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For the first time in its history, McMaster instigated a week-long break in the fall of 2015. This marked a major departure from the University’s previous practice which, following advocacy efforts from the MSU, included a short, two-day break added to a weekend at the end of October.

According to Heather Poole, a post-doctoral fellow working with the McMaster Institute for Innovation and Excellence in Learning, many universities and colleges across the country have introduced a midterm break in their fall semesters to help students cope with the stress that tends to accompany the accumulation of midterms, essays and extra-curricular commitments. The break is also intended to help prevent students from dropping out of school.

The addition of a week-long break is in and of itself unremarkable. More and more institutions are adopting the practice every year. “In spite of the fact that this has become a pattern across the country, nobody has really looked at whether it actually helps students to manage stress and whether it helps them academically, and so that’s what we’re seeking to do,” explained Poole.

As part of a team of staff from multiple departments and divisions within McMaster, Poole and her co-researchers have taken to scrutinizing the break from multiple perspectives, asking students, professors and other members of the University’s staff to participate in surveys prior to and after the break last fall, as well as a follow-up survey in January. “We were interested in whether students are actually using this for stress-relief activities, whether they are using it for studying, with those sort of being the goal set out by the University, or whether they are going home to a part-time job or to family responsibilities,” she said. In addition to the surveys, a small number of students volunteered to send the researchers text message updates over the course of their Fall Break, and others had cortisol samples taken before and after the break to examine stress levels as cortisol spikes when a subject is under pressure. Despite the small sample size, Poole commented that a change in cortisol levels was observed, however she would not confirm whether levels increased or decreased as a result of the break.

“In spite of the fact that this has become a pattern across the country, nobody has really looked at whether it actually helps students to manage stress and whether it helps them academically, and so that’s what we’re seeking to do.”

While the group is still analyzing the multiple types of feedback they received, Poole has already been able to make some observations about some of the results, mainly the surveys thus far. Part of these surveys asked students to rate their perceived stress levels as well as check off items from a list of standard “stressors,” such as losing one’s keys or having to write a test. “When we look at what happened in patterns of pre- and post-Fall Break, the number of stressors that students were reporting was lower after the break, so they were actually experiencing … fewer stressful events after the fall break [however] they were reporting higher perceived stress after the Fall Break.” More analysis must be done before these results can be interpreted in a meaningful way, however the preliminary results show that the effects of McMaster’s Fall Break could be more complicated than simply reducing student stress levels. The team hopes to gain more insight into the complexities surrounding stress levels in follow-up focus groups.

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The response rate for the surveys was higher than Poole anticipated.

“People seem to be really interested in it, which is really good and I mean it’s not always that typical in research.”

The questionnaires sent out immediately before and after the break garnered about 2,300 responses each. The January follow-up survey was filled out by about 1,150 students. Of those who responded to the first two surveys, close to 80 percent reported that the Fall Break was beneficial. However, the remaining 20 percent found it to be detrimental on the whole. Poole hopes to look at the latter group with greater focus.

“It’s possible that students in a particular faculty are saying that their stress has increased or maybe it depends on how many assignments or tests they had right after the break,” she explained. This information could be given to instructors to improve how courses are structured.

Much like the students, professors gave a mixed review of the break.

“A lot of professors are saying that it was useful for them personally as sort of prep time, but then others are saying, well it’s kind of too early for that … which was also a thing that came out in a lot of the students comments.”

Due to the extensive planning required to schedule the McMaster school year, students will not see any short-term changes to the structure of their academic year. “I would be surprised if any changes come about based on this research for next fall, but we certainly feel like it’s been a worthwhile study and we’ve gotten a good sampling of the student voice,” Poole concluded. Poole and her team plan to release further results in June.

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