How to Handle Finals Burnout


Mason Orr

(Graphic by Mason Orr | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Caelan Roberts, News Editor


Finals season is here, and for many students, this means staying up late and waking up early to study and do homework. Though this is a current staple of the university experience, the constant work can lead many students to experience academic burnout, according to Dr. Lisa Diamond, professor of psychology at the University of Utah.

“I think it’s simply the experience of overwhelm that happens with all of the intellectual demands that you’re under,” Diamond said about burnout. “It’s almost like overfilling your coffee cup — it’s too much.”

Diamond added that burnout is often the body’s natural response to experiencing many stressors simultaneously.

“So those emotions and those feelings and the lack of sleep or the agitation, however it shows up, is your nervous system trying to get your attention and your nervous system is trying to say, ‘whatever you’re doing, stop it.’” she said. “Our nervous system is always giving us little signals as to what it can take.”

CJ Odlin, fifth-year history major, knows the feeling Diamond describes all too well, though he put it in simpler terms than she did. “Burnout sucks,” he said. “I’m extremely tired and miserable.” 

Since the feeling of burnout is in response to an overwhelming amount of stressors, it’s common for it to happen around finals week, Diamond said, but it can happen at other times as well. She added the best course of action to take when experiencing burnout would be to step back and do something else, but the way finals are set up at the university level makes that difficult.

“One of the things that is really unusual and, frankly, poorly designed about college is that all of the high-stakes tests happen at the same time,” she said. “You know, it’s interesting because most of the research on stress shows that most of us can handle extreme stress, as long as we are not handling multiple major stressors all at the same time.”

For Diamond, this research, in combination with the pandemic providing a convenient time for professors to restructure their classes, she’s chosen to no longer administer exams at all.

“Having everything come to this peak intensity at the end of the semester, there’s no evidence that that actually promotes learning,” she said. “And so I really changed the way I taught once I became aware that just psychologically, it wasn’t beneficial, and academically, it didn’t seem to be that beneficial.”

In an ideal world for Diamond, there would be no finals week. Instead, high-stakes exams would either be spread out throughout the semester or similar to the method she’s adopted, there wouldn’t be high-stakes exams at all. 

“I wish that the labor of being in academic courses was spread out so that, one course, maybe they require a big push in the sixth week, and maybe another course has a little big push in the ninth week, and that it isn’t all the courses, all at once, during finals week,” she said. “Everything we know about the human brain says that’s not a recipe for learning, and it’s not a recipe for mental health.” 

However, because this ideal is still just hypothetical, Diamond had some advice for students attempting to manage stress and burnout around finals. 

“One of the things that can make it easier, but it may be a little late now, is to sort of plan for that,” she said. She added that if students have assignments due during finals week, they can spread them out over the week, even if they’re all due on the same day. 

Odlin has his own ways of coping with the stress of finals week, and most of them revolve around spending as much time as possible with his friends and family.

“I have a very good friendship group,” he said. “I have a girlfriend who is very supportive along with my family as well. That helps me push through it.”

Another source of motivation for Odlin is the fact that he will be graduating in the spring. “With being so close to having a degree, I’m really just pushing as hard as I can to get out of here,” he said. 

Pushing through it, as Odlin puts it, is a common response students have to academic burnout, but according to Diamond, this can be more detrimental than beneficial.

“I really think that the messages that we give students of, ‘just push through it,’ I don’t think those are helpful and healthy messages,” she said. “We should actually be encouraging students to listen to those signals from their body, if their sleep is disrupted, if their eating is disrupted, if they’re feeling so brain foggy, that they can’t even process any information that they’re reading, that’s not something to push through.”

Diamond added that if students are in the midst of burnout, it is essential to pay attention to how they are feeling and how their body responds to stress and develop coping strategies around that.

“It’s a great time for students to experiment with strategies for how they can spread it out and not have everything at once,” she said. “And the thing is that if you can figure out a strategy for coping with burnout now, then that will serve you forever.”

Even though everyone will respond to burnout differently, Diamond’s final piece of advice was simple and universal: “Everybody, get some sleep.”


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