Technology and academic pressure push students to their limits

by Dylan Carlson Sirvent and Sophie Yang, ’19

Burdened with demanding classes, a spring sport and being active in four regularly-meeting clubs, UAHS senior Henry Jones* feels pressure to succeed in his day-to-day life, often sacrificing sleep for studies and studies for sleep.

“I don’t go to bed until 4 in the morning every day, and I get really tired after school, so I have to take a nap,” Jones said. “I take a lot of AP and IB classes . . . I don’t even have time to get everything done.”

The distractions of technology hardly help.

“I facetime a lot of people,” Jones said. “It takes time from my day.”

Jones is not alone. In recent years, the growth of technology and increasingly rigorous courses have placed stress on students at UAHS. As administrators and teachers have come together to relieve this problem, some people hope for change ahead.

Tech Tensions

In the 21st century, the rise of technology has kindled breakthroughs in education. Internet sources, online textbooks and interactive pages have altered the way students interact with their learning.

For UAHS English teacher Melissa Hasebrook, this technology has marked a change in her teaching style.

“My expectation is that in the middle of a conversation, if I ask a question, someone will pull up a reasonable answer to that question,” Hasebrook said. “Students have far more access to the information that I deliver.”

However, technology provides a distraction too. In a 2013 study led by Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, researchers followed middle school, high school and university students as they completed school work. The results showed that on average, the students could only focus for six minutes before checking technology unrelated to their task.

Arlingtonian found a similar trend among UAHS students. According to a voluntary survey of 375 students, 62 percent of students check their texts and social media once every 10 minutes or less.

Counselor Liz Hughes finds that procrastinating with technology is very common among students.

“A lot of my students that end up struggling, we have a plan of ‘you’re going to go to the math lab on this day.’ I’ll follow up on them, and they’ll be on a game on their computer when they have ten missing assignments,” Hughes said. “Technology can be very distracting, and for some, it’s actually addicting.”

In the last 5 years, Hasebrook has also seen technology and procrastination working in a tandem to cause sleep deprivation.

“It used to be one or two kids out of the hundred I taught that struggled with sleep issues. Now, it’s probably 25 or 30 percent of the room struggling . . . zoning out, falling asleep or doing that close-eyed nod,” Hasebrook said. “Kids will talk about getting texts from each other all night long.”

Additionally, technology may place a burden on students. For junior Mauretta Patitsas, social media factors into her responsibilities, taking up to an hour each day.

“I have a lot of social media I have to run for various clubs or personal accounts,” Patitsas said. “It makes me mad sometimes because I don’t want to be on my phone so much . . . [I’m] losing a lot of time from probably useless things.”

Homework Havoc

The National Education Association suggests high school students complete at most 1.5 to 2 hours of homework each day. Yet, in Arlingtonian’s survey, students reported completing an average of 3.1 hours each night.

“Homework definitely has a big effect on my daily life,” Jones said. “Most of the time, I can’t do anything else other than my homework and study.”

IB coordinator Cynthia Ballheim points out that the “flipped classroom model” may also contribute to students’ heavier workloads.

“In the old model, homework comes at the end, so it’s kind of a summary. But in the ‘flip classroom model,’ it prepares you for the next day. Instead of reading, watching a movie or doing research in the classroom, students [do] that to prepare for class the next day and then have a conversation in class about it,” Ballheim said.

Principal Andrew Theado believes communication between students and teachers is crucial to managing assignments.

“I think sometimes it’d uncomfortable to talk to a teacher from a student’s perspective to say, ‘Listen, I’m really overwhelmed. Can I push back this assessment?’” Theado said.

In 2014, Stanford researchers surveyed nearly 5,000 students from high-performing California high schools, finding that they—like UAHS students—averaged 3.1 hours of nightly homework. The researchers found that their workloads contributed to high stress, sleep deprivation, and a lack of free hours, an effect that UAHS junior Olivia Oh has experienced firsthand.

“My sophomore year, I fell asleep in class almost every single day,” Oh said. “I got an average of 4 hours of sleep, sometimes even 3.”

Oh believes that UA’s emphasis on excellence led her to take the rigorous classes that increased her workload.

“I feel pressured to take AP classes,” Oh said. “It’s a very easy [thing] to compare yourself to other students, and because the standard is so high, when you don’t meet it, you just give out.”

Sophomore Dan Basilaia felt similarly overwhelmed with UAHS’s standard.

“This is the school with the highest rank. You’re supposed to have good grades, and people go to good colleges, and people want you to succeed,” Basilaia said.

Like many other students, Basilaia remembers his first high school midterms as a stressful experience.

“It was nerve-wracking: I almost had a panic attack. I was just so scared that I was going to do badly or that I was going to mess something up,” Basilaia said.

Pressing for Success

Aside from homework, extracurriculars are a major stress factor. As Hughes explains, the selective nature of college admissions pushes students harder than before.

“Today’s world is a lot more dog-eat-dog and a lot more competitive. People are doing more and more to try and put themselves out there, and as a result, I think we’re all a lot more burned out,” Hughes said.

This has created difficulties for students such as junior Mauretta Patitsas who balance extracurriculars and schoolwork.

“I do a lot of things outside of school, so I don’t get home until 9 p.m. sometimes. By that time I can’t really focus. Sometimes I stay up and try to do [homework]. Sometimes I just give up and [do] my homework during lunch or doing homework for one class during another class, even though I know that’s bad,” Patisas said.

Senior Peter Hoffmann, who is a host at Figlio’s, agrees that it’s difficult to keep up with school and his job.

“[My job] takes like three hours from my night. I try to get homework done before that, [but] if I don’t finish it before, then I have to stay up even later,” Hoffmann said.

According to Arlingtonian’s survey, 84 percent of students said extracurriculars affect their time homework and sleep. More tellingly, 43 percent said they had dropped an activity to make time for homework.

Breaking the Code

With many colleges having acceptance rates below 20 percent, students are pressured to build the perfect high school portfolio.

“There have always been struggling students who cheat to survive. But more and more, there are students at the top who cheat to thrive,” said Donald L. McCabe, a leading researcher on cheating, in an interview with The New York Times.

Jones admitted that he has breached academic honesty.

“Yes, I’ve cheated on a test . . . You need good grades and a 4.0 or higher to get into a really good college. To do that, you need to do well on your tests. So, it kind of forces you to get good grades, and not everyone can do that. So you feel the need to cheat even though [it’s] never going to get you anywhere in life,” Jones said.

Jones also detailed the ways in which he has cheated on a test.

“I have a whole list on how to cheat on a test. It depends on the test. If it’s multiple choice, I just look at the empty bubbles before or after the filled-in one to see which one it is,” Jones said. “Also, on the first day of school, I make sure I’m the first one in class and watch everyone else sitdown. Then, I’ll choose a good seat where the teacher can’t see me and be sitting next to a smart person.”

However, cheating is not as rare at UAHS as one might think. In Arlington’s survey, 44.3 percent of respondents admitted to cheating on a test or quiz. And among those who have cheated, 86 percent cited a “high amount of homework” as the main contributing factor.

Junior Cole Smith said he has seen the development of a “cheating culture” at UAHS.

“I have heard about a fair amount of cheating . . . I certainly think that [cheating] happens and I think that we have developed a culture of high standards [here at UA] where grades are pretty important and the prevalence of cheating kind of goes hand in hand with that,” Smith said.

Senior Peter Hoffmann attributes this to an obsession over every single point.

“I think that’s a byproduct of the PowerSchool mentality where they need to have the right test scores and the right grades to get into a good college,” Hoffman said.

Learning for Learning

As the academic system intensifies across the country, Patitsas feels that sometimes, completion is prioritized over comprehension.

“If I actually want to understand the material, it takes a long time rather than just writing down some answers,” Patisas said.

Hoffmann believes students have to realize that there is more to life than grades.

“I’m a good student, so I put a lot of stress on myself. But I realized . . . in the grand scheme of things, grades don’t really matter. So if grades are going to affect my happiness, if it’s going to stress me out and make me constantly anxious . . . I choose not to constantly focus on [them],” Hoffmann said.

Jones has changed his perspective this year as well, setting out with a stronger focus on understanding the material. He hopes that with this outlook, he can reduce his stress and set himself up for the future.

“My first two years of high school, I thought I had to get good grades [and] make sure I stay on top and get a good GPA, and that’s how I’d get to college. But my senior year, I’m trying to learn more rather than just getting the right grades,” Jones said.