Supporting Anxious Undergraduates

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • Higher education is a time when most students are expected to participate in or lead projects or discussions. These days it isn't uncommon for a student to be asked to present their findings in front of very large groups or even a lecture theatre capable of seating well over 100 people. Should we be surprised that this is the stuff of nightmares for socially anxious students? What we need to know is how do such activities affect learning and how might staff recognize social anxiety in their students and do something about it?

     

    I gave up my job as a university academic about three years ago. By then, the massification of higher education was well established, as was the well-worn phrase, ‘it's all about bums on seats.' There was more than a grain of truth about this but I always felt lucky that I worked in a place that prided itself on the level of contact academic staff enjoyed with students. Even so, times were changing and contact hours with students were diminishing and more ‘creative' ways were being looked at to accommodate the latest assessment trends and requirements. Within this context greater emphasis had being placed on the ability of students to acquire interpersonal skills and a level of confidence to equip them for the world of work.

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    Presenting work in front of a group, and usually their professor or some other senior member of staff, is no easy task. Even the most confident student will experience apprehension, particularly if their performance forms part of an overall grade. I have seen a few people freeze. I have shared the pain as some shake with anxiety, stuttering and stammering their way through. I have even noticed a few absentees; presumably they would rather be given a zero score than go through it?

     

    Writing in the April 2012 edition of The Psychologist, the academic psychologist's Phil Topham and Graham Russell address this very issue and ask whether social anxiety in higher education constitutes a hidden disability? Whilst accepting that most students will experience some level of anxiety, they argue ‘there is a significant minority for whom [social performance anxieties] lead to a persistent, distressing anxiety and reduced engagement with learning. Citing a range of statistics, the authors suggest significant levels of social anxiety in up to 16 per cent of the student population. Those affected are far more likely to habitually avoid public situations like lectures and project groups and miss the learning opportunities connected with these.

     

    One of the problems, indicated by the authors, is that very little in the way of objective evidence relating the effect of social anxiety on academic performance in higher education. There is evidence that points to socially anxious students judging their competence as poor, against observers who rate them more highly. Despite good grades, the threat of negative evaluation, embarrassment, and general anxiety follows the student around.

     

    Social anxiety isn't necessarily easy to spot and increasingly the relatively short periods of time spent in face-to-face contact makes the task even harder. Some students put on a brave face only to crumple in a heap once their task is over. They cannot learn from other contributions because they are so preoccupied with their own situation and the creeping anxiety associated with waiting for ‘my turn.' This undermines the whole purpose of such shared-learning exercises.

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    There has always been something of a tension in higher education about its central role. Many would argue that it is not the job of academics to identify or work with the socially anxious and that support should be sought elsewhere. Student support services are pretty universal these days but as Topham and Russell say, it requires the student to access these services. In turn a conflict in the student may arise in which they want help but feel ashamed of revealing their perceived inadequacies.

     

    Higher education is a business and like all businesses must be seen to be fit for purpose. Student retention is a big issue for some universities and high drop out rates amongst first year students would seem to suggest difficulties with the issue of problem identification and student support. Not all these issues will be anxiety related, but my money would be on a good proportion. My own experience tells me there are both sensitive and insensitive academics. No student likes a lack of understanding, sarcasm or unconstructive criticism. Few students actually enjoy being singled out to answer questions or give their views in front of their peers. Academics can help a little. For example, do those big presentations really need to be conducted in the first semester of the first year? A little attention to confidence building, a little discrete questioning and observation and some less challenging exposure to social performance tasks would go a long way in helping the socially anxious student to settle in, develop confidence and gain from their education experience.

     

    Sources:

    Topham, P., & Russell, G. (2012). Social anxiety in higher education

Published On: April 11, 2012