Anxiety and Learning
The qualitative literature (1) highlights concern among some academics about what constitutes anxiety, what is a tolerable amount of anxiety or stress, what students should be able to ‘push through’ and what should be treated with concern.
Much of this discussion reflects the general difficulty in understanding mental and emotional states and confusion in language. The word ‘stress,’ for example, can be used in a variety of ways, to mean anything from mild nerves or anticipatory excitement through to high levels of anxiety and fear. This spectrum can potentially be broken up into discrete experiences in theory but, in real life situations, it is difficult to identify absolute dividing lines between what may be helpful, tolerable, intolerable and harmful.
In this resource we use the word ‘stretch’ for the experience of being challenged in ways that can be positive for learning, wellbeing and achievement. This experience is sometimes referred to as Eustress in the literature and has been shown to be helpful in motivating someone to engage in helpful behaviours (such as studying and academic performance) (2-4). As the students in our co-creation project highlighted, challenge can be good for wellbeing. Being challenged pushes us to grow and develop. Meeting and overcoming challenges by mastering new skills and knowledge has powerful, positive payoffs for wellbeing.
It should also be borne in mind that boredom can have a negative effect on wellbeing (5-6). A lack of challenge in our lives can lead to low motivation and a lack of meaning and purpose. The students in our co-creation group reported that when they found modules boring, they became disengaged, lost motivation and began to doubt their future, which in turn reduced their mood.
On the other side of this, high levels of stress and anxiety can reduce cognitive functioning at a neurological level. (7) (Our use of the words ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ in this resource reflects this experience). This reduces students’ ability to engage in complex thinking, to access old memories or make new, complex memories, to problem solve and to maintain concentration. In other words, anxiety reduces the capacity for learning and academic performance at a biological level.
Anxiety is a fear response to a perceived threat. Students become anxious about education when they view it or the environment as a threat to them (8). This fear may be stimulated by social and cultural experiences, which, for instance, leave students feeling marginalised, ostracised or humiliated. Alternatively, it may arise from a fear of failure or the perceived consequences of failure. These consequences can be emotional and practical. Students can be scared of the emotional pain they will feel if they fail. They can also fear the practical outcomes of failure, which may not be realistic e.g., they may fear that failing an assignment might lead to them having to drop out of university.
The failures some students fear can be more than the technical failure of an assignment. Some students may view a mark of 75% as a failure to achieve against their pre-conceived expectations, as articulated by our co-creation project group. Some may feel that getting an answer wrong in class is an example of failure. All of these types of failure will present risks to them – humiliation, ostracism from their peer group, etc.
The key to understanding the relationship between boredom, anxiety, stretch and learning is finding productive balance. Vygotsky’s (9) concept of scaffolded learning provides a pedagogic framework in which the aim of the curriculum should be to stretch students to their zone of proximal development – just outside their current comfort zone. This is likely to engage students in stretch, avoiding both boredom and anxiety. It may help to explain this explicitly to students and to help them recognise their strengths and successes within this framework.
When students are appropriately stretched, risk is contained and feels within the student’s control. To achieve this, when faced with a learning or assessment task, students will:
- be appropriately prepared and will understand what they have to do and how to do it.
- recognise their own skills and resources.
- have the necessary skills to undertake the task or will be able to develop them as a result of completing the task.
- have the necessary and appropriate support.
- have the resources they need – including time.
- be intrinsically motivated and focussed on the aspects of the task that are meaningful to them.
- be in an environment that feels psychologically safe.
- Being stretched can be good for wellbeing and learning.
- Being pushed into anxiety can reduce cognitive functioning, impacting on students’ ability to learn and perform.
- Balance is key – keep students in their proximal zone of development.
- To do this, students need to be prepared for tasks, have the necessary resources and skills, know and understand what they need to do and have the appropriate support and environment in which to learn.
- A useful guiding maxim is that if students need to know, understand or be able to do something, it must be taught to them first. If students have previous experience of a task and know how to tackle it, they will be less anxious.
- Normalising mistakes in the classroom (online or face to face) can create a learning environment that lowers anxiety and increases learning.
- Use classroom activities to identify students’ current level of knowledge and understanding, so teaching and learning activities can be calibrated to the group’s zone of proximal development.
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Gibbons C. Stress, Eustress and the National Student Survey. Psychology Teaching Review. 2015;21(2):86-92.
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Bourgeois, T. J. (2018). Effect of eustress, flow, and test anxiety on physical therapy psychomotor practical examinations (Doctoral dissertation, Walden University). 2018.
Pekrun R, Goetz T, Daniels LM, Stupnisky RH, Perry RP. Boredom in achievement settings: Exploring control–value antecedents and performance outcomes of a neglected emotion. Journal of educational psychology. 2010 Aug;102(3):531.
Pekrun R, Goetz T, Titz W, Perry RP. Academic emotions in students’ self-regulated learning and achievement: A program of qualitative and quantitative research. Educational Psychologist. 2002;37:91–105
Marin MF, Lord C, Andrews J, Juster RP, Sindi S, Arsenault-Lapierre G, Fiocco AJ, Lupien SJ. Chronic stress, cognitive functioning and mental health. Neurobiology of learning and memory. 2011 Nov 1;96(4):583-95.
Howard E, A review of the literature concerning anxiety for educational assessments. Online: Ofqual 2020. Available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/865832/A_review_of_the_literature_concerning_anxiety_for_educational_assessment.pdf
Vygotsky LS, Cole M. Mind in society: Development of higher psychological processes. Harvard university press; 1978.