• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Students Are Increasingly Anxious, but We Can Help Them

What happens when we take student anxiety into account as we consider pedagogy?

June 1, 2015

When I think about my approach to teaching, I often consider the barriers standing between my students and what I want them to learn and experience.

What do they know? What can they do?

I think about the gaps I need to fill, where skills may be strong, or the opposite. I consider these barriers so I can set up appropriate challenges for students that will help them learn to scale these obstacles.

Increasingly, I think there’s a barrier I haven’t previously considered that needs addressing if my students are going to succeed: anxiety.

As reported by Jan Hoffman in The New York Times, the national survey of the American College Health Association finds that 1 of every 6 college students have been diagnosed or treated for anxiety within the last 12 months.

This fits with my anecdotal experiences of students reporting what from the outside looks like inordinate amounts of stress relative to the work they’re doing and the success I think they’re having.

Being a student simply seems more fraught than in previous generations.

Placing blame[1], seems rather pointless to me since it doesn’t change the fact of who is showing up in the classroom.

Maybe today’s students are oversensitive and fragile hothouse flowers. If so (And who is to say?), it’s much more our fault than theirs.

Simply demanding greater resiliency isn’t going to work. We don’t badger people suffering from depression to be happier.

We need to build a pedagogy that removes some measure of that anxiety and that allows students to practice – and see the benefits of – resiliency.

I believe that writing courses are perhaps ideally positioned to address these issues.

For one, independent of whatever emotional baggage students arrive with, writing is anxiety producing for just about everyone, even very seasoned writers[2].

Secondly, most student writers lack confidence, increasing their anxiety. Even students who don’t experience generalized anxiety, likely have some anxiety over writing.

Even those who do profess confidence, do so on an edifice of approval and validation of others (“I always get A’s), as opposed to the kind of self-regulation that most writing instructors feel is the ultimate goal. When these students encounter bumps in the road in college (in the form of lower grades), that confidence is often tested, and sometimes destroyed because it’s rooted in very shallow soil.

Lastly, we know writing is a process, and by engaging with process we can encourage students to develop agency, which is a pre-requisite for resilience.

Some of this is still a work-in-progress, thinking wise, but I’m coming to believe that a writing pedagogy that deals with anxiety as a primary barrier to student success may have some things to recommend it, both for students and teachers.

Propositions I’ve been mulling that I’m pretty confident in:

 1. Students should write more because the more you write, the less anxiety you experience about writing. Also, the more you write, the better you get at writing.

2. Orienting the stakes of writing exclusively around grades adjudicated by the instructor likely increases anxiety and reduces quality. Grades also sometimes infantilize students, causing them to defer judgment to the instructor, while simultaneously grousing about being subject to that judgment.

3. Everything the student writes should be oriented around a specific rhetorical purpose and audience that is known to the student and analyzed prior to putting words on the page. This may include, but should extend significantly beyond, academic audiences.

4. Not all writing is equal, but all writing matters.

5. Practicing rigor in writing is important, but rigor is not synonymous with length, or complexity, or even the amount of time spent on the writing.

6. Experimentation and failure as a method of practice should be encouraged and valued.

7. Students write best when they’re writing about things they’re interested in or care about.

8. Instructors should discuss writing-related anxiety directly with students, acknowledge their concerns, share their own experiences and struggles with anxiety, and make recommendations for dealing with that anxiety at the process level.

I’m already doing specific things in class that address these propositions, but I’m contemplating more.

A handful of colleagues have been discussing the adoption of either grading contracts or specifications grading as a way to move the instructor out of the spotlight when it comes to evaluation.

I’m also trying to conceive assignments that won’t be subject to formal grading and feedback, but for which there are clear incentives for students to stretch themselves and engage with.

When we are working on argument, I may do something like assign a review that must be “published” in a public platform. Or, I could require students to post a substantive response on an article of their choosing at nytimes.com.

I want to create the right kind of discomfort, not anxiety, but frisson, where students forget that they’re writing for a class.

The uncertain part of this from my perspective is that it requires me to give up much of my power. I’ve traditionally viewed one of my chief roles as an instructor as the person who maintains the standards, who uses his expertise to tell students how close they are to snuff and then tries to coach them closer to the goal.

Grades, however, tend to be not very good incentives for writing well. I believe that ultimately, writing must come from an internal, rather than external drive. Why can’t I do that same coaching I claim to value without the cudgel of grades?

I’m starting to think that the effectiveness of this approach could be answered with a single student evaluation question: “Having taken this course, do you want to write more in the future?”

Is there a more important measurement of success?


[1] There’s probably a lot to go around. My chief suspect is a culture of competition and scarcity exemplified in the high stakes testing regime we’ve been pursuing for a generation. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/open-letter-education-system-please-stop-destroying-students Helicopter parenting, excess self-esteem, exposure to social media, and all kinds of other things are probably at work as well.

[2] One of the reasons I’m even writing this blog post is because I’d had a bad previous day working on a novel and had crisis of faith number 845,672 over my ability to write the book, causing significant anxiety, which had me turning to Twitter, which alerted me to the Times article, and got me thinking, after which I went on a Tweeting jag which seemed to resonate with some.

The inspiration for this post started from a Twitter jag where I just started saying things.



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