Thoughts on Anxiety in the Classroom | On Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas'

There's a lot for an early-career teacher to engage with in Graham Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About' series. Here, I reflect on how these ideas have manifested in my classroom in the past, or how they could benefit my teaching in the future. 


This article was one of the first of Graham Gibbs' articles I read. It discusses the way that fear and anxiety can manifest in students and their studying behaviours. On the first page, the following line jumped out at me:

Some students adopt a confident or anxious approach to all aspects of their studying [...] They might choose obvious essay questions on subject matter that has been covered thoroughly in lectures or the text book, or where the ‘right answers’ seem fairly straightforward. [...] They prioritise coverage over depth. [...] All decisions are intended to reduce risk.
— Gibbs, 2014

In the course of marking student essays, I've noticed the phenomenon of the 'popular' essay. A large proportion of the class will answer this particular essay question. The question will engage with a topic that was covered in at least a week's worth of the lectures, or one of the tutorials. Whilst many students will engage with the question with the results of their own reading, displaying the development of original thought and a high level of engagement with the subject matter, many more of these essays will rely on the textbook or recommended reading, hitting the same surface-level points along the way with little critical engagement, resulting in middling marks.

In the past, I wondered whether this phenomenon was due to the essay being seen as 'easy' or 'straightforward' by the students, with little consideration for the motivations for choosing the essay topic beyond that criterion. However, reading Gibbs' article, I wonder whether the reason behind this is anxiety.

Are the other essay questions neglected because the topics weren't covered sufficiently well in the lectures or tutorials? If students are too anxious to admit to a lack of depth of understanding of the course material, they might therefore take the lower risk presented by the 'popular' essay, rather than face the prospect of asking for help. Anxiety can make asking for help seem like an insurmountable task, with an accompanying fear of shame at the possibility of seeming 'stupid'. If anxiety results in the students thinking that asking for help will be unpleasant, then this can be a huge barrier to learning. Approachability is important - letting students know that you are open to questions about the topic or the essay material at the end of the tutorial may empower them to ask for help. 

Are the straightforward essay questions picked because students do not feel prepared to tackle the more complex question? Do we do enough to help students understand what essay question-words like 'explore' and 'analyse' mean in context? Not understanding how to approach a certain essay question increases the risk of not answering it properly, or the risk of failure, which can cause anxiety. I signpost my students to writing resources; there are many excellent resources online, such as Purdue OWL, the UNC Writing Center, and the University of Southampton Writing Centre. Students in PPLS at Edinburgh can also take advantage of the PPLS Writing Centre. I'd love suggestions to add to the resources I recommend to students come essay-time.

Finally, I worry about the problem of anxiety and surface-level learning. In tutorials, I try to provide an environment where students can explore the topics, get involved with in-depth discussion, and practice original and independent thought. In this way, these tutorials are practice for the essays; students can try their ideas out on the class and benefit from hearing the thoughts of others. Am I doing enough to encourage students to go beyond surface-level fact finding and tackle the subject in depth? Am I creating a comfortable space for anxious students to critically engage with the subject material before essay time? A lot of the activities I set for my students are small-group discussions. This gives quiet or anxious students space to talk with a small number of their peers. Often, I find that this breaking of the silence empowers them to speak in front of the rest of the class later on. The risk of embarrassment from talking in front of the whole group is deflated, as they have tried out their ideas already. For some tasks, I have time to check on each group individually before asking the groups to feed back to the class as a whole. This enables me to give attention to small groups of 3 or 4 students at a time; this is when many of the 'quiet' ones may ask me a question or tell me something they found interesting about the reading. The risk of asking a question in front of everyone, of 'seeming stupid', collapses, and I can have a brief one-on-one conversation with the student. What other techniques could I be using in the classroom to reduce anxiety?

Anxiety can be a huge barrier to education. Further thought is needed on how to encourage students to critically engage with the course material as they go, with positive reinforcement along the way.