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Revue européenne de psychologie appliquée 54 (2004) 261–271

http://france.elsevier.com/direct/ERAP/

Original article

Stressful academic situations: study on appraisal variables in adolescence


Sophie Govaerts *, Jacques Grégoire
Faculté de psychologie et des sciences de l’éducation, Université Catholique de Louvain, Place du Cardinal Mercier,
10, 1348 Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium

Received 15 September 2003; accepted 30 May 2004

Abstract

Several studies emphasized the key role of the cognitive appraisal processes on the way stress is experienced by adolescents. Surprisingly,
few studies applied this concept to the academic stress. This research studied adolescents’ cognitive appraisal processes and their relationships
with academic stress. A sample of adolescents (N = 100, mean age = 16.9 years) reported 145 academic stressful situations. Sex and age
differences were analyzed. Girls granted greater importance to the stressful situation, while boys perceived themselves as having more
resources for coping with it. Student’s age was negatively correlated with the perception that the stressful situation will be resolved on its own.
Five appraisal patterns were identified using cluster analysis. Subsequent analysis showed that the five groups differ in their perceived degree
of stress. One group was labelled at-risk appraisal group, demonstrating a high level of perceived stress, and two groups showed a favorable
appraisal pattern associated with low level of perceived stress. Implications for future research and applications in school psychology are
suggested.
© 2004 Elsevier SAS. All rights reserved.

Résumé

Plusieurs études soulignent le rôle clé joué par les processus d’appraisal cognitifs dans la manière dont les adolescents vivent le stress. Ces
processus restent cependant peu étudiés dans le domaine scolaire. Cette recherche a pour but d’examiner les processus d’appraisal cognitifs
chez les adolescents et leur impact sur le stress académique. Un échantillon d’adolescents (N = 100, âge moyen = 16,9 ans) ont rapporté
145 situations scolaires stressantes. Les différences liées au sexe et à l’âge ont été étudiées. Les filles accordent plus d’importance à la situation
stressante tandis que les garçons perçoivent avoir davantage de ressources pour y faire face. L’âge des élèves est négativement corrélé avec la
perception que la situation va se régler d’elle-même. Une analyse en cluster a permis de mettre en évidence cinq groupes d’élèves présentant
des patterns d’appraisal spécifiques. Ces cinq groupes se sont avérés se distinguer quant à leur niveau de stress perçu. Un groupe a pu être
spécifiquement mis en évidence comme groupe d’appraisal à risque, présentant un niveau de stress particulièrement élevé, et deux groupes ont
révélé un pattern d’appraisal favorable, associé à un faible niveau de stress. Les implications pour les recherches ultérieures ainsi que pour la
psychologie scolaire sont discutés.
© 2004 Elsevier SAS. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Cognitive appraisal; Academic stress; Adolescence; Upper secondary education

Mots-clés : Appraisal cognitif ; Stress académique ; Adolescence ; Enseignement secondaire supérieur

1. Introduction opmental period, many situations tax resources and require


major adjustments (Hauser and Bowlds, 1990; Seiffge-
Over the past 10 years, a key research trend has explored Krenke, 1995).
the issue of adolescent stress and coping. During this devel- Several studies undertaken on the stressors faced by ado-
lescents have demonstrated the crucial role played by the
* Corresponding author. teenager’s cognitive appraisal of these situations (e.g., Bur-
E-mail address: sophie.govaerts@psp.ucl.ac.be (S. Govaerts). gess and Haaga, 1998; Chan, 1998; Seiffge-Krenke et al.,
1162-9088/$ - see front matter © 2004 Elsevier SAS. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.erap.2004.05.001
262 S. Govaerts, J. Grégoire / Revue européenne de psychologie appliquée 54 (2004) 261–271

2001). According to the cognitive theory of emotions, stress into account in order to obtain a more refined understanding
is defined as “a relationship between the person and the of the appraisal and coping mechanisms at work in adoles-
environment that is appraised by the person as relevant to his cent’s stress process.
or her well-being and in which the person’s resources are Given the importance of the appraisal concept in experi-
taxed or exceeded” (Folkman and Lazarus, 1985, p.152). encing a stressful episode, it seems surprising that so little
Independently of the situation’s objective characteristics, an research has been specifically dedicated to this issue in the
individual will only perceive a situation as stressful if it is an school environment. After all, school-related pressure and
issue for this person and if this person feels that it threatens or expectations are the most frequently cited and intense daily
surpasses his/her internal or external resources. stressors mentioned by adolescents (Armacost, 1989;
Two processes are distinguished in cognitive appraisal De Anda et al., 2000; Halstead et al., 1993; McGuire et al.,
(Folkman and Lazarus, 1985; Tomaka et al., 1997). Primary 1987). Studies undertaken in this area have focused primarily
appraisal reflects the perceptions of the nature and the poten- on the issues of the coping strategies that students use to deal
tial risk (or threat) of a situation. Secondary appraisal refers with the stressful situations they encounter at school (to
to the perceptions of individual’s own resources or skills to mention but the most recent: de Anda et al., 2000; Dumont
cope with the situation. By acting interdependently, these and Provost, 1999; Rijavec and Brdar, 2002; Torsheim and
two types of perception determine to what extent one per- Wold, 2001). These studies have paid little attention to the
ceives the demands of the situation as being within his/her appraisal processes that preceded these strategies. We chose
resources or not. In this way, these types of perception have a to undertake the present study in order to refining the under-
direct effect on the type of emotions experienced by the standing of these mechanisms. We chose to limit ourselves to
subject (Folkman and Lazarus, 1985). An individual will studying the cognitive appraisal of academic situations, ex-
perceive the situation as stressful if he/she perceives cluding difficulties arising in the area of interpersonal rela-
himself/herself as having insufficient resources (secondary tions. Indeed, in most studies undertaken in schools,
appraisal) to deal with the perceived demands of the situation learning-related difficulties topped the list in terms of preva-
(primary appraisal). Conversely, an individual is unlikely to lence and degree of stress perceived (De Anda et al., 2000;
feel stress when he/she feels they have the resources needed Dumont, 2000; Geisthardt and Munsch, 1996). Moreover,
to deal with the situation at hand. given its new and mobilizing effects on a cognitive level, an
academic situation often tests a student’s resources, creating
The appraisals also have an impact on the type of coping
an atmosphere conducive to stress. Academic situations are
strategies used to deal with a difficult situation and conse-
also conveyors of important family and social issues for
quently on the individual’s adaptation to the situation (Laz-
adolescents.
arus, 1990). Depending on how an individual perceives the
situation, he/she will choose certain coping strategies over In studying the individual characteristics of students’ cog-
others. These strategies will or will not facilitate adaptation at nitive appraisals of stressful academic situations, a twofold
a later stage. objective guided the present research.
According to the work of Lazarus and his colleagues, Our first objective was to examine the relationships be-
Perrez and Reicherts (1992) have suggested refining the tween gender, age, type of educational programme and ado-
concept of appraisal by taking into account six subjective lescents’ appraisals of stressful academic situations.
dimensions of the way in which an individual cognitively As regards gender-related effects, an ever-increasing
appraises a situation. The first dimension is the valence of the amount of research has demonstrated the gender differences
situation, which is defined as the subjective importance the in adolescents’ psychological experience of stress. Girls re-
subject grants to the situation in terms of personal relevance. port more negative events than boys and in some cases they
The controllability is the subjective perception of the indi- consider themselves more at risk (Compas et al., 1986;
vidual’s ability to control the stressful situation. Changeabil- Swearingen and Cohen, 1985). The consistent pattern of
ity is defined as the subjective perception of whether or not gender differences in the literature may reflect differential
the situation will change on its own. The ambiguity repre- representation and understanding of stressful situations. In
sents the subjective degree of uncertainty created by the this respect, Seiffge-Krenke (1990) has reported gender-
situation. The recurrence is bound to the subjective percep- related differences in the appraisal of the same normative
tion that the situation will happen again in the future. And demands: girls evaluate the same event—for example receiv-
finally, familiarity is defined as the subjective evaluation of ing bad grades in class—as four times more threatening than
the importance of an individual’s experience with this type of boys of the same age. Moreover, girls evaluate the same
situation. This set of variables determines how an individual problem as more complex and of a more internal origin than
cognitively appraises a stressful situation. Studies have been boys. They also continue to think about an event more after it
undertaken on professional stress (Perrez and Reicherts, is over than boys in the same situation.
1992; Reicherts and Pihet, 2000), but never specifically with Given these results, our hypothesis is that girls would
a population of adolescents. However, Boekaerts (1996) has evaluate academic situations at school as more threatening
emphasized the importance of taking these six dimensions (primary appraisal) than boys. Such an appraisal should
S. Govaerts, J. Grégoire / Revue européenne de psychologie appliquée 54 (2004) 261–271 263

conduce to a more acute perception of the degree of stress study. To ensure maximum variability of the sample set, two
reported. establishments were selected, each of which provides a dif-
Age has also been reported as an important variable in ferent type of educational programme. One offers general
studies examining the way a population of children and educational programme, providing students with basic
adolescents evaluate stressors and the way in which they face courses preparing for higher education. The other offers
these (Altshuler and Ruble, 1989; Caspi et al., 1987). Devel- technical educational programme and vocational educational
opmental changes ensuing from cognitive maturation are one programme.1
of the factors that explain why our perception of and ability to Within these two schools, five classes took part in the
cope with stressful events generally sharpen with age. More- study. A total of 41 students in grade 10 and 41 students in
over, as explained by Boekaerts (1996), by becoming in- grade 12 participated in the experiment, along with 18 ado-
creasingly familiar with different types of situations, children lescents from grade 11. Fifty-two students went to a general
improve their ability to evaluate the events they are facing. educational programme, while 48 were enrolled in technical
Older adolescents also have a more extensive repertory of and vocational educational programmes (technical pro-
strategies and greater skill in picturing the problem from gramme: n = 35 and vocational programme: n = 13).
several different perspectives (Seiffge-Krenke, 2000).
We hypothesize that the evolution noted in the literature 2.2. Procedure and measures
on evaluating a stressful episode also occurs in stressful
academic situations at school. In particular, we expect that The data were collected through a questionnaire adminis-
the older students would perceive themselves as having more tered collectively during an hour of class time. Students were
control over the situation and more resources to deal with it asked to recall a stressful academic situation at school that
(secondary appraisal) than their younger counterparts. The had occurred during the academic year, and to provide a
older students should also be more familiar with stressful description as detailed as possible of the characteristics of
school situations than the younger students. this situation and of what made it stressful to them.
To our knowledge, no research has been done on the The students had to complete a questionnaire evaluating
relationship between the type of educational programme their appraisals. All appraisal variables were measured on
attended and the stress created by academic situations. Sev- four-point Likert scales. The first six items measured the six
eral authors emphasize yet the importance to study stress subjective dimensions (valence (“How was this situation
mechanisms and its specificity in specific contexts (Boe- important to you?”), controllability (“Did you feel like you
kaerts, 1999; Frydenberg, 1999). Our study should make had any influence over this situation?”), changeability (“Did
some progress on this matter by exploring the connections you think this situation could be resolved on its own?”),
between the type of educational programme attended and the ambiguity (“Did you feel like you had all the information you
cognitive appraisals students make of stressful academic needed on the situation to cope?”), recurrence (“Did you
situations at school. think the situation was going to recur?”) and familiarity
By exploring differences related to gender, age and type of (“Have you ever been in a similar situation?”)) as set out by
educational programme attended, our research will clarify Perrez and Reicherts (1992) and Reicherts and Pihet (2000).
their relationships with the processes of cognitive appraisal Following two items measured the primary and secondary
of stressful academic situations. We will also examine the appraisal, respectively. Primary appraisal was evaluated by
relations between different types of stressful academic situa- asking the subjects to judge the relative difficulty of the
tions and the students’ cognitive appraisals. situation compared to other situations experienced during the
The second objective of this study is to highlight profiles year (“Compared to other school situations you have been in
or patterns of students with unique ways of appraising stress- this year, how awkward and difficult was this situation?”).
ful academic situations at school. We aimed to identify ‘natu- Secondary appraisal was measured by asking students to
rally occurring’ groups of students who would differ in the what extent they felt capable of coping with this situation
way they appraise stressful academic situations. We will then
examine the utility of these profiles in differentiating be- 1
This research takes place within the French-speaking Belgian educatio-
tween adolescents based on the degree of stress reported for nal context. In upper secondary education, three types of educational pro-
each situation and the subjective satisfaction during the situ- gramme are distinguished. In general educational programme, the weekly
ation. timetable divides into common core curriculum (28 periods of 50 min each)
and one optional course (four periods). This type of programme offers
students broad perspectives for continuing their studies. Technical educatio-
2. Method nal programme is close to general education in as much as it offers students
broad perspectives for continuing their studies. The difference lies in the
choice of a technical option (sport, science, ...) covering a quarter of the total
2.1. Participants
course load (eight periods). Vocational educational programme is clearly
career oriented (horticulture, mechanic, construction, care services, ...),
One hundred upper secondary education students (64 girls which characterizes the bulk of the students’ course load (25 periods). The
and 36 boys) aged 15–20 (M = 16,9, SD = 1.3) took part in the core curriculum represents only nine periods a week.
264 S. Govaerts, J. Grégoire / Revue européenne de psychologie appliquée 54 (2004) 261–271

(“Did you feel capable of coping with the situation?”). The


formulation of the latter items is close to that used in other
studies (e.g., Penley and Tomaka, 2002; Tomaka et al., 1997).
Finally, one item aimed to measure the level of perceived
stress by the student, while another attempted to evaluate the
student’s subjective satisfaction during the situation.
After having filled in the items for this first stressful
situation, the students were asked to redo the investigation
using their choice of a second stressful academic situation.
So students having completed their entire questionnaire de-
scribed two stressful academic situations at school and com-
pleted for each of these situations the items described above.
In all, but three2 statistical analyses reported below, only the
first stressful academic situation reported by the students was
taken into account. Indeed, we could not analyze all the Fig. 1. Distribution of the categories of stressful academic situations accor-
stressful academic situations because they were not indepen- ding to the educational programme (percentage).
dent observations: the same student’s reported two different
situations. (e.g., “This was a stressful situation because I had to manage
two tests and a lot of homework for the following day”) and
school report situations = 3.8% (e.g., “I was very stressed
3. Results because the teacher gave the school reports and I did not
know how many failures I would have”). The percentage
3.1. Descriptive analysis of stressful academic situations associated with each category was approximately the same
for the two situations reported by our subjects.3 Given the
low percentage of the ‘school report’ situation, further analy-
The 100 students (64 girls, 36 boys) reported 145 stressful sis shall only take into account three categories of stressful
academic situations experienced at school during the current learning situations, namely ‘written evaluation situations’,
academic year. Sixty-four percent of the students reported ‘oral evaluation situations’ and ‘work management/orga-
two stressful situations, 17% reported one stressful situation, nization situations’.
and 19% reported none at all. A chi-square statistic was
computed to test the independence between the number of Analysis were undertaken to examine the relationships
stressful situations reported by the students and the type of between these three categories of stressful situations and the
educational programme attended. The analysis revealed that type of educational programme, the grade, the gender, as well
these two variables were related (v2 (4, N = 100) = 10.80, as the level of stress perceived by the students.
p < 0.05). The students in technical educational programme There were significant differences in the distribution of
appeared to have a completely opposite profile to the students answers among the different categories of stressful situations
in the other two types of education: many more students than when it came to the type of educational programme (general,
expected reported no stressful situations at all (12% of the technical and vocational) attended by the students (v2 (4,
19% of the total students that reported no stressful situa- N = 77) = 10.95, p < 0.05). These results suggest that students
tions), and far fewer students reported two such situations face different types of stressful situations depending on their
(16% of the 64% of the total students that reported two educational programme (Fig. 1). More specifically, we noted
stressful situations). We did not observe any relation between that students in general education reported stressful work
gender (v2 (2, N = 100) = 5.06, p > 0.05) or grade (v2 (4, management/organization situations more frequently and in
N = 100) = 6.11, p > 0.05) and the number of stressful a higher proportion than students in the other two types of
situations reported. educational programme. The rest of the stressful situations
The 145 reported stressful academic situations were bro- reported by these students are shared rather evenly between
ken down into four different categories according to their written evaluation situations and oral evaluation situations.
content. The percentage associated with each category was: The students taking vocational educational programme re-
written evaluation situations = 32.5% (e.g., written tests or ported an equal number of work management/organization
exams), oral evaluation situations = 22.5% (e.g., oral tests or situations and of oral evaluation situations, while reporting
exams), work management/organization situations = 41.2% only very few written evaluation situations. This is the com-
plete opposite of the students in technical educational pro-
gramme, for whom written evaluation situations represented
2
Only three statistical analysis take into account the two stressful situa-
tions reported by the students: descriptive analysis concerning the rela-
3
tionships between the number of stressful situations and (1) the type of As explained in the ‘Section 2.2.’, students were asked to fill all the items
educational programme, (2) the gender and (3) the grade. of the questionnaire for two different stressful academic situations.
S. Govaerts, J. Grégoire / Revue européenne de psychologie appliquée 54 (2004) 261–271 265

Finally, there was not significant difference between the


three categories of stressful academic situations on the level
of stress reported by the students (F (2, 77) = 0.24, P > 0.05).
For this analysis, an ANOVA was computed because the
‘level of stress’ variable could be considered as an interval
variable.

3.2. Analysis of the individual differences in the cognitive


appraisal of stressful academic situations

Statistical analysis were conducted to determine the dif-


ferences in the cognitive appraisals of stressful learning situ-
ations depending on the individual characteristics of the
students (gender, age, type of educational programme at-
tended) and on the category of stressful academic situation
reported.
Table 1 presents the means, standard deviations and
t-values for girls and boys for the eight appraisal variables.
Fig. 2. Distribution of the categories of stressful academic situations accor- t-Tests were conducted to determine if boys and girls differed
ding to the grade level (percentage). in their cognitive appraisal of stressful academic situation.
Girls (n = 55) differed from boys (n = 25) in their perception
the bulk of the stressful situation categories. This was fol- of the valence of the stressful situation, as well as in the
lowed by work management/organization and oral evaluation perception of their resources to deal with the situation. In
situations. other words, girls granted greater importance to the stressful
As far as the relationship between categories of stressful experience, while boys perceived themselves as having more
academic situations and the grade (10, 11 or 12) of the resources to deal with it. It is interesting to note that despite
students are concerned (Fig. 2), the p-value was marginally this difference in the perception of stressful situations, the
significant (v2 (4, N = 77) = 9.37, p = 0.053). Even if the girls and boys in our sample set were quite close in terms of
relationship between these two variables only marginally met the level of stress reported (t (78) = 0.66, p > 0.05).
the statistical criterion of 0.05, it is interesting to note, how- Pearson correlations were computed between the age of
ever, that as they move through the school system, students the students and the appraisal variables. These were low, but
report an increasingly high number of stressful work statistically significant for the changeability (r = –0.22,
management/organization situations. Written and oral evalu- p < 0.05) variable. These were non-significant (p > 0.05) for
ation situations were broken down fairly evenly in grade the remaining appraisal variables (valence (r = –0.02), con-
10 and grade 12. In grade 11, however, far more stressful trollability (r = 0.17), ambiguity (r = 0.20), recurrence
written evaluation situations were reported than oral evalua- (r = –0.14), familiarity (r = –0.08), perceived difficulty
tion situations. (r = 0.11), perceived resources (r = 0.11)). While the link
The relationship between the gender of the students and between the age of the students and the changeability vari-
the categories of stressful academic situations was not sig- able is weak, this result suggests that the older the students,
nificant (v2 (2, N = 77) = 2.17, p > 0.05). This means that boys the less they tend to think the situation will be settled on its
and girls reported the same categories of stressful situations. own. It is however, important to note that the limited age
Table 1
Appraisal assessments in relation to gender
Appraisal variables Girls (n = 55) Boys (n = 25) t-value
Mean SD Mean SD
Valence 3.55 0.60 3.12 0.83 2.47 **
Controllability 2.62 1.04 2.60 1.08 0.22
Changeability 1.57 0.84 1.40 0.71 0.76
Ambiguity 2.26 0.88 2.08 0.95 0.72
Recurrence 3.15 1.06 2.88 1.13 1.16
Familiarity 2.58 1.10 2.40 1.26 0.59
Perceived difficulty (primary appraisal) 3.28 0.72 3.12 0.83 0.75
Perceived resources (secondary appraisal) 2.38 0.81 2.84 0.75 2.36 **
Perceived stress 3.36 0.70 3.24 0.92 0.66
Perceived satisfaction 2.70 0.98 2.92 1.04 0.89
Notes: All variables were measured on four-point Likert scales. ** p ≤ 0.01.
266 S. Govaerts, J. Grégoire / Revue européenne de psychologie appliquée 54 (2004) 261–271

range of the students (15–20 years) could result in lower ANOVA were calculated to bring to the fore any differ-
correlations. ences in cognitive appraisal between the different categories
There were significant differences in the way students in of stressful situations (Table 3). These tests revealed that at
different types of educational programmes evaluated stress- least two of the three categories of reported stressful situa-
tions differed in the variables of familiarity, relative difficulty
ful academic situations. ANOVA demonstrated that at least
of the situation (primary appraisal) and perception of re-
two of the three types of educational programmes differed in
sources (secondary appraisal). The Games-Howell proce-
the valence, recurrence and familiarity variables (Table 2).
dure for multiple post hoc comparisons was applied to local-
The Games-Howell procedure for multiple post hoc com-
ize these differences. Only two categories of stressful
parisons was applied to localize these differences. This pro-
situations differed for the familiarity variable. Students per-
cedure was chosen because it is accurate when sample sizes ceived work management/organization situations as less fa-
are unequal (Field, 2000). As regards the valence variable, miliar than written evaluation situations (p < 0.01). Oral
only one difference appeared to be significant: students in evaluation situations were perceived as being between the
vocational education granted greater importance to the two latter categories in terms of their familiarity. As regards
stressful academic situation they reported than students in a the variables ‘relative difficulty of the situation’ and ‘per-
technical educational programme (p < 0.05). In terms of the ceived resources’, there was only a significant difference
perception of the recurrence of stressful academic situations, between the categories of ‘oral evaluation situations’ and the
students attending a technical educational programme had a ‘work management/organization situations’ (p < 0.05). Stu-
higher perception of the recurrence of stressful situations dents reported having more difficulties with work
reported than their counterparts in general education management/organization situations than with oral evalua-
(p < 0.01). Finally, regarding the perception of the familiarity tion situations. Paradoxically, students reported having the
of stressful academic situations, students in technical educa- least resources to cope with these latter situations, despite the
tion perceived them as more familiar than those students in fact they perceived them as being the least difficult. Con-
vocational education (p < 0.05). versely, for the work management/organization situations

Table 2
Appraisal assessments in relation to types of educational programme
Appraisal variables General education Technical educational Vocational educational F-value
(n = 43) programme programme
(n = 22) (n = 13)
Mean SD Mean SD Mean SD
Valence 3.49 0.59 3.09 0.86 3.69 0.48 3.98 **
Controllability 2.56 1.03 2.64 1.09 2.77 1.09 0.21
Changeability 1.63 0.93 1.41 0.66 1.31 0.78 1.05
Ambiguity 2.14 0.80 2.23 1.02 2.38 1.04 0.37
Recurrence 2.86 1.14 3.59 0.96 2.85 1.21 3.89 **
Familiarity 2.35 1.23 3.05 1.04 2.23 0.73 3.39 **
Perceived difficulty (primary appraisal) 3.16 0.75 3.36 0.73 3.23 0.83 0.51
Perceived resources (secondary appraisal) 2.47 0.80 2.55 0.91 2.69 0.76 0.39
Perceived stress 3.36 0.78 3.23 0.87 3.31 0.63 0.22
Perceived satisfaction 2.84 1.01 2.41 1.05 3.15 0.89 2.60
Notes: All variables were measured on four-point Likert scales. ** p ≤ 0.01.

Table 3
Appraisal assessments in relation to categories of stressful academic situations
Appraisal variables Written evaluation Oral evaluation Work management/ F-value
situations situations organization situations
(n = 25) (n = 17) (n = 33)
Mean SD Mean SD Mean SD
Valence 3.40 0.76 3.24 0.66 3.45 0.67 0.56
Controllability 2.72 1.06 2.88 1.05 2.52 1.00 0.76
Changeability 1.48 0.65 1.47 0.62 1.58 1.00 0.14
Ambiguity 2.24 0.97 2.24 1.09 2.15 0.80 0.08
Recurrence 3.40 0.91 3.18 1.02 2.76 1.15 2.81
Familiarity 3.08 1.08 2.47 1.07 2.12 1.11 5.52 **
Perceived difficulty (primary appraisal) 3.16 0.75 2.88 0.70 3.42 0.75 3.13 *
Perceived resources (secondary appraisal) 2.64 0.81 2.06 0.83 2.73 0.72 4.45 *
Perceived stress 3.36 0.91 3.33 0.84 3.24 0.66 0.17
Perceived satisfaction 2.64 0.91 3.06 1.06 2.73 1.07 0.95
Notes: All variables were measured on four-point Likert scales. * p ≤ 0.05; ** p ≤ 0.01.
S. Govaerts, J. Grégoire / Revue européenne de psychologie appliquée 54 (2004) 261–271 267

perceived as being the most difficult, the students reported Students in the first (n = 18) and second (n = 23) groups
having more resources for coping. The category of ‘written perceived themselves as having insufficient resources (sec-
evaluation situations’ is between the two other categories in ondary appraisal) to deal with the perceived demands of the
terms of the level of difficulty and of perceived resources. situation (primary appraisal): the academic situations they
reported at school was perceived as extremely difficult and
3.3. Cluster analysis of appraisal patterns of stressful their resources as weak. Theoretically, this appraisal should
academic situations lead to a greater perception of the level of stress and to less
satisfaction during the situation. However, the profiles of
In this study, we aimed to identify ‘naturally occurring’ these two clusters differed when it comes to the recurrence
groups of students who would differ in the way they appraise and familiarity variables. The students in cluster 1 perceived
stressful academic situations. Cluster analysis classifies indi- reported stressful academic situations as extremely recurrent
viduals into groups (labelled ‘clusters’) using a measure of and familiar, whereas those in cluster 2 saw them as moder-
similarity to produce homogenous patterns or profiles of ately recurrent and familiar. For this reason, the first group
individuals (Aldenderfer and Blashfield, 1984). This statisti- was labelled ‘unfavorable appraisal for familiar academic
cal method was computed in order to highlight homogenous situations’ and the second ‘unfavorable appraisal for unfa-
groups of students which would differ according to the eight miliar academic situations’.
appraisal variables measured in this study (valence, control-
lability, changeability, ambiguity, recurrence, familiarity, The students in groups 3 (n = 15) and 4 (n = 11) perceived
primary appraisal and secondary appraisal). The ‘k-means’ the difficulty of academic situations (primary appraisal) as
method was chosen to group adolescents into clusters, as it being proportional to their resources for coping (secondary
minimizes intra-cluster variability (Aldenderfer and Blash- appraisal). This pattern should theoretically be moderately
field, 1984), ensuring maximum homogeneity among the stressful for the two groups. There was, however, a huge
groups. A five-cluster solution was chosen as the most likely contrast between these two clusters when it comes to the
solution, based on the conceptual meaningfulness of the recurrence and familiarity variables. The students in group
clusters as well as on a discriminant analysis computed on 3 claimed the academic situations they have reported are
these groups. This procedure has already been used in other neither particularly recurrent nor familiar, which showed that
research as cluster analysis validation procedure (Chung et the reported events were new and isolated. The members of
al., 1998). group 4, to the contrary, reported the situations as being
extremely familiar and very recurrent. These two groups
Table 4 presents the means of the eight appraisal variables
were labelled ‘moderately favorable appraisal for unfamil-
for the five clusters and the F-values of the means difference
iar academic situations’ (group 3) and ‘moderately favor-
of the five clusters on the eight appraisal variables. In cluster
able appraisal for familiar academic situations’ (group 4).
analysis, the F tests provided by ANOVA should be used only
for descriptive purpose because the clusters have been cho- The fifth group (n = 13), labelled ‘favorable appraisal for
sen to maximize the differences among cases in different familiar academic situations’ had a different profile. Stu-
clusters. Consequently, the observed significance levels dents within this group perceived the situation as not very
should be corrected (Aldenderfer and Blashfield, 1984). For difficult and considered that they had plenty of resources to
this reason, although the ANOVA of the eight appraisal cope. Theoretically speaking, this situation should be per-
variables shows that they all play a significant role in the ceived as not very stressful and the students should be satis-
constitution of the groups at a p value of 0.05, we decided to fied during the situation. The students in this group also
use a more conservative significance level of p < 0.01. Only perceived the situations they reported as being extremely
four appraisal variables met this criterion. These are the recurrent and very familiar.
recurrence, familiarity, primary appraisal and secondary ap- A discriminant analysis was used to examine the accuracy
praisal variables. These four variables will act as a basis for of the clusters derived. This procedure allows to check the
interpreting the profiles obtained for the five clusters. percentage of correct classification. The results showed that
Table 4
Means of the five clusters for each appraisal variable and F-values
Appraisal variables Clusters F-value
1 (n = 18) 2 (n = 23) 3 (n = 15) 4 (n =11) 5 (n = 13)
Valence 3.72 3.57 3.47 3.30 2.67 6.10 *
Controllability 3.17 2.09 3.07 2.30 2.50 4.58 *
Changeability 1.22 1.39 1.27 1.80 2.25 4.75 *
Ambiguity 2.11 2.26 2.20 3.20 1.42 7.15 *
Recurrence 3.83 3.43 1.20 2.90 3.67 65.28 **
Familiarity 3.33 1.65 1.40 3.80 3.33 42.17 **
Primary appraisal 3.67 3.52 3.17 2.70 2.42 23.56 **
Secondary appraisal 1.94 2.26 3.00 2.80 3.08 15.41 **
Notes: All variables were measured on four-point Likert scales. * p ≤ 0.05; ** p ≤ 0.01.
268 S. Govaerts, J. Grégoire / Revue européenne de psychologie appliquée 54 (2004) 261–271

Table 5
Means of the five clusters for perceived stress and perceived satisfaction variables and F-values
Clusters F-value
1 (n = 18) 2 (n = 23) 3 (n = 15) 4 (n = 11) 5 (n = 13)
Perceived stress 3.67 3.48 3.33 2.80 2.92 3.41 *
Perceived satisfaction 2.50 2.61 2.90 3.00 3.00 0.48
Notes: All variables were measured on four-point Likert scales. * p ≤ 0.05.

97.4% of the subjects were categorized correctly, with the Interestingly, the results of the study have shown that in
results ranging from 100% for groups 2–5 to 91.3% for group our sample set, the subject’s individual characteristics (gen-
1 (the other 8.7% would have been incorrectly attributed to der, age and type of educational programme attended) were
group 2). related to the students’ appraisal of these stressful academic
In a second stage, we examined the usefulness of these experiences at school.
profiles in differentiating between adolescents according to As regards the gender variable, the girls in our sample set
the level of reported stress and to the subjective satisfaction granted greater importance to the stressful situation, while
during the situation. the boys perceived themselves as having more resources for
ANOVA were computed to examine these differences coping with it. In the tradition of Seiffge-Krenke’s results
(Table 5). The variable of the level of perceived stress set at (1990), we had postulated that the girls would evaluate the
least two of the five clusters apart. The Games-Howell pro- school academic situations as more threatening than the
cedure for multiple post hoc comparisons was applied to boys. Our results did not back this hypothesis. It is interesting
localize these differences. The mean differences between to note, however, that while the girls did not perceive the
two pairs of groups were statistically significant. Groups academic situation as more threatening (primary appraisal)
1 and 5 differentiate in terms of the level of stress reported by than the boys, they did perceive themselves as having fewer
the students. The adolescents in group 1 reported having a resources (secondary appraisal) for coping with it. This ap-
significantly higher level of stress than those in group 5 praisal pattern is unfavorable regarding stress, as we had
(p < 0.05). Groups 1 and 4 were also contrasting in terms of hypothesized. These results go along with other research that
the level of stress perceived by the students, the students in has shown that girls and boys are not equal in the stress
group 1 perceiving the academic situations as more stressful mechanisms (Compas et al., 1986; Swearingen and Cohen,
than those in group 4 (p < 0.05). 1985). Nevertheless, the fact that the primary/secondary ap-
Differentiating between clusters using another variable praisal pattern was unfavorable for girl students did not result
than the one used to create the groups has proven an efficient in a higher level of reported stress. So contrary to our hypoth-
technique for validating this type of analysis (Aldenderfer esis and to other studies having found gender-related differ-
and Blashfield, 1984). This technique has already been used ences in the frequency and intensity of reported stress (boys
in other researches (e.g., Filsinger et al., 1979). having reported less stress than girls, Dumont, 2000), our
The variable of subjective satisfaction during the situation study revealed no major differences at this level. Our high
did not differ significantly in any of the groups. It is interest- sample age (M = 16.9 years) constitutes a possible explana-
ing to note, however, that group 1, having reported the high- tion of this phenomenon. In fact, Seiffge-Krenke et al. (2001)
est level of stress of all five groups, also had the lowest showed that age interact with gender on perceived level of
satisfaction mean. The students in groups 4 and 5, having stress, with females in early adolescence experiencing higher
reported the least stressful situations of all five groups, had level of stress.
very high satisfaction means (Table 5). The students’ age was also related to the variables of
We also examined the differences in belonging to the five cognitive appraisal of the stressful situation: it had a signifi-
groups according to the adolescents’ gender (v2 (4, N = 80) cant negative correlation with the variable of the perception
= 2.8, p > 0.01), age (v2 (4, N = 80) = 0.8, p > 0.01) and type of changeability. While the link between age and changeabil-
of educational programme (v2 (8, N = 80) = 9.5, p > 0.01). ity was weak, the results suggested that the older the students
None of these variables allowed to significantly discriminate in our sample set, the less they tended to think the stressful
between clusters. situation will be resolved on its own. Other studies had
already demonstrated the effect of developmental maturation
on how adolescents experience stressful situations (Seiffge-
4. Discussion Krenke, 2000). Contrary to our hypothesis, we could not
establish any connection between the age of the student and
Experiencing stressful academic situations is quite com- the control they perceived having over the stressful situation.
mon among the students of our sample from upper secondary This should be considered seriously giving the importance of
education. Indeed, 80% of the adolescents reported having the control perception variable in the self-regulation of learn-
experienced at least one stressful academic situation during ing (Zimmerman, 2000). Nor do the results allow us to
the current academic year. support the hypothesis that as adolescents move through the
S. Govaerts, J. Grégoire / Revue européenne de psychologie appliquée 54 (2004) 261–271 269

school system, their familiarity with stressful academic situ- others. This profile relates to a higher perception of the level
ations and resources reported for coping with such situations of stress. The students in this cluster perceived school aca-
increases. These results need to be taken carefully: the lim- demic situations as more difficult than their coping skills
ited age range of the students (15–20 years) could result in could handle. The reported situations were also situations on
lower correlations (Field, 2000). one hand with which all the young people were familiar and
The study results demonstrate the relation between the on the other hand with which they felt would have to face
type of educational programme and the way students evalu- again in the near future. These results go along with the
ate stressful academic situations. In this sense, students in studies of Lazarus and Folkman (1984), showing that a situ-
technical educational programme were the complete oppo- ation is especially likely to cause stress if the person feels
sites of students in general educational programme and voca- threatened or does not feel like he/she has the personal and
tional educational programme. They perceived stressful aca- environmental resources needed to cope with it. The young
demic situations as less isolated and more familiar. These people with such profiles tend to be in environments condu-
results support the importance to study the characteristics of cive to what certain researchers have called learned helpless-
stress and coping mechanisms in the different communities ness (Seligman, 1991). It could be interesting to study the
(Frydenberg, 1999), and in this case in the different educa- stress appraisal variables to gain a better understanding of
tional programmes communities. As this aspect of our re- such mechanisms. Other studies are needed to reply to these
search was new and exploratory, other studies would be results and to refine our knowledge of such young people in
needed to undertake a more detailed analysis of the impact of difficult situations. Pinpointing these students is a determin-
the type of educational programme on how adolescents expe- ing factor when you realize the threatening and crippling
rience academic stress. This turn out to be important regard- impact of experiencing stress on the psychological and emo-
ing intervention in these different types of educational pro- tional equilibrium of young people (Compas et al., 1993;
grammes. Dise-Lewis, 1988; Fanshawe and Burnett, 1991; Gad and
Johnson, 1980; Johnson and McCutcheon, 1980), as well as
In the future, it would be interesting to examine the inter-
on their behavioral reactions and their academic performance
action of appraisals with other individual personality vari-
(Fontana and Dovidio, 1984; Garrison et al., 1987; Vaux and
ables. To this end, using the five factor model of personality
Ruggiero, 1983).
(Costa and McCrae, 1992) could clarify the connections
between the type of personality and the type of appraisal of On the other hand, two groups with a favorable appraisal
stressful academic situations at school. Penley and Tomaka’s pattern regarding stress could be highlighted (group 4 ‘mod-
research (2002) had interesting results in this sense with an erately favorable appraisal for familiar academic situa-
adult population. tions’ and group 5 ‘favorable appraisal for familiar aca-
Using cluster analysis, five groups of students with par- demic situations’). According to Boekaerts (2002), we think
ticular appraisal patterns were distinguished. These groups it is important to note that not all the students who face
were then compared on the basis of four of the eight appraisal challenges in school react in a negative way. It is of major
variables using to form the clusters: perceived demands (pri- importance to identify those resilient students and to describe
mary appraisal) and perceived resources of the situation how their adjustment is influenced by their perception of
(secondary appraisal), recurrence and familiarity of the re- their resources. Our two groups of ‘resilient’ students saw
ported academic situations. The first and second group were their resources as at least proportional to the demands of the
labelled ‘unfavorable appraisal for familiar (group academic situation they reported. Thus, in term of interven-
1)/unfamiliar (group 2) academic situations’ because the tion research, it could be fruitful to consider appraisal as a
resources perceived by the students were low but the de- lever of the stress mechanisms. Working on a realistic per-
mands of the situation were high. This should theoretically ception of the resources and of the academic demands could
lead to a greater perception of the level of stress. Groups be an interesting way of managing stress. This idea is also
3 and 4 were labelled ‘moderately favorable appraisal for emphasized in the work of Perrez and Reicherts (1992).
unfamiliar (group 3)/familiar (group 4) academic situations’ Besides the subjective perception of a stressful situation,
because the resources for coping were perceived by the these authors suggested that the objective characteristics of
students as proportional to the demands of the situation. This the situation were also of importance. Perrez and Reicherts
pattern is theoretically only moderately stressful. As for (1992) firmly believed that subjects capable of an accurate
group 5, it was labelled ‘favorable appraisal for familiar perception and representation of the situation characteristics
academic situations’. Students in this group should theoreti- have better chances of developing adaptational responses
cally report low level of stress. Using the hierarchy of the than subjects who have deformed their portrayal of reality.
level of perceived stress that emerges from the interpretation Given the small size of our sample set and the lack of
of these five clusters, it is possible to examine the differences balance between the gender, grade and type of educational
between the groups and to pinpoint one group of students programme variables, further research would be needed to
(group 1 ‘unfavorable appraisal for familiar academic confirm our observations. But despite these limitations, the
situations’) with a less favorable appraisal profile than the results of our study do confirm the importance emphasized in
270 S. Govaerts, J. Grégoire / Revue européenne de psychologie appliquée 54 (2004) 261–271

literature of the concept of appraisal in adolescent’s psycho- Compas, B.E., Connor-Smith, J.K., Saltzman, H., Harding Thomsen, A.,
logical experience of stress. In addition to the many studies Wadsworth, M.E., 2001. Coping with stress during childhood and
adolescence: problems, progress, and potential in theory and research.
on the way students cope with stressful school situations, it Psychological Bulletin 127 (1), 87–127.
would also be important to study the appraisal variables Compas, B.E., Orosan, P.G., Grant, K.E., 1993. Adolescent stress and
preceding these coping strategies. As Compas et al. (2001) coping: implications for psychopathology during adolescence. J. Ado-
pointed out, there is a need to place coping in a broader lesc. 16, 331–349.
context of research. With Frydenberg (1999), we think that it Compas, B.E., Slavin, L.A., Wagner, B.M., Vannatta, K., 1986. Relationship
is necessary “to explode the myth that only ‘coping’research- of life events and social support with psychological dysfunction among
ers can contribute to an understanding of coping. On the adolescents. J. Youth Adolesc. 15 (3), 205–221.
contrary, it is often the research of those who do not neces- Costa, P.T., McCrae, R.R., 1992. Normal personality assessment in clinical
practice: The NEO Personality Inventory. Psychol. Assess. 4 (1), 5–13.
sarily address coping directly which helps us understand how
de Anda, D., Baroni, S., Boskin, L., Buchwald, L., Morgan, J., Ow, J., et al.,
we have learned to cope and how we can learn to cope better
2000. Stress, stressors and coping among high school students. Child.
(p. vii).” Together with several recent studies, our research Youth Serv. Rev. 22, 441–463.
was a first step in this direction, enlightening the appraisal Dise-Lewis, J.E., 1988. The life events and coping inventory: an assessment
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constitutes one limitation of the present study. Other studies of social support, coping strategies, self-esteem, and social activities on
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