Supporting students with anxiety

This post was created by PGCert participants in Team Venus as part of their assessment for Unit 1 of the course. The brief was to evaluate technologies that could help students with specific learning needs to learn more effectively.

What is anxiety? What are the different forms of anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. During particularly difficult times like these, feeling anxious is perfectly normal and a natural response to a difficult or nerve wracking situation. Generalised Anxiety Disorder is a long term condition that is treated clinically and affects up to ‘5% of the population’. According to data from the NHS, ‘slightly more women are affected than men, and the condition is more common in people from the ages of 35 to 59’ (nhs.uk). However in recent years we have seen a significant rise in anxiety in young people. There are many things you can do to help reduce anxiety such as self-help courses, consistent exercise, cutting down on caffeine as well as psychological therapies and medication. In this article we look to explore anxiety in higher education and look at technologies and guidance that can help assist students and staff through the online environment during Covid-19 and beyond.

How does anxiety affect/relate to students?

Anxiety can affect anyone, but there is significant research to show that university students are some of the worst affected, and that this situation is only continuing to worsen. In autumn 2020 (amid the Covid-19 pandemic), the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 57% of students in England reported a worsening in their mental health and wellbeing during the autumn term (including feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety). Students are also often faced with additional stressful factors to manage such as increasing student debt, living away from home and adapting to fast-paced learning, which can result in increased anxiety.

Anxiety is also a common psychological pressure among foreign language learners. Horwitz et al. (1986) maintain that foreign language anxiety can be related to communication apprehension (the fear of communication with other people) and test anxiety (fear of exams, quizzes, and other activities used to evaluate one’s competence and fear of negative evaluation). Accordingly, MacIntyre (1998, as cited in Zheng, 2008, p. 27) conceived language anxiety as “the worry and negative emotional reaction aroused when learning or using a second language” while Burden (2004) holds that, “Highly anxious students often have relatively negative self-concept and understanding of the quality of their speaking ability when compared with others” (p. 5) Students with neurodiverse learning factors are also likely to suffer from some form of anxiety:

“Students with specific learning differences are likely to demonstrate higher levels of anxiety than their neurotypical peers” (Carroll & Ives, 2006) and yet only 1.5% of students are likely to declare any mental health difficulties to their Higher Education Institutes.” (Abrahams and Chappell, 2017)

How does this impact students’ learning and experience of university?

Many students can experience anxiety in multiple forms whilst at university and this can have a negative (and sometimes serious) effect on their studies.

“Students who have anxiety disorders are at risk of suffering from poor academic performance and resistance to anything school-related. This can include lack of engagement in the classroom, poor relationships with peers and teachers, and disinterest in pursuing passions and planning for the future. Their learning is also affected due to the fact that anxiety can impact the working memory, which makes it challenging to retain new information and recall previously learned information.” (IBCCES, 2019)

Although anxiety affects people in different ways, it can cripple students’ ability to learn, participate, focus, time-manage and their overall self-confidence.

“Our feelings of self-worth are of fundamental importance both to psychological health and to the likelihood that we can achieve goals and ambitions in life.” (McLeod, 2014)

They may be so anxious they are unable to meet deadlines, turn up for tutorials, email to ask for help, make logical decisions or socialise to name a few outcomes: but overall it can be anything from challenging to impossible for students to work effectively when they are suffering from anxiety simultaneously. Underlying anxiety issues that might normally be manageable can be exacerbated by stressful wider external conditions (such as the Covid pandemic), an unexpected personal trauma or perhaps simply a stressful working/educational environment. In the case of the latter, it is important as educators that we try to minimise this as much as possible.

28.9% of Non-Native English learners say they experience fear relating to language issues when learning at university and 46% of these students agree that online learning activities have affected their language anxiety (Horwitz et. al, 1986). On the other hand, 40% of these students think that online learning activities cannot help overcome their anxiety when they have to face English as a foreign language (ibid.). They agree that online learning: can decrease and even eliminate their anxiety with learning English; helps facilitate their interaction with teachers; makes them more confident in exploring their opinion because they can argue anonymously; but it can equally increase student anxiety due to difficulties accessing online platforms, devices or tools.

As educators, how can we help?

As educators it is important that we empathise with students: that we acknowledge how anxiety can be a negative learning factor and that we are there to support, nurture and try to understand. It is important we educate ourselves about mental health challenges and therefore be potentially able to foresee problems before they arise (regarding learning environments and conditions) or to know how best to tackle problems when they appear.

  • It is important to remember that everyone experiences anxiety differently.
  • Some students may have clinical anxiety disorders and therefore may need professional help and guidance. If we believe this to be the case, it is important to be informed on what the recommended resources are to be able to direct the student to find clinical support.
  • If a student is experiencing a milder form of anxiety, it may be within our scope to help dilute this: try to help them to help themselves.
  • If a student is evidently anxious, try to find a way to talk to them about it. It may be they feel overwhelmed and isolated and that by simply sharing their worries may already start to help. It may be that their worries relate to a problem that is within our realm to solve, adjust, or explain.
  • If a student does want to talk, choose a setting that makes them feel comfortable to do so. Avoid somewhere within direct earshot of others, as the student may feel what they are discussing is private or sensitive.
  • Make the effort to make the student feel relaxed and allocate a generous amount of time so that this does not become an additional pressure.
  • Keep the chat positive and supportive, exploring the issues and how you may be able to help.
  • Be empathetic and take them seriously. Try to understand the problem from their perspective, be kind and try to listen without judgement.

Sometimes students can feel anxious because their set work is designed to be challenging. It is important to remind students that they need to be challenged to be able to learn new things. We can provide scaffolding within our lessons to encourage students to try and work outside of their comfort zone to increase the capacity for both learning and overcoming anxieties.

We should try to ensure (within our capacity) that students’ basic needs are met so that they are in a good position to learn: forms of anxiety often surface when basic needs are not met and therefore providing for these may simultaneously reduce anxiety and increase the ability to work. Students suffering with forms of anxiety may feel their basic need for safety and survival is threatened and therefore may feel reluctant to engage in creative or perceived ‘risk-taking’ behaviours. By creating an organised, calm, supportive and creative working environment and community can help quell these worries:

  • Take the time to get to know your students: this builds trust and makes it more likely they will ask you for help or support if they need it. It is also more likely that you will understand students’ needs and foresee problems.
  • Build in team-building and group tasks into the course structure so that students can build relationships with their peers. This will help students feel less intimidated by one another and build their own support networks.
  • If there are core desired skills within your course (such as public speaking), build them into your course Learning Outcomes and explain to the students why they are important. Ensure there are lots of opportunities for these skills to be practised to lessen students’ anxieties related to them.
  • Be highly organised regarding assessment and timetabling so that students are clear on the task, what the expectations are, and be able to plan their time accordingly.
  • Make as much course content available online so that students can access it whenever they need to and be able to learn at their own pace.

“Our success as teachers is largely determined by how effective we are at creating learning environments where students can meet their needs by immersing themselves in the academic tasks we provide.” (Sullo, 2009)

What learning strategies/theories can we use? How can we incorporate technology within these strategies/theories?

Carol Dweck argues it is important to encourage students to develop a ‘growth mindset’: so they can welcome challenges and react positively and developmentally to their mistakes. If you enable students to see that ‘trying’ at something earns praise, that ‘challenges’ are not scary but exciting and support students in self-reflecting how far they have progressed when they look back on what they have achieved, then learning-related anxiety may fade and self-confidence and joy may gradually replace it. Similarly, Carl Rogers felt people who were fully functional were receptive to change and had faith in their own reasoning and abilities: “learning and personal growth were interdependent” (Robins, 2012). As educators, we can work to instill a proactive growth mindset within our students so that they can actively help themselves: both in regard to learning and managing forms of mental ill health.

Teachers can improve their ability to manage the classroom more effectively in order to potentially reduce anxiety for learners: teachers bear a crucial role in enhancing a positive environment for learners, thereby reducing their anxiety. Perhaps consider incorporating teacher training courses and in-service programs alongside developing a syllabus that encourages and boosts effective classroom management. Alongside designing such a syllabus for teacher training programs, syllabus designers could also provide a conducive context for learners to articulate and refine their understanding of learning strategies.

We can also point students in the direction of assistive technology to enable them to support their learning and mental health. There are many apps and websites that are designed to help users understand, manage and reduce anxiety – check out our suggestions below:

  • Sonocent audio notetaker is a software helping students with mental health problems and disabilities, focusing on assisting the problems of missing information, loss of focus and messy and unusable notes. This software can record lectures and meetings as audio, make brief annotations and colour high-light in the moment. It is a useful assistive technology that cuts down on information overload and easily returns to the important parts and streamlines students’ studies. This software is suitable for those students who need to improve learning and productivity.
  • Moodnotes is a mood tracker and journaling app designed to capture your mood and help you improve your thinking habits. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression will be the primary cause of global disability by 2030. This app aims to help improve mental wellbeing by using CBT techniques.
  • Togetherall is a community with 24/7 access for users. It can provide self-assessment services and recommended supportive resources. Togetherall provides the protective and therapeutic effects of connectedness and healthy social networks as users can share their feelings and support each other. Within this community, users can access clinical support and trained moderators who can help direct the users’ own recovery.
    ant online community where members can support each other
  • Calm produces a range of meditation products, including guided meditations, a book, narrated Sleep Stories, and health and meditation videos. Its services are able to adapt to users’ mobile apps, featuring both meditation tools and sleep aids. The meditation area offers breathing exercises, a daily meditation, and several multi-day programs.

We have also considered what educators can do, utilising technology, to ease anxiety for their students when learning online:

  • How do we, as educators, engage better with our students whilst teaching online?
  • How do we get better engagement from them in return?
  • What tools or ideas are there for online teaching platforms to help shy or anxious students feel more comfortable to engage with the session and their learning?

References

Abrahams, H. and Chappell, M. (2017) ‘Mental Health in Higher Education for Students with SpLDs. (Lecture at Patoss Conference, 20 June 2017)

Aubrey, K. & Riley, A. (2019) ‘Understanding & Using Educational Theories’

Burden, P. (2004). The teacher as facilitator: Reducing anxiety in the EFL university classroom. JALT Hokkaido Journal, 8, 3-18.

Carroll, J. and Iles, J. (2006) ‘An assessment of anxiety levels in dyslexic students in higher education’ – British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 651-662.

Horwitz, E. K., Horwitz, M. B., & Cope, J. (1986). Foreign language classroom anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, 70(2), 125-132.

International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) (2019) ‘Impact of Anxiety and Depression on Student Academic Progress’ (Accessed February 2021)
https://ibcces.org/blog/2019/05/01/impact-anxiety-depression-student-progress/

Martin, R. (2021) ‘Assistive technology in context #1 – dyslexia and dyspraxia’ – Creative Education Network

MacIntyre, P. D., & Gardner, R. C. (1994). The subtle effects of language anxiety on cognitive processing in the second language. Language Learning, 44, 283-305.

McLeod, S. (2014) ‘Simply Psychology – Carl Rogers’

Robins, G. (2012) ‘Praise, Motivation and the Child’

Sullo, B. (2009) ‘The Motivated Student: Unlocking the Enthusiasm for Learning, Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development’

The Guardian (online) (2020) ‘More than half of students polled report mental health slump’ (Accessed 2021)
https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/dec/09/more-than-half-of-students-polled-report-mental-health-slump

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