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Student researchers present their findings at the Undergraduate Research Fair in April.

Research Project Studies Student Self-Care

The college experience brings certain stressors. Combine them with an ongoing pandemic, world events instantly accessible via smartphone and personal issues, and it’s clear the average college student has quite a bit to manage. How do St. Norbert College students handle it?

This past academic year, four students joined Danielle Geerling (Psychology) on a collaborative journey to find the answer, or at least the start to one. Brittney Zimmer ’22, Lexi Anderson ’22, Kassidy Ashbeck ’22 and Tasha Voss ’22 all enrolled in Geerling’s Motivation & Diversity Lab for their final year on campus.

Geerling sensed early on that these four seniors shared a larger curiosity in the science around self-care and emotional well-being. “I thought it would be a good idea for them to work on a collaborative research project,” she says. “Together, they decided to study St. Norbert College students’ use of different self-care strategies, focusing on whether some strategies were associated with greater well-being than others.”

Their almost year-long collaboration started with research in the fall of 2021, and ended with an on-campus presentation at the annual Undergraduate Research Forum the following spring.

The team first reviewed scholarly articles on various topics – what motivates humans, social media use and physical activity, to name a few – and discussed their common threads. From there, they created three main questions that guided their research:

• What self-care strategies do college students report using?

• What self-care strategies enhance, rather than impair, motivation and well-being?

• What features of self-care strategies enhance, rather than impair, motivation and well-being?

The next step was an online survey, the safest option during the pandemic. After gathering data from 84 SNC students, the team analyzed it. Their findings showed that SNC students prefer to use passive self-care strategies to relax, like watching TV, listening to music or scrolling through social media platforms. But they also had positive reactions to active self-care strategies, like self-pampering sessions and physical exercise with others.

“Although we might frequently zone out during self-care by doing activities that feel relaxing to us, the more that students in our sample used more active self-care strategies instead, especially physical exercise, the greater their self-reported levels of well-being,” Geerling says.

Interestingly, the data showed students who read, journal or puzzle – all things that are mentally active – reported lower levels of emotional well-being. This contradicts previously accepted scholarly research that indicates these types of activities are beneficial to improving one’s well-being.

Another question arose regarding the impact of the pandemic. While COVID has caused a societal focus on the importance of mental health and self-care, the team couldn’t determine with absolute certainty that the pandemic affected how SNC students currently approach their own versions of self-care.

“Since we only collected data during the pandemic, it’s difficult to say whether the pandemic had an effect on the use of the self-care strategies we studied,” says Geerling.

Zimmer also notes their sample size was a bit restrictive, as the majority of those surveyed were white and female. She recommends any future student-led research project incorporates a wider sample size so more people of varying backgrounds are accurately represented. But, now she's graduated, that will be another student’s undertaking.

While Geerling doesn’t have a specific student lined up to continue the research, she says a next step might be to determine how SNC students define what self-care means to them, and whether that might affect how they approach their free time.

“It was a pleasure working with Lexi, Kassidy, Tasha and Brittney on a topic all of us found interesting and important,” says Geerling. “This was an especially enjoyable group to work with because, as a group of four seniors, they were able to take ownership of the project and apply their psychology skillset in a really useful way.”

July 21, 2022