Skip to content

Self-care extra credit exercises to empower students experiencing anxiety due to career assignments

Laurie Anderson and Dawn-Marie Oliver sitting next to each otherAuthors:

  • Laurie Anderson, she/her, Associate Teaching Professor, Computing and Software Systems Division of STEM, University of Washington, Bothell campus
  • Dawn-Marie Oliver, she/her, Lecturer Part-Time, Computing and Software Systems Division of STEM, University of Washington, Bothell campus



Project Description

Newly-developed career-focused assignments, where students examined their personal values, future careers, and how to evaluate corporate fit using their values, were causing students to experience sometimes overwhelming anxiety and existential angst. Through a set of discussions regarding the difficulties the students were dealing with, we realized that students need to release these emotions in a healthy way. We collaboratively created a set of biweekly extra credit assignments that involved completing a self-care activity from a large list (or creating their own), then writing and submitting a reflection. The list of activities is derived from Dr. Marsha Lineham’s mindfulness and distress tolerance modules of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

Project Question

How to relieve students’ anxiety around their career choices so they can function in the classroom, do their assignments, and beyond, while working on career exploration assignments throughout the quarter?


CSS 301 is a required technical writing course for STEM computing professionals in a business setting who take it once they’ve entered their degree. We use that timing to have all assignments focus on their career exploration, starting with a values assignment that informs their research into their fields of interest.


Biweekly, students can complete a self-care extra credit exercise and write up a paragraph reflecting on their experience. The exercise can be chosen from a list we’ve provided, or they can define their own. Our list is derived from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), mindfulness and distress tolerance practices; for example, eating out with a friend or cleaning your room are two frequently chosen activities with dramatic results. Afterwards, students write-up a short reflection indicating when they did it, how they felt before they did it, what they did, how they felt afterwards, and would they do it again because sometimes a technique isn’t a good fit and that’s useful information. Students are awarded points for self-reflective clarity.


The career-focused assignments emerged from a sabbatical and the revised curriculum was used Spring 22. The instructor observed the students were stressed that quarter over the in-class work and assignments, and later there was a noticeable release of tension on the last day of class when students expressed a desire for more class time! The instructor discussed the issue with a colleague (MS Clinical Psychology), during which we realized the students’ anxiety originated from the career focus; we developed optional self-care assignments to address this and gave extra credit to drive incentive. The instructor used them for the summer revamp, observing less resistance to assignments, fewer panicked questions, and more openness to the classwork. After the successful trial, these assignments were added to the standard curriculum for CSS 301 and have been adopted by 301 instructors.

Student reflections have reported the following in their paragraph write up:

  • Amazed at the difference it made
  • Sense of relief
  • Better sleep
  • Improved focus while studying
  • Intentions to make the activity routine
  • Feeling liberated because they were granted external permission to spend time on their mental health
  • Discovering activities they thought would help actually didn’t and they didn’t feel it was a waste of time—they took it for the learning experience that it was
  • Used an activity to deal with stress from another area of their lives
  • Used on-campus counseling services as a self-created activity


It is important for instructors to realize that their material can cause stress on top of the stress of college, homework, and life, so they should evaluate their assignments and other work to unearth areas that bring up student anxieties that can be difficult for them to manage, often to the point of interfering with their ability to do the assigned work. Then, consider if adding self-care assignments could improve student performance.

The simplicity of these self-care assignments makes it possible for any instructor (not just those with clinical psychology backgrounds) to add them to any class (not just writing classes), empowering a greater number of students to become self-regulating adults. The results speak for themselves—students are recognizing that they have control over their anxiety and that a small, ten-minute activity can change their attitude and their ability to focus, equipping them with tools to help them handle life’s myriad challenges.

Additional Insights

Self-care is not just for girls! We were pleasantly surprised that all students were open to trying self–care – of course, the extra credit incentive worked. We heard from the men that the liberation/permission was especially important for them. We also heard this from students from cultures that maintain a strong outward appearance of invulnerability.

Back to the Showcase