Fear and anxiety are enemies of learning: 53 Powerful ideas all teachers should know

Fear by Pimthida https://flic.kr/p/9fRBhW CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As we approach the three-quarter mark of semester 2, final assessments are in our students’ minds at the same time as we are trying to ensure that we have taught them everything that they need before they depart our units. Launching off idea 25 of Graham Gibbs’ 53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know, we focus here on how we can foster a positive emotional climate that supports students through this taxing time of learning, assessments, and study.

Fear and anxiety for students

Gibbs writes about students who are driven by fear of failure falling back to surface approaches to learning. This usually presents itself through cramming and a superficial grasp of content, as opposed to deeper understanding of underlying concepts. A large number of factors can push students into this mindset, but the good news is that we as teachers can help alleviate some of these. This ‘safety first’ approach could be induced by anxiety or uncertainty about expectations, so clarifying these will help. Risk-averse behaviour could also be induced by high pressure competitive situations and students misunderstanding that they are ‘graded to the curve’ – clarifying that we use standards-based assessment may alleviate this. Gibbs also reflects on some research which suggests that:

Only when threat to the self was reduced was learning likely to proceed… this involved a warm and supportive emotional environment, the neutral acceptance of people’s views rather than aggressive challenges to them…

We may unknowingly introduce these threats when teaching. Gone (hopefully) are the days where professors stand in front of their class and proclaim that 1 in every 4 students will fail – students do a good job of spreading these rumours themselves, which causes enough angst as is. Threats that we introduce are usually more subtle, such as calling out individuals (“You in the back!”), not acknowledging student input (“OK anyone else?”), or unfounded expectations of student knowledge (“You should really know this by now…”).

Together, these have some practical implications for how we interact with students face-to-face and online, as well as how we design curriculum and support structures. Try some of these practical tips:

  • Post a lighthearted announcement about something related to your discipline or unit that students might find interesting or useful. This may help to break barriers between you and your students, and help them to see that you are approachable and willing to open conversations.
  • When asking questions in class, consider using a student response system so that students can answer questions or even pose questions anonymously, relieving fear of embarrassment. A number of teachers around the University use and recommend Socrative.
  • If students are proffering answers or suggestions which are clearly on the wrong track, try to find some aspect of their response that you can work into a ‘correct answer’. It takes courage for students to speak up, and if suggestions are shot down by someone they respect (that’s you!), other students will feel increasingly unsure and unsafe about offering their opinions. Instead of saying “No, that’s not right, anybody else have an answer?”, try “That’s interesting – I like how you picked up on…” or similar.
  • Send encouraging messages (personalised, if possible) to your students, acknowledging their effort and any particular difficulties in the unit. If possible, open an offer to provide academic support, such as through an online discussion forum, a revision tutorial, one-on-one consultations, etc.
  • Provide your students with samples of past papers. If possible, provide worked solutions as well, so that students can understand the level expected of them. Better yet, in these sample solutions, clarify the standards that are expected of students, such as what constitutes a high distinction response and how it may differ from a credit response.
  • If providing past papers is difficult, at least provide students with sample questions that are of the difficulty and type they should expect in an examination. Explain to your students the purpose of providing these sample questions – they are not necessarily to reflect the entirety of unit content, but to provide a guide to difficulty and format.
  • The less ambiguity you can provide for your students, the better. This may be as simple as re-emphasising the number, grading, and style of questions in a final exam.
  • Know your boundaries as a staff member and where to direct students for further help. The University Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) team has a helpful information page for staff, which contains guidance on responding to students in distress, as well as important contact numbers.

Importantly, we need to keep in mind that we do need to extend our students; I’m not advocating that we baby them. However, pushing our students and having high expectations of them (both good things) should be done in a supportive, safe environment. Gibbs notes again:

Graphs of the effect of stress on learning show an upward curve, up to a point, showing that some stress is helpful, or even necessary. But then the graph shows a catastrophic fall, showing that too much stress is debilitating.

Fear and anxiety for teachers

Gibbs notes an interesting corollary, and that is a similar risk-averse approach to teaching. A ‘safety first’ approach to teaching may involve a reluctance to introduce active learning activities into classrooms, despite ample evidence and practical suggestions for the effectiveness of these approaches. This may be because a teacher is afraid to ‘lose control’ of their class during these times, so the safe fallback is to retain control by talking for 50 minutes. There are some situations where this may indeed be most effective, but for most of our students, another approach is needed. We won’t labour this point here, but do check out a reflection by a science lecturer at Sydney about how he engaged with other lecturers and made small changes to his class.

About 53 Powerful Ideas

Graham Gibbs is one of the UK’s most well known advocates of improving university learning and teaching. With his colleagues (Habeshaw & Habeshaw), he was responsible for the very popular “53 Interesting Ideas” books series that have supported countless teachers (new and experienced) navigate their way through tricky classroom and curriculum dilemmas. Gibbs’ blog 53 Powerful Ideas all Teachers Should Know About offers a research summary of key issues. Here at Teaching@Sydney, we aim to bring you some of Gibbs’ ideas and place them into a practical context that works for you.

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