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Task-Oriented Versus Emotion-Oriented Coping Strategies: the Case of College Students

April 5, 2005

The study examined the relationships between stress and coping strategies among 283 college students. Participants completed questionnaires relating to their stress perceptions, actual academic loads and their coping strategies. The main objective was to explore the effect of stress perceptions on coping behavior while accounting for objective loads and demographic parameters. Multilevel analyses revealed several indications: first, students’ coping behavior could be predicted from their reported stress perceptions and their appraisals of their academic-related stress levels; second, students employed mainly task- and emotion-oriented coping strategies; and finally, students’ age was a significant factor in determining their coping behavior. Our findings suggest that, in stressful environments, each of the coping strategies functions independently, with the type of strategy adopted depending largely on the specific profile of each student’s stress perceptions and demographic characteristics.

This study examined the relationships between stress and coping strategies among college students. Participants completed questionnaires relating to their stress perceptions, actual academic loads and their coping strategies. The main objective was to explore the effect of stress perceptions on coping behavior, while also accounting for objective loads and demographic parameters.

Sources of Academic Stress and its Likely Impact on Students

College students perceive academic life as stressful and demanding (Wan, 1992; Hammer, Grigsby & Woods, 1998) and report experiencing emotional and cognitive reactions to this stress, especially due to external pressures and self-imposed expectations (Misra & McKean, 2000). They report on numerous stressors during term-time, including academic demands and social adjustment.

Stress-inducing academic demands include grade competition; lack of time and issues relating to time or task management (Macan, Shahani, Dipboye & Phillips, 1990; Trueman., & Hartley, 1996); the need to adapt to new learning environments (van-Rooijens, 1986) in terms of the increased complexity of the material to be learned and the greater time and effort required to do so; and the need to constantly self-regulate and to develop better thinking skills, including learning to use specific learning techniques (Fram & Bonvillian, 2001). Emotional stress, such as anxiety, students’ appraisal of the stressfulness of the role’s demands and of their ability to cope with those demands (Wan, 1992), are also connected to academic stress.

Another category that evokes stress is social adjustment, particularly adjusting to university life (Saracoglu, Minden, & Wilchesky, 1989; Abouserie, 1994) and separating from family and friends. Finally, other constraints include financial pressure (Miech & Shanahan, 2000) and other technical difficulties.

Thus, academic stressors cover the whole area of learning and achieving in and adjusting to a new environment in which a great deal of content must be assimilated in a seemingly inadequate period of time. Since students endeavor to adapt themselves to academic life, positive adaptation and well-being factors are associated with fewer experienced stress symptoms (Van-Rooijen, 1986; Tobin & Carson, 1994).

Coping Strategies

Coping strategies are assumed to have two primary functions: managing the problem causing stress and governing emotions relating to those stressors (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980, 1986; Lazarus & Folkman 1984). Interpreting their results in terms of this assumption, most studies confirm two major related findings. The first is that a situation is evaluated as stressful, in part, whenever the individual perceives a lower ability to cope with it. The second finding is that stressors perceived as controllable elicit more proactive coping mechanisms (Karasek & Theorell, 1990), while those perceived as uncontrollable elicit more avoidance strategies (Anshel & Kaissidis, 1997; Compas, Malcarne & Fondacaro., 1988; Lazarus, 1981; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Roecker, Dubow & Donaldson, 1996).

Differences in the conceptualization of coping have led to a number of ways of classifying coping strategies. Lazarus and Folkman (1984) offered a widely used definition of coping, namely: constantly changing cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage specific external or internal demands. Subsequently, Higgins and Endler (1995) grouped coping strategies into three main classes: task-oriented, emotion-oriented, and avoidance-oriented.

The task-oriented strategy is problem-focused. It involves taking direct action to alter the situation itself to reduce the amount of stress it evokes. In the emotion-oriented strategy, efforts are directed at altering emotional responses to stressors. It also includes attempts to reframe the problem in such a way that it no longer evokes a negative emotional response and elicits less stress (Mattlin, 1990). Finally, avoidance-oriented coping includes strategies such as avoiding the situation, denying its existence, or losing hope (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). It also includes the use of indirect efforts to adjust to stressors by distancing oneself, evading the problem, or engaging in unrelated activities for the purpose of reducing feelings of stress (Roth & Cohen, 1986).

The first two coping strategies involve pro-active efforts to alter the stressfulness of the situation, with the use of emotion- oriented strategies being favored by people whose personality disposition enables them to easily enter into and sustain a state of emotional arousal in response to, or in anticipation of, emotionally- laden events (Melamed, 1994). By contrast, avoidance strategies are characterized by the absence of attempts to alter the situation. The two proactive strategies, namely the task-oriented and emotion- oriented approaches, are associated with better adjustment, as reflected in higher self-rated coping effectiveness and less depression (Causey & Dubow, 1993; Compas et al., 1988; Moos, 1990; Reid, Dubow & Carey, 1995; Strutton & Lumpkin, 1993). Although avoidance-oriented coping may initially be an appropriate reaction to stress. Billings and Moos (1981) have shown that it is associated with poorer adjustment, and Endler and Parker (1999) have suggested that, in the long run, task-oriented coping is the most efficacious strategy.

Effects of Academic Stress and Demographics on Coping

Although a large body of literature has gauged the effects of academic stressors on coping strategies, little research has examined the importance of developing an integrative model, incorporating the effects of the perceived and actual stressor parameters on coping strategies.

With respect to the effect of academic stress on coping, the higher education literature shows that students’ coping methods are diverse, reflecting personal influences on their coping styles. Students generally report using proactive behavioral methods, such as managing their time, solving specific problems and seeking information and help (Misra & McKean, 2000; Britton, 1991; Lopez, Mauricio, Gormley, Simko & Berger, 2001; Collins, Mowbray & Bybee, 1999). Mattlin et al, (1990) found that students also use cognitive emotion-related behavior, such as positive reconceptualization of the stress-inducing events, to cope with stress.

Permeating these results we find demographic differences in coping styles. Researchers have found that ethnic, cultural (Kim, Won, Liu, Liu, &, Kitanishi, 1997) and even socioeconomic (Cairns, 1989) characteristics influenced coping behaviors. As for gender, Haarr and Morash (1999) found that significant differences come into play with respect to avoidancebased strategies, with women reporting a significantly higher level of use of avoidance than men. Other researchers found that males favor the use of task oriented methods and physical coping resources, and are more likely to endeavor to solve problems, while females are inclined to make more use of emotional and social coping resources (Rawson, Palmer & Henderson, 1999). Undergraduate male students who use task-oriented coping techniques report experiencing less distress (Higgins & Endler, 1995), while the use of emotion-oriented coping strategies was a significantly positive predictor of distress in both men and women.

Age has also been found as a factor that mediates stress levels. Studies that focused on perceived stress found that it decreases with age (Cohen & Williamson, 1988; Hamarat, Thompson, Zabrucky, Steele, & Matheny, 2001).

To summarize, studies of stress and coping offer only a partial demonstration of the coping strategies employed. In particular, the literature has viewed coping behaviors in relation to either ‘actual’ stress or perceived stress, without endeavoring to determine from which aspect the coping behaviors derive. To investigate this issue, an integrated model is required.

Conceptual Model of Coping Strategies

The proposed multilevel structural model (Figure 1) simultaneously defines multidimensional constructs of objective variables (academic load), subjective variables (stress perceptions) and relevant demographics, and tests their direct and indirect effects on coping strategies.

Figure 1

Multidimension model of objective Academic Loads, Stress Perceptio\ns, Demographic Characteristics and Coping Strategies

In this formulation, perceived and objective stress parameters are proposed to explain coping strategies. Accordingly, we formulated the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: Academic stress perceptions are predicted by objective academic load variables.

Hypothesis 2: Perceived academic stress, objective academic loads and demographic characteristics are correlated with the types of coping strategies adopted by students.

Hypothesis 3: Academic loads predict the use of task-oriented coping strategies, academic stress perceptions predict the use of emotion-oriented coping strategies and demographic characteristics predict the use of avoidance coping strategies.

Method

Participants

The target population was students studying in Israeli academic institutions. Questionnaires were distributed to students during the 2002 academic semesters. Except for two negligible refusals, all students completed the questionnaires. Of the respondents, 153 (51.4 %) were female, 119 (43.8 %) were male and 11 (4%) did not identify their gender, comparable to the Israeli student distribution 2000/1 (56.5% women and 43.5% male, Central Bureau of Statistics 2002, No. 53, Table 8.33(1)). In terms of their marital status, 179 (63.3%) respondents were single, 98 (34.6%) were married and 5 (1.8%) were divorced. Almost a quarter of respondents (68, being 24.1%) had children: 26 (9.2%) had one child, 22 (7.8%) had two children and 20 (7.1%) had three or more children. Most respondents (173, being 61.1% of the sample) were childless while 42 (14.8%) did not answer the question. Distribution by academic degree sought indicated that 156 (55.2%) of the students were studying for their first degree and 127 (44.8%) were studying for their second degree. The average age of the respondents was 30.13 years (SD = 6.78), with a range of 41 years (from 20 to 61 years).

Procedure

We distributed the questionnaire to stratified samples of 283 students studying in national universities and colleges in Israel, who participated in the study voluntarily. Class lecturers and assistants distributed all questionnaires during class time. Academic institutions were therefore selected by non-random convenience sampling. T-tests were performed for gender and age distribution in the institutions. Results show no significant differences in terms of gender (t = -0.55, F= 1.19, p > 0.05) or age (t= -3.26, F = 0.67, p > 0.05). Therefore we treated the students as one group.

Measures

This study comprised three parts: (1) the students’ subjective assessment of the stress they experience i.e., perceived stress; (2) an investigation of the task- emotion-and avoidance-related coping strategies they adopt; (3) an objective assessment of their actual academic loads.

1. Perceived Stress

In accordance with Lazarus’s (1990) definition, perceived stress was defined as a condition subjectively experienced by respondents who identify an imbalance between demands addressed to them and the resources available to them to encounter these demands. It was assessed in terms of the students’ subjective experiences of their academic stress. The question was: “Would you please share with us your feelings of stress regarding your academic loads: How much stress do you feel due to your academic studies?” Students answered on a four-point Likert scale from not stressed at all (1) through very much stressed (4).

2. Task- Emotion and Avoidance-Oriented Coping strategies

Coping strategies were measured using the Coping Inventory for Stressful Situations (Endler & Parker, 1999). This is a 53 – item measure of coping style composed of three factors, (a) Task- oriented coping – its subscales tap active and offensive coping styles, stressing proactive responses to the stressors (e.g., “I focus on the problem and see how I can solve it”). (b) Emotion- oriented coping – this scale represents coping styles directed at altering negative emotional responses to stressors, such as negative thinking (e.g., “My efforts will surely fail”), lowered self confidence (e.g., “I cannot handle this problem”) or poor self image (e.g., “I am useless”). (c) Avoidance – this represents withdrawal behaviors and the redirection of personal resources towards different paths, such as sports, leisure time, etc. (e.g., “I buy something”). The scales for these three coping strategies range from 1 (seldom used) to 5 (always used). Higher scores represent a higher usage frequency for the specific coping strategy. Cronbach alpha coefficients obtained for the entire scale of coping strategies were: for task orientation, α = 0.89; emotional orientation, α = 0.87; avoidance, α = 0.83, indicating that the coping strategies questionnaire is a reliable measure of adult coping orientations for a college population.

3. Objective Stress Variables: Academic Loads

Academic loads were objectively assessed on an average weekly basis in terms of: (1) class hours; (2) study hours during semesters and (3) study hours during exam periods. Study hours included time spent in the library, in laboratories and at home, to meet academic demands.

Demographic variables

Data were collected with respect to each student’s age, gender and familial status. Since most of the students in our sample were not parents, familial status was not subsequently included in the model. This decision was supported by correlation calculations, which showed that the degree of correlation between familial status, academic stress perceptions and coping strategies was negligible.

Results

To investigate the first hypothesis, a regression analysis was performed on perceived academic stress, in order to evaluate the effects of objective stress parameters on stress perceptions. An ENTER method was used in each equation, with academic stress perceptions entered as the dependent variable and variables relating to academic loads entered as independent variables. The results (Table 1) showed that objective parameters related to academic stress significantly affect academic stress perceptions (R2 = 0.075, F (3,283) = 5.97, p

To investigate the second hypothesis a Pearson correlation analysis was performed. As shown in Table 2, certain coping behaviors were significantly correlated with perceived academic stress, so supporting our hypothesis. Specifically, the correlation of perceived academic stress with task-oriented behaviors was significantly negatively (r = -0.16, p

Table 1

Regression analysis for academic stress perception with academic loads parameters

These findings urged investigation of the third hypothesis, for which purpose hierarchical regression analyses were performed. Separate analyses were conducted using each of the three coping strategies as dependent variables and the three other factors (namely, academic loads, stress perceptions and demographic characteristics) as independent variables. We were interested in investigating whether academic loads predict the use of task oriented coping strategies, academic stress perceptions predict the use of emotion oriented coping strategies and demographic characteristics predict the use of avoidance coping strategies. For this purpose, the independent variables were entered in three steps in an ENTER procedure, in the following order: (1) demographic characteristics (2) academic load variables and (3) academic stress perceptions.

Table 2

Correlations between coping strategies and stress perceptions (N = 283)

The results (Table 3) for all equations were significant, indicating that each of the coping strategies was significantly predicted by the independent variables. It is notable that for both task and emotion oriented strategies, academic stress perceptions significantly contributed towards predicting coping behavior, notwithstanding that this variable was entered last. As hypothesized, academic stress perceptions affected these two coping behaviors in opposing ways. Thus, while academic stress perceptions significantly and positively predicted the use of emotion-oriented strategies (B = 0.25, p

A deeper examination of the regression equations for the emotion- oriented strategy reveals that the transition from step two (inclusion of academic loads, B = -7.47) to step three (inclusion of academic stress perceptions, B = 0.25) is relatively sharp and positive, indicating that stress perceptions make an important positive contribution to the prediction of emotionoriented strategies. This contribution is statistically significant (second step: R = 0.32, R^sup 2^ = 0.10; third step: R = 0.36, R^sup 2^ = 0.13). Furthermore, these results suggest that the greater the level of academic stress experienced, the more students tend to manage it through emotion-oriented coping strategies. A similar examination of the regression equations with respect to the task oriented coping strategy shows the opposite result, in that the sharp transition from step 2 to step 3 is negative. Thus, while objective load variables shift students towards the adoption of task-related coping behaviors (B = 7.28; p = 0.05), the subsequent inclusion of aca\demic stress into the equations reverses the results (B = -0.21 ; p = 0.00). These findings suggest that, initially, students tend to use task-oriented strategies to manage their objective academic loads. Having done so, they subsequently refrain from using these strategies and focus on managing any remaining academic stress perceptions.

Table 3

Hierarchical Regression Analyses for Coping Strategies with the Independent Variables: (1) Demographic Characteristics, (2) Academic Loads and (3) Stress Perceptions

Other findings of interest discerned from the analyses relate to the demographic characteristics. Age has been found to be a substantial variable appearing as a significant predictor for most of the coping behaviors. The scores show that older students employ task-oriented techniques in preference to any other coping strategy, while younger students also employed emotion-oriented and avoidance strategies. We found gender to be a significant variable only with respect to the avoidance coping strategy, with males adopting this coping strategy more than females.

Discussion

We surveyed a varied sample of university and college students to examine three hypotheses concerning the coping strategies employed by students in response to different types of stress. We were particularly interested in elucidating the role of academic perceived stress versus academic objective loads in shaping the coping strategy used.

As we hypothesized, both academic stress perceptions and academic loads had significant and unique effects on students’ coping strategies. The experience of academic stress was mainly associated with the use of emotion-oriented behaviors, while being significantly negatively related to adoption of task-oriented strategies. This indicates that the nature of the stress perception can also be significant in restraining the use of certain coping behaviors. Moreover, objective and subjective stress experiences fulfilled opposite roles in the prediction of coping behavior. In particular, the subjective perception of academic stress acted as a restraining factor in students’ employment of task-orientated coping behaviors, while objective academic loads supported the use of this coping strategy.

The statistical coefficient scores suggest that most academic stress perceptions derive from actual academic loads. We further find that both of these factors are addressed by working students through proactive means. Academic load is addressed principally through a task orientation and academic stress primarily through an emotion-oriented strategy. The literature shows that proactive strategies are preferred in situations that are, or are perceived to be, controllable (Karasek & Theorell, 1990) and that students generally utilize proactive behavioral methods to manage academic stress (Misra & McKean, 2000; Britton & Tesser, 1991; Lopez et al, 2001; Collins et al, 1999). Interpreted in this light, our data suggest that students perceive the academic component of their stress to be at least partly controllable. Therefore, they initially address academic stress through task-oriented behaviors. As actual academic loads reduce, but the perception of stress remains, task- oriented coping techniques lose their relevance, and emotion- oriented behaviors predominate. This interpretation is also partially supported by the work of Mandler (1993), who suggests that individuals’ reaction to stress takes two forms. First, individuals ruminate about the stressful situation, their actions proceeding automatically from the way they interpret it, in accordance with their customary, learned behavioral patterns. Then, if this does not yield a solution to the problem (i.e., the perception of stress remains), emotional and affective reactions arise. .

In agreement with Mattlin et al (1990), we find the utilization of emotion-oriented strategies to be affected by academic loads. This may be explained by the adaptive functions of emotions in managing stressful situations, [such as are generated by heavy academic loads,] by preparing the individual for more effective thought and action, for example (Mandler, 1993).

The data also show that women and men employ a wide array of similar strategies to deal with stress. Gender effects did not appear even in examinations of the interactions between stress perceptions, coping strategies and gender. Significant gender differences come into play only with respect to the avoidance coping strategy, with men reporting a significantly higher usage of avoidance as a coping tool. This finding is inconsistent with much of the stress and coping literature, in which distinct gender-based coping behaviors are well established for all coping strategies, and with women reporting a significantly higher level of use of avoidance than men (Haarr & Morash, 1999).

Consistently with the literature (Cohen & Williamson, 1988; Hamarat et al, 2001), older working students’ coping appears task- oriented and they do not utilize indirect coping techniques. By contrast, younger students generally choose to manage stress by either emotion-oriented strategies or avoidance.

Overall, and in agreement with our hypotheses, we find that students’ academic stress perceptions can be predicted from their objective academic load variables. Furthermore, perceived academic stress, objective academic loads and demographic characteristics are correlated with the types of coping strategy adopted by students, with academic loads predicting the use of task oriented coping strategies, academic stress predicting the use of emotion-oriented coping strategies, and age and gender (demographic characteristics) predicting avoidance reactions. Thus, the data support our proposed model. The main implication of the results is that students who face stressful situations choose to deal with them through a “step-by- step” coping strategy. As such, they initially adopt a task-focused approach to manage their actual loads to reduce stress associated with phenomena that they consider controllable. They then utilize indirect emotion-oriented techniques to address residual perceived stress.

1 Title: Students in Universities, by Degree, Field of Study and Institutions.

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DAFNA KARIV, PH.D.

School of Business Administration The College of Management

TALI HEIMAN, PH.D.

Department of Education and Psychology The Open University of Israel

Copyright Project Innovation, Inc. Mar 2005




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