Inclusive assessment example 4: defensive pessimist

Ray Martin shows how you might support an anxious student with their academic work.

Huda is an enigma. Her marks are always high yet for every assignment, she goes into a negative spin. She is endlessly checking with you about the wording of assignments – tiny details sometimes – and questioning, questioning aspects of a project. To begin with, you thought her behaviour stemmed from her dyslexia, but you feel less certain about this now, and sessions with a counsellor appear to have fuelled her anxiety rather than alleviated it.

With every assignment, you become seriously concerned about her mental health – you don’t know what to do to help. To tell the truth, you’re also concerned about your own mental health: her demands make inroads into your very limited time as well as ramping up your general anxieties around student wellbeing.

It’s probable that Huda is a ‘defensive pessimist’ – someone who ‘harnesses’ anxiety in order to get the best out of themselves (Norem, 2001). She needs to itemise everything that can go wrong before she can get going. And the best solution is, tell her what she needs to know – and stop worrying: defensive pessimism ‘emphatically’ won’t push Huda into depression; ‘quite the contrary – it can actually aid [her] efforts towards self-discovery and enhance [her] personal growth (p.3)’. She won’t want advice on changing her ways either; indeed, this may interfere with subsequent performances. However, studies suggest that she may use the strategy less as she begins to control new situations such as, in this case, assignments (p.210).

At some point, you may need to suggest to Huda that she keeps her worst-case scenarios to herself when working in teams since she is likely to annoy other students as well as raise their anxiety levels. (Heaven knows, teamwork is fraught enough.) At some point, too, someone may find it useful to point out that there are situations where the strategy really isn’t useful: dealing exhaustively with all the possible difficulties that a family gathering might pose, for example – and then being too tired to enjoy it.

Defensive pessimism is the process that allows anxious people to do good planning. They can’t plan effectively until they control their anxiety. They have to go through their worst-case scenarios and exhaustive mental rehearsal in order to start the process of planning, carry it through effectively, and then get from planning to doing (Norem, 2001:48).

Huda’s defensive pessimism may stem from her dyslexia – while all students suffer from anxiety, dyslexic students are likely to suffer higher levels of anxiety than the neurotypical (Carroll & Iles, 2006) – but it’s not an inevitable result of and certainly not exclusive to dyslexia: there are plenty of non-dyslexic people who work creatively with their anxiety through defensive pessimism, notably people whose culture does not sell the virtues of optimism and self-confidence as, say, the US does. Asian countries where self-effacement is appreciated may censure the kinds of self-promotion that Americans enjoy. Indeed, it may be Huda’s cultural background that inclines her towards defensive pessimism as a way of dealing with her anxiety.


Questionnaire: are you a defensive pessimist?

Carroll, J. and Iles, J. (2006) ‘An assessment of anxiety levels in dyslexic students in highereducation’ in British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76:3, pp. 651-662

Morrison, E. (2020) Anxiety: friend or foe? (online ADSHE lecture, 11 Aug. 2020)

Norem, J. (2001) The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: using defensive pessimism to harness anxiety and perform at your peak. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books

Photo by Kirill Levchenko on Unsplash

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