Cumberland Times-News

Columns

April 3, 2010

Anxiety can have a bad effect on learning

— My outlook is that popular ways of thinking in our culture may be setting up our students to be anxious regarding learning. I’ll also mention how these ways of thinking affect students. Lastly, what steps may be taken to lessen student anxiety, leading to more learning.

I hope this column promotes some awareness of learning related anxiety among students, teachers and parents.

In our culture, there’s a strong focus on the Bottom Line (outcome is most important, not the process leading to the outcome) which affects students, regular workers, managers, executives, military and political leaders.

Closely related is the Minimum Principle, do as little as you can to achieve the desired result. There are television programs where the focus is on winning money, often with little effort or skill. Then consider the advertised sales that focus on how much you can get for your money.

So in response we go to large stores with bigger discounts to get our household items, clothes, etc. Getting the most for your money translates to students in this way: Find out what you really need to know in a class and learn just that. It’s just the grade that counts, not how much work you have to do to earn the grade.

Another popular outlook, very prevalent in political talk shows these days is the Blame/Victim game. If there is a messy situation, who can you blame? Pin the responsibility entirely on one person, a political group or even an ethnic group.

Often this blaming is done by figures who act out, use exaggerated language and dwell on how debased the accused party is. Then to really engage their audience, these personalities tell the listeners how this mistake might affect them. Then they further emphasize how many people will be unfortunate victims because of this situation.

You might think that politics doesn’t interest most students in primary grades or high school; but these students will hear their parents getting upset about politics and they will adopt some of these same outlooks. You can see this in students who contest scores on their tests and writing assignments. Ordinarily these students rarely speak in class but they become very articulate if they don’t get the points they expect. These students’ feeling of outrage is due to their going into the victim mode.

The big problem in many classes is inadequate effort on the part of the students to learn concepts and vocabulary outside of class. Many students expect that the teacher’s presentation should be so striking and that the class exercises so engaging that just a cursory review of their notes and a quick scan of the text chapter will be all they need to get a good score on tests. This underachieving outlook comes from the Minimum Principle.

The two big anxieties for many students are about tests and grades. Let’s first consider tests. Many students hope they will do well on tests, despite their scanty preparation. If the wording is not exactly the same as what they remember, some students quickly conclude that the question is confusing.

Students who learn only the words but don’t understand what the words mean (‘literal learners’) are especially prone to confusion. A few questions not understood well seem to unhinge some students’ reasoning ability. Often one part of the test may act as a clue for another part. But if the student’s anxiety level is high, they can’t see the connections.

What I find particularly revealing are questions the students ask during tests. Some students who seldom contribute in class are able to express themselves. Better late than never.

 Grade anxiety peaks after mid terms when some students see themselves as falling behind in their understanding of material.

As much as I can, I try to post scores on class worksheets and if the class isn’t too large, pass back the graded work. Going over the previous class’ worksheets help the students see their misconceptions. It also helps to print corrections to their wrong items so the returned material can help them prepare for tests.

A clear scheme to determine the final grade will also alleviate some of their anxiety. Course grades by final point totals (shown in course guide) is also the fairest policy.   

Here are some other techniques I use in my classes, which are largely one semester intro or survey courses. Let in-class graded work comprise a sizable fraction of the total points (for example, 40 percent). For in-class, you can see who is making an effort; it is important that the students can get some feedback and appreciation for staying on task and trying to apply the ideas and vocabulary up to several times a week.

A good study guide for each test is crucial to preparing for the test, which are posted on-line well in advance for all to use. My tests are based on quality, not quantity of items.

Typically my tests have only about 30 short or medium length items. Taken over an hour, the tests should allow students some time to think for each item. A preliminary practice test is prepared using the study guide; my students do these practice test in class time in pairs or singly, using their texts, notes, etc.

So my students see typical kinds of questions as on the actual class test. The graded practice test counts about one quarter or one-fifth as much as the actual class. The actual class test has an altogether different set of questions than the practice test.

Lastly, before returning the class tests, a key or answer set to the class test is passed out to the students. Then when the students get their test back, they have another set of answers for comparison. This reduces the confrontations mentioned above.

There will be no planetarium programs today; our April program will start next Sunday with showings at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. The presentation is “Quick Intro to the Planets,” covering the spring skies, planets concepts, the curious case of Pluto and the hundreds of new planets found orbiting other stars.

Readers are invited to engage Bob Doyle through email at rdoyle@frostburg.edu .        

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