailed)


Rationale for the questionnaire content

The Gadzella Student-Life Stress Inventory

The Gadzella Student-Life Stress Inventory (1994) has been used to assess stress in the university population. It is a 51-item questionnaire (with 9 sections) about stressors and reactions to stressors. Individuals rate the frequency they experience each question using a 5 point Likert scale. The inventory is scored by adding the scores for each of the nine subcategories which are further summed to obtain a total score (Gadzella, 1994). However, a major problem with this scale is that it is correlational in nature which precludes making any causal statements. For example, poor time management behaviours may cause academic stress; alternatively, academic stress may cause poor time management.

Questionnaire content

In this study the questions were picked in more general terms and also included open ended questions, providing richer information than the Gadzella Student Life Stress Inventory (which is solely a Likert questionnaire). The questionnaire was split into two parts. In part 1 there were 11 statements; individuals rated each one on a five point Likert scale from 'Completely Disagree' (number 1) to 'Completely Agree' (number 5). Items 1-10 were 'indicators' of stress, for example, 'I often think about university work during times where I should be relaxing' Question 11, was a specific statement in relation to stress- 'I frequently feel stressed at university'. It is essential to mention that in order to avoid response sets, statements 3, 6, 7 and 8 were phrased negatively. To give 'overall stress scores', questions 1-11 were totaled (and negative statements were reversed appropriately). The 'general stress question' (question 11; 'I frequently feel stressed at university') was also viewed in isolation.

Part 2 consisted of 'open-ended' questions. An open ended question produces qualitative data and investigates the 'natural structure' of responses relating to a specific topic (Bauer & Gaskell, 2006). Thus, open-ended questions invite participants to 'tell their story' in their own words. The questionnaire contained 2 open ended questions, which were based on adjustment to life at LSE. These were important because participants were able to offer their own perspective.

General information

For the present analysis we considered the following characteristics: 'age', 'gender', 'student type' (eg UK or international), 'country of origin' (if applicable) and 'length of time in the UK prior to starting the course' (all international students who were in the UK longer than 6 months were removed to avoid complication).

Findings and Options for further analysis

14 native students and 15 international students at LSE were compared in terms of stress levels. It was hypothesized that international students would score differently in relation to stress compared with native students. In order to analyse the Likert questionnaire (part 1), Independent t-tests and ANCOVAs were employed; there was no difference in the levels of stress between the native students and their international counterparts. However, gender was found to be highly significant; women at the LSE were significantly more stressed than men.

Secondly, the open-ended questions were viewed (part 2) with gender differences in responses being most noteworthy. 30.77 % of males believed that 'everything' was easy to adjust to compared with 0% of women. When further asked 'Which aspect of university life do you find most stressful?' 23.08% of men reported that 'nothing' about it was stressful whilst no women reported this.

Cronbach's alpha for the stress scale was 0.959 indicating good internal consistency in measuring stress; however, a score this high also indicates 'a high level of item redundancy; that is, a number of items asking the same question in slightly different ways' (Streiner & Norman,1989: 65). Indeed, some questions do perhaps seem too similar in the present study, for example, 'I do not feel at ease at university' and 'most aspects of university life produce anxiety'.

With the open ended questions, perhaps questions needed to be broader as they tended to elicit 'standard responses'. For example when asked the question, 'Which aspect of university life do you find most stressful?' over 70% of the sample responded 'academic work' which seems somewhat obvious. Further, such a question is limiting to the stressed individuals who may indeed have substantially more to write about. Rather than asking 'which aspect' (singular), a question could have been asked in more general terms.

Therefore, with the above corrections, this questionnaire would be more valid. Subsequent semi-structured interviews might have be given to gain a deeper insight and more depth especially amongst those who are very stressed, as they would perhaps have richer information on this topic than someone who does not experience any stress.


This study compared stress amongst UK students and international students at LSE. The results did not support our hypothesis. International students did not score differently in relation to stress to their UK counterparts. However, highly significant gender differences were found. Women reported considerably more stress than their male counterparts on a Likert scale questionnaire, which was further reflected in the open ended questions. This finding has been supported by the previous study carried out in the US: 'In general, irrespective of their American or international status, women perceived greater reactions to stressors than men' (Misra & Castello, 2004: 7).

Mistra and Castillo (2004), Kramer et al (2004) and DeDeyn (2008) argued for differences in stress levels between international and native students during the first year of university. Given the results of this research, we can conclude that these previous studies cannot be mapped at the LSE at postgraduate level as our findings are insignificant.

Furthermore, there are three main areas to be discussed in terms of generalisability of this study. Firstly, we will consider the questionnaire method. Questionnaires guarantee a standardised way of testing, thus are more objective than interviews. They are quick and therefore can comparatively assess larger sample sizes (Bauer & Gaskell, 2000). However, the inflexible nature of questionnaires generates a situation whereby individuals are forced into giving standard responses to possibly multifaceted and complex issues, which was particularly true in part 1 of the questionnaire containing a Likert scale. The open- ended questions in part 2 provided more flexibility, however interpretations of the responses by the researcher are often quite subjective. Furthermore questionnaires are subjective from the side of the participant. For example, when assessing behaviours (such as stress) we are assessing them from the point of view of the participant rather than actual behaviour, which would be hard to achieve. As such, participants may have answered questions in a socially desirable manner (Mistra & Castello, 2004). Furthermore, self report measures can be influenced by problems with recall, such that stresses in the present may override how the participants felt in the past (e.g., first term) (Ogden, 2004).

Secondly, as mentioned earlier, a larger sample (also picked in a randomised manner) would be advantageous. Indeed, the larger the sample size, the smaller the sampling error (Bauer & Gaskell, 2006). Instead, this present study, with only 29 participants should be viewed as a taster, with further analysis as vital before drawing conclusions.

Finally, the international sample was small and diverse decreasing the 'richness' of the data (there were few in each subgroup; 3 USA, 3 India, 1 Canada, 2 Lebanon, 1 China, 1 the Netherlands, 2 Germany, 1 France, 1 Poland). In the future, it would be interesting to look at the differences in stress levels amongst the international students. This rests on 2 ideas. (a) It would be interesting to observe acculturation levels. Acculturation is defined as the exchange of cultural features that result when different cultural groups come into continuous first hand contact (Kottak, 2005). Research shows that international students who are more acculturated tend to experience less stress (Berry, 1985). For example, those with better English may find it easier to adjust. Indeed, research shows that language ability is an important component of acculturation (Paniagua, 1998). Future research should thus examine the effect of acculturation on international students' stress levels. (b) Cultural differences such as attitudes and morals can influence stress levels. Thus one would expect differences between Westernized (e.g., English, French and German) versus non- Westernized (e.g., Middle Eastern and Asian) and English speaking versus non-English speaking countries (Sue & Sue, 1999).


This study explored whether international students at the LSE would score differently in relation to stress to their UK counterparts. However, no relationship was found in either direction. Instead, highly significant gender differences were found, with women reporting considerably more stress than men. However, a small convenience sample was used, thus the findings should more likely be seen as a taster instead of a foundation for definite generalizations.

Findings in this area of research have important implications for mental health practitioners. With increasing awareness of population differences in relation to stress at university, they will be better able to help students, for example, by implementing prevention and treatment programs.


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