URJHS Volume 8


The Relationship Between Credit Load and Depression

Joel A. Makin,
Cassie R. Mansheim,
Cassandra N. Dyar,
Huntington University


This study explored the relationship between credit load and depression among full-time undergraduate students between the ages of 18-24 at a Midwest university. It was predicted that those with a higher credit load would score higher on the Zung Self-rating Depression Scale (Zung, 1965). The number of credits for the past school year and the score from the Zung scale were compared, and the correlation between credit load and depression was measured using the Pearson r. Using a .05 level of significance and 45 degrees of freedom, the resultant r was -0.325, which was then compared to a critical value of 0.288. The findings were statistically significant. Contrary to prior research and expectations, a negative correlation was found.

The Effects of Credit Load and Depression

The high prevalence of depression, anxiety and stress symptoms among university students is alarming” (Bayram & Bilgel, 2008, p. 667). The researchers found nearly one third of undergraduate students were suffering from depression. However, this should have come as no surprise because “ undergraduates are in the sociodemographic age span in which rates of psychological distress and disorder are elevated” (Adlaf, Gliksman, Demers, & Newton-Taylor, 2001, p. 68).

Zou, Wang, and Zhang (2007) found that psychological education had a significant impact on university students’ anxiety and depression. They conceptualized psychological education as learning how stress and depression affect one’s life and found that as psychological education increases, depression decreases. Rosenthal and Schreiner (2000), who studied students of an urban, ethnically diverse college, reported that 13 percent of students suffered from high levels of depression. They also found that there was little difference among the many ethnic groups reported, indicating that depression is not limited to a particular race or ethnicity.

Moreover, Svanum and Zody (2001) indicated that a majority of college students met the criteria for a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III (DSM-III) defined psychiatric disorder. However, the GPA of those students who met the criteria for a DSM-III defined psychiatric disorder did not diminish (Svanum & Zody, 2001). In support of this, Dyrbye, Thomas, and Shanafelt (2006) reviewed articles reporting on depression, anxiety, and burnout among U.S. and Canadian medical students. They found a majority of medical students fell into some category of DSM-III disorder, such as anxiety or depression.

Various indicators exist for the development of a DSM disorder in average college students. Mounts, Valentiner, Anderson, and Boswell (2006) surveyed 350 college students and concluded shyness, sociability, and parental support for the college transition were correlated with loneliness and friendship quality. Furthermore, their findings showed low friendship quality and loneliness to be precursors to depression and anxiety. Andrews and Wilding (2004) found a correlation between academic performance and depression in this study of 351 undergraduate students. Depression predicted a decrease in exam performance.

Svanum and Bigatti (2006) examined the relationship between outside activities (family, job, and social) and course effort. Outside activities such as family and job were not found to directly influence course efforts but job activities did. Contrary to this, Baker (2008) examined the relationship of outside activities and course effort. He found that academic performance was affected differently depending on the type of organization in which the student was involved.

Zhang and Bian (2008) concluded that another issue for undergraduates was learning to cope with learning burnout. “Health-related hardiness has a significant negative correlation with learning burnout” (Zhang & Bian, p. 547). Health-related hardiness was also examined by Trockel, Barnes, and Egget (2000) who surveyed 200 first-year students regarding sleep and GPA. They found a significant link between weekday and weekend wake-up times and semester GPA.

According to MacGeorge, Samter, and Gillihan (2005 p. 364), “students may experience negative health outcomes associated with on-going academic stress, especially when their level of academic stress is consistently high.” MacGeorge and colleagues’ (2005, p. 365) research supported the hypothesis that “academic stress was positively associated with symptoms of depression and physical illness.” Ang and Haun (2006) also found that academic stress was significantly associated with depression.

These prior studies assert that as the amount of academic stress increases so will the level of depression (Ang & Haun, 2006). The literature leads to the present hypothesis that as an undergraduate student’s course load increases his or her level of depression will also increase.



The group of participants was 47 full-time undergraduate students at a small, mid-western, liberal arts college enrolled for the 2008-2009 school year. Participants were recruited using a haphazard sampling technique. Participants were between the ages of 18-24, with the mean age being 20. Of the participants, 94% were Caucasian.


The measure used was the Zung Self-rating Depression Scale (Zung, 1965). The Self-Rating Depression Scale (SDS) “. . . was designed as a short simple way of quantifying the severity of depression among patients (Shafer, 2006, p. 125).” Specifically, participants were asked to respond to 20 questions (e.g., “My life is pretty full;” “I feel that others would be better off if I were dead”). The available responses to each question ranged from 1-4, with responses meaning: “a little of the time,” “some of the time,” “good part of the time,” “most of the time.” Possible scores ranged from 20 to 80, with scores above 50 signifying depression. This measure is considered both valid and reliable (Schaefer, Brown, Watson, Plemel, DeMotts, Howard, et al., 1985; Smith, Rosenstein, & Granaas, 2001; de Jonghe & Baneke, 1989; Swanson & Anderson, 1972).


Eligible students were contacted by email and invited to be a part of the study. They were informed that the current study was an investigation of the effect of credit load and mood and that their responses would be completely confidential. The procedure required them to meet at a specific time and place where the tests were administered. Furthermore, an incentive of free pizza was offered.

Participants met at the designated time and place where they were introduced to the researchers and were reminded of the purpose of the study itself. Identical tests were distributed to each participant. As each participant arrived, the scale was explained and questions concerning how to complete the form were answered. The cover page that was attached to the scale was an instructional page that explained the purpose of the study (to gather information regarding the effect of credit load and mood), a note that reminded the participant to complete demographic information, and finally they were reminded to sign the consent form on the last page (see Appendix A). The participants spent the next five to ten minutes completing the test.

After completing the tests, the participants were thanked for their time and participation. The participants were informed that they could learn about the outcome of the study by contacting the researchers. The information about each participant’s credit hours for the entire year was then obtained from the Registrar’s office using the consent forms each participant signed (see Appendix B).


Using a two-tailed test of significance with an alpha level of .05 and 45 degrees of freedom, the resultant r was -0.325. Comparing this to a critical value of 0.288, the null hypothesis was rejected, meaning there was a significant negative correlation between the amount of credits taken and the level of depression. These results indicated that as the amount of credits increases, the level of depression decreases. The scatter plot in Figure 1 shows this relationship.

Figure 1. The relationship between credit load and depression.


The results of this study were statistically significant but were the opposite of what the original hypothesis predicted. We anticipated that as a student’s course load increased, so would his or her level of depression. Past research seemed to support this hypothesis. MacGeorge and colleagues (2005, p.365) found that “academic stress was positively associated with symptoms of depression and physical illness.” Aug and Haun (2006) also found that academic stress was significantly associated with depression. As academic stress increased, so did the level of depression. However, what we found was that the level of depression actually decreased as the course load increased.

There are several possibilities to explain why the research found this kind of result. Students in the study attend a university where there is a limit to the number of credit hours that each is allowed to take in a semester, thus keeping them all within a tight range. It could be that if students were not limited in their credit hours the results may have been different and we would have actually discovered a curvilinear correlation after the credit hours reached a certain point. Also, another reason that the study discovered these particular results could be that the type of students who are capable and desire to take larger quantities of credit hours are less susceptible to depression or that having more classes helps the students feel as if their lives are full as well as more complete. Maybe course load is not all that stressful for some.

Because there is little previous research on these two variables considered together, it is important to recognize the need for further research to determine the correlation between credit load and depression. It is unclear if confounding variables could have affected our results. Several issues arose around the ambiguity of the Zung Depression Scale. Although the scale was found to be reliable and valid in previous studies, the Zung Depression Scale is not an in-depth or comprehensive test and may not have been the appropriate scale for our population. Throughout the data collecting process many of the participants were unsure how to answer questions that seemed to not apply to them. The survey question that posed the most concern was “I still enjoy sex.” Many of our participants, due to the demographics of being a Christian University, have claimed to abstain from sex, making it difficult for them to understand how to answer this question. Other survey questions that raised concern were “I am constipated” and “My life is full.” These concerns were unanticipated because of the lack of a pilot study with this specific population. These concerns over the scale also caused a slight variation in researcher response to these queries. During the first few surveys before the responses were standardized.

As the results were calculated, it was determined that very few participants (5 out of the 47) were considered depressed according to the Zung Depression Scale. This could have been due to the type of participants or to the fact that acquaintance between participants and researchers caused them to be dishonest, although they had been assured confidentiality.

This study only begins to reveal the possible link between undergraduate credit load and depression, and it is important to continue studies in this area. Recommendations for future research would include considering a different depression scale that would be more in depth and include less ambiguous wording. Perhaps there is one better suited to this population. Widening the recruitment of participants to include various locations and types of universities might also be helpful. Widening recruitment and including random selection would help in generalizing the study to a wider audience. Finally, conducting a pilot study would also be very beneficial so that the researchers could be prepared for questions and concerns of participants.


Adlaf, E. M., Gliksman, L., Demers, A., & Newton-Taylor, B. (2001). The prevalence of elevated psychological distress among Canadian undergraduates: Findings from the 1998 Canadian campus survey. Journal of American College Health, 50(2), 67-72.

Andrews, B., & Wilding, J. (2004). The relation of depression and anxiety to life-stress and achievement in students. British Journal of Psychology, 95(4), 509-521.

Ang, R. P., & Haun, V. S. (2006). Relationship between academic stress and suicidal ideation: Testing for depression as a mediator using multiple regression. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 37(2), 133-143.

Baker, C. (2008). Under-represented college students and extracurricular involvement: The effects of various student organizations on academic performance. Social Psychology of Education, 11(3), 273-298.

Bayram, N., & Bilgel, N. (2008). The prevalence and socio-demographic correlations of depression, anxiety and stress among a group of university students. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 43(8), 667-672.

Dyrbye, L., Thomas, M., & Shanafelt, T. (2006). Systematic review of depression, anxiety, and other indicators of psychological distress among U.S. and Canadian medical students. Academic Medicine, 81(4), 354-373.

de Jonghe, J., & Baneke, J. (1989). The Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale: A replication study on reliability, validity and prediction. Psychological Reports, 64(3), 833-834.

MacGeorge, E., Samter, W., & Gillihan, S. (2005). Academic stress, supportive communication, and health. Communication Education, 54(4), 365-372.

Mounts, N., Valentiner, D., Anderson, K., & Boswell, M. (2006). Shyness, sociability, and parental support for the college transition: Relation to adolescents' adjustment. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35(1), 71-80.

Rosenthal, B., & Schreiner, A. (2000). Prevalence of psychological symptoms among undergraduate students in an ethnically diverse urban public college. Journal of American College Health, 49(1), 12-14.

Schaefer, A., Brown, J., Watson, C., Plemel, D., DeMotts, J., Howard, M., et al. (1985) Comparison of the validities of the Beck, Zung, and MMPI Depression scales. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 53(3), 415-418.

Shafer, A. (2006). Meta-analysis of the factor structures of four depression questionnaires: Beck, CES-D, Hamilton, and Zung. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(1), 123-146.

Smith, T., Rosenstein, I., & Granaas, M. (2001). Intake screening with the Self-Rating Depression Scale in a university counseling center. Journal of College Counseling, 4(2), 133-141.

Svanum, S., & Bigatti, S. (2006). The influences of course effort and outside activities on grades in a college course. Journal of College Student Development, 47(5), 564-576.

Svanum, S., & Zody, Z. (2001). Psychopathology and college grades. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 48(1), 72-76.

Swanson, B., & Anderson, C. (1972). Faking on the Zung Self-rating Depression Scale: A replication and refinement. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 28(2), 193-194.

Trockel, M., Barnes, M., & Egget, D. (2000). Health-related variables and academic performance among first-year college students: Implications for sleep and other behaviors. Journal of American College Health, 49(3), 125-131.

Zhang, X., & Bian, X. (2008). Study on the relationship of learning burnout and health-related hardiness of undergraduates. Chinese Journal of Clinical Psychology, 16(5), 547-548.

Zou, F., Wang, Y., & Zhang, J. (2007). A study of psychological education on anxiety and depression of university students. Chinese Journal of Clinical Psychology, 15(5), 557-558.

Zung W. W. (1965). A self-rating depression scale. Archives of General Psychiatry. 12, 63-70.

Appendix A
Instruction Page

This test is designed to gather information regarding the effect of credit load and mood. Please complete the demographic information after completing the survey (i.e. age; year in school; classification by credit; university id. number). Also, sign at the bottom of the page for us to gain access to your credit load for the past two semesters at Huntington University. The information collected in this study will remain confidential. Please answer each question on the test to the best of your knowledge. Do not leave any questions unmarked. Sometimes participating in research studies raises issues for people. If this is the case for you, we will provide you with information for further help. You may begin now. Thank you for your time and participation. You may contact any of the experimenters if you would like to know the outcome of this study. ( [email protected] ; [email protected] ; [email protected] ) School counselor: Dave Kinningham (x 4121).”

Appendix B
Consent Form And Demographic Information Page.

Student ID#:




Year in school by credit:

Year in school by year:

I ____________ _________give permission to Cassandra , Cassie , and Joel the access to information from the registrar about how many credits I have been enrolled in (completed in Fall 08’ and currently enrolled in for Spring 09’) the past 2 semesters.

Print name:



Instruments used in the study:

Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale © 1997, Glaxo Wellcome, Inc.

Key to Scoring the Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale, © 1997, Glaxo Wellcome, Inc.


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