SIP 5.11 Minimizing Anxiety for Better Learning

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

At this time in the semester but really, at any time in the semester), students are faced with the challenges of attending school, engaging in classes, and completing work while also struggling with anxiety. In a 2013 survey by the National College Health Assessment, roughly half of college students reported struggling with debilitating anxiety within the past year. Faculty can take small steps to help students who struggle with anxiety still be successful in class.

Take a SIP of This: Minimizing Anxiety for Better Learning

Students who experience anxiety report blocks to their usual thought processes like memory, attention and concentration. Overwhelming anxiety drains students emotionally. It is difficult for them to attend to class activities or assignments. This leads to difficulties with completing coursework and assessments, which then leads to feelings of academic hopelessness – and the cycle begins again. Here are some concrete steps you can take to help:

  • Help students focus on the material, rather than on their anxiety

Students experiencing anxiety often grapple with what notes need to be taken, and often err on writing everything down or giving everything in class the same level of importance. Instructors can provide lecture notes, structured protocols for note taking, and other strategies to highlight the notable information. Highlight key points and transitions within class.  Focus on the objective of the class and be explicit about it.

  • Encourage active learning

When students are actively engaged in a lesson, they focus less on their anxiety. Class discussions, small group discussions, interactive simulations, Socratic seminars, and other activities that let students be involved during class are helpful. Many SIPs address different ideas to increase active learning.

  • Chunk material

Breaking down big assignments into smaller, more doable tasks is called chunking. Break down large projects, papers, etc. into smaller, doable tasks. This helps students see that every task is just a series of small tasks they are capable of completing. Scaffold supports into each chunked part so that the smaller parts can be part of the grade while simultaneously help meet learning needs.

  • Help anxious students reduce their sense of incompetence

Frequent success is the best way to begin building a sense of competence. If students succeed in following what is going on in class and in participating in the class, then they are going to begin believing that competence is possible. Mistakes are an inevitable part of learning and can be built into the learning process. Giving students opportunities to correct their mistakes through offering rough drafts, reworking problem sets, or revising scientific labs lets students struggle and find success through the feedback cycle. When students have multiple opportunities for assessment over the course of the semester, rather than just a few high stakes opportunities, this reduces anxiety as well, and gives more opportunity to correct misconceptions.

  • Practice empathy

Let students know that you remember how hard it was for you to learn some new material. Acknowledge that their struggles are an appropriate part of learning. Teaching students to acknowledge that learning is hard and needs to be worked at is part of developing a growth mindset (i.e. Carol Dweck’s work). A growth mindset has been connected to higher student achievement in classes.

Encourage students to visit you during office hours to chat and just talk about what is bothering them. Knowing someone is willing to listen to you really helps with anxiety. You don’t feel so alone when you know someone actually cares.

Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of Minimizing Anxiety for Better Learning

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