Meet the University of Helsinki study psychologists

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Bulletin 23.4.2021

Article series: Introducing the university welfare service providers, part 2/2

The shift to remote studying a year ago was very quick, which forced both students and the teaching and administrative staff to adjust to the university’s new daily life. Study psychologists Johanna Mikkonen and Kari Peltola shared their thoughts on the challenges related to studying in these exceptional times, how the mind works and the height of the bar.

Challenges of remote studying

It is almost inevitable that the challenges of these exceptional times affect studying. Tiredness, lack of motivation, mood swings, narrow social circles and feelings of loneliness have all been apparent in the way students talk to the study psychologists. Problems with attentivity and focus are especially difficult now that students have to study at home.

Johanna says that “in normal conditions, meetings between teachers and other students sort of lubricate the hinges, which does not occur in remote settings, making it difficult to open creaky doors”. It may be particularly difficult to simply stay motivated when studying remotely. “The cornerstones of inner motivation are autonomy, stability and communality, i.e. the possibility of affecting one’s own choices and behaviour, sufficient experiences of success and the feeling of being part of a larger entity.” The feeling of communality, in particular, is very limited in these exceptional circumstances, and none of the other cornerstones function as well as in normal conditions. When things don’t move forward, there are no experiences of success—working alone may seem distressing and even devoid of meaning.

“In exceptional times, our culture’s excessive individualism and tendency towards self-criticism are highlighted,” says Johanna. Students may blame themselves for not progressing in their studies, although the situation is not so simple. Many are used to studying with others outside their homes, which means that the current problems with motivation are also structural.

It is also easy for students who are prone to self-criticism to start comparing themselves with how they imagine others are doing. The mind creates evaluations of different performances, and, according to Kari, it is very human that the perception is often, if not always, that others are doing better. It is good to know that demanding a lot from yourself is a shared experience within the university community. “This community consists of members who, as a default, have always set the bar very high—being admitted would be impossible without doing so,” says Kari.

What if you constantly demand only top performances from yourself? Johanna and Kari use sports metaphors to talk about excessive expectations of yourself. High jumpers cannot expect to break their personal record every time they jump. Occasionally, you need to focus on your technique and physique in training and ensure that you get enough rest, eat properly and maintain an overall balance in life. “You can do a little more before your star moment—it is impossible to give it all you’ve got all the time,” says Kari. “If you start running today, surely you are not planning to do a marathon tomorrow,” says Johanna.

If the bar is always set at a record height, it may lead to a cycle of failure: if you constantly aim at performances for which you do not have enough resources or abilities at this particular moment, you may begin to question your basic capabilities. This feeling makes it harder to start doing anything and reduces motivation. The study psychologists say that not all studies should be completed with full effort and that, most likely, there is not enough time for this anyway. Especially first- and second-year students may find it difficult to determine how much effort is enough. The study psychologists assure that not every piece of information has to be learned from everything, and that, sometimes, a little less is enough. It is important to remember that university is not for knowing but for learning.

Johanna says that comparing yourself and your performance with others is natural and that everyone does it. There is nothing inherently wrong about self-criticism. It indicates that the tasks and duties you are given are meaningful to you and you want to perform and fulfil them well. Criticism is not something that you should try to get rid of. However, you should analyse how you view your goals and your criticism of yourself. This allows you to determine the appropriate level of performance you need to set for yourself every time.

What to do? 

What can you do if you feel that you simply cannot accomplish anything? According to Kari, using a calendar has helped many students, and dividing tasks into smaller parts is practised in the study psychologists’ small group counselling sessions. Dividing large projects or study modules into smaller tasks makes it easier to get started. In addition, if your mind keeps telling you that you have not accomplished anything and you are wasting time, you can check the calendar and see that you have completed some tasks and progressed.

“It is important to understand how your mind works and try to accept that difficult thoughts arise pretty often,” says Kari. For example, scheduling and determining what tasks you should accomplish is practising dealing with your mind and a sort of partnership—learning how you and your mind work together. This requires practise, making observations and learning acceptance. Johanna says that being self-compassionate, identifying different emotions and learning to live with them is a life-long effort.

According to Kari, tolerating uncertainty is also an important part of studying. It requires venturing outside your comfort zone. When you notice that you feel uncomfortable but continue working, you will learn how to tolerate uncertainty. Johanna says that learning is impossible without facing a challenging situation every now and then. 

Finally, Johanna points out that people are programmed to notice mistakes as a result of evolution—you learn from mistakes and pay special attention to them in order to avoid them in the future. As a result of the negativity bias, things that go well can be easily disregarded. You can practise noticing good things consciously, which may be a good antidote for unreasonable self-criticism.

 

Although the availability of individual counselling services from study psychologists is limited, new appointments can be booked every week. The study psychologists also arrange small group counselling for overcoming the challenges of remote studying. For more information, please visit the Study psychologist services for students page in the Instructions for students section.

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Bulletin 23.4.2021

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