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Music students experience heavy workloads in their studies, a study finds

Music students in the United Kingdom are more likely to experience stress than students in Finland, but in Finland, studies in the main subject increase students’ experiences of workload, and it is even a bigger stress factor for them than working.

In Finland, students find that the pace of studies is too intense and that the number of credits awarded for a course is not in proportion to the workload.

Although the specific field of music studies was not considered a factor in stress levels, students studying music education were more likely to experience a high level of workload than students studying classical music or other fields of music. In music education, studies in instrument and singing are combined with gaining teacher qualifications.

“We studied the way students experience their workload in three categories: classical music, music education, and other degree programmes as the third group. Next year, we will publish a sub-study where we will compare students’ experiences of workloads between different degree programmes in further detail,” says doctoral researcher Tuula Jääskeläinen.

The now published study is a part of Tuula Jääskeläinen’s forthcoming dissertation at the Sibelius Academy of Uniarts Helsinki. Other researchers in the study include Guadalupe López-Íñiguez and Michelle Phillips, who are supervisors of the dissertation.

Participants in the study included so called junior students (high school-aged students that take part in youth education), bachelor’s students, master’s students and doctoral students from five different university-level music institutions in Finland and the United Kingdom. A total of 108 students from Finland and 47 students from the United Kingdom took part in the study.

Impact of life outside of music studies 

Especially bachelor’s students, but master’s students, too, report experiencing a greater workload but less stress than doctoral students and junior students. Researchers conclude that this difference is due to the fact that junior students study music on top of attending normal school. The reason for doctoral students’ greater stress levels is work and family commitments.

When asked about psychological and physiological issues that affect their music studies, the participants in the study mentioned performance anxiety, physical strain and injuries related to a musician’s work, the positive impact of active and regular sport exercise, and the fact that most music students need psychological counselling or a longer period of therapy at some stage in their university studies.

“It is important that universities provide students with sufficient support that is available quickly and easily and that is suitable for the special characteristics of music studies,” Guadalupe López-Íñiguez notes.

Women experience the most stress

Female students experienced more workload and stress related to their studies than male students.

”Similar findings were discovered 20 years ago in a study carried out by Zetterberg’s research group, which reported greater stress levels in female music students at higher education institutions, which may indicate that this issue has not been sufficiently addressed at the institutional level,” Tuula Jääskeläinen says.

Further research is needed also on stress experienced by minority groups. Non-binary students, for example, did not experience that their workload in studies was too big, but they still experienced a lot of stress.

High tuition fees increase stress

If the student has to work alongside studies to manage high tuition fees, they experience more stress. The student’s experienced stress levels, in turn, affect their experienced workload.

Therefore, a neoliberal university culture with high tuition fees indirectly increases music students’ experienced stress, Tuula Jääskeläinen says.

In the United Kingdom, students must pay up to tens of thousands of euros in tuition fees every academic year. In Finland, students of higher education institutions only have to pay the obligatory membership fee of the Student Union, which is about one hundred euros. Students from non-EU countries have to pay tuition fees, however.

Focusing on studies increases experiences of workload

The more hours the student spends on working alongside studying, the bigger the impact on the student’s stress levels. However, this does not affect the student’s experienced workload in their main subject of study (or principal study).

If the student’s studies are entirely funded by a loan or a grant, the experienced workload in the main subject is bigger. Researchers say that this may be due to the fact that when funding makes it possible for students to put their entire focus on their studies, students find their workload heavier.

Having or not having a student loan or the amount of other funding does not seem to have noteworthy effects on stress.

“Maybe students don’t think about this after they have decided to fund their studies with a loan at the start of their studies. The matter is not considered topical until it’s time to pay back the loan,” researcher Michelle Phillips says.

Inspired students

Music is a big resource for students. A job in the field of music does not cause stress, unlike work in other fields.

Students also enjoy studying their main subject, which entails playing an instrument or singing, for example. Many of them reported having inspirational relationships with their teachers in their one-to-one tuition, and this relationship remains strong despite students being exposed to different teaching styles, personalities and methods. In this study, researchers tried to identify which factors especially in the higher education culture surrounding studies and teaching contributed to students’ experiences of workload.

Universities benefit from research findings 

According to prior research, students utilise a wide selection of coping strategies. Degree programmes within universities should engage in discussions regarding students’ workload, and also curricula and schedules, students’ coping strategies and support services provided for students should be included in that discussion in universities.

According to students who took part in the study, learning of time management skills, relationships with teachers, inflexibility in courses with mandatory attendance, curricula of degree programmes, course schedules and the impact of student feedback in the development of a university culture were some of the factors that affect their experiences of workload. The pressure to succeed heightened by social media, modern idealisation of success, and the competitive atmosphere connected to music studies also increase music students’ experiences of workload and stress.

Universities can reduce students’ experienced workload and stress by making the atmosphere in the university less about rivalry and by increasing cooperation-based work methods. It is also important to listen to the wide spectrum of students’ voices and consider these opinions in the development of university cultures.

“It’s especially important to take the differences between students’ livelihoods into consideration when reviewing their experiences of workloads and stress and reflect on whether they receive a lot of financial support as well-off students or whether they have to work alongside studies because of financial needs as low-income students,” Tuula Jääskeläinen notes.

The researchers emphasise that because the number of participants in the study was relatively small and they represented music institutions in only two countries, it is not possible to make broader generalisations based on the results.

“Feedback questionnaires are a part of universities’ quality assurance system, and students answer quite a few feedback questionnaires over the course of their studies. This study can serve as a model for how students’ feedback and valuable experiences and opinions can be utilised through research to support the development of teaching and learning environments.”

Read more about the study in English.