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Anxiety in the Classroom

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Imagine that you are enrolled in Professor Josiah S. Carberry’s course in advanced psychoceramics. Today is your day to give a half-hour presentation on the topic of psychoceramic califractions. You have read several books and numerous articles on your topic and undoubtedly know more about psychoceramic califractions than any of your classmates. Furthermore, you have meticulously prepared a set of note cards to which you can refer during your presentation. As you sit in class waiting for your turn to speak, you should be feeling calm and confident. But instead you’re a nervous wreck: Your heart is pounding wildly, your palms are sweaty, and your stomach is in a knot. When Professor Carberry calls you to the front of the room and you begin to speak, you have trouble remembering what you wanted to say, and you can’t read your note cards because your hands are shaking so much.

It’s not as if you want to be nervous about speaking in front of your psychoceramics class. Moreover, you can’t think of a single reason that you should be nervous. After all, you’re an expert on your topic, you’re not having a bad-hair day, and your classmates are not the type to giggle or throw rotten tomatoes if you make a mistake. So what’s the big deal? What happened to the self-assured student who was practicing in front of the mirror last night?

You are a victim of anxiety. You have a feeling of uneasiness and apprehension about an event because you’re not sure what its outcome will be. This feeling can be accompanied by a variety of physiological symptoms, including a rapid heartbeat, increased perspiration, and muscular tension. Anxiety is similar to fear in the sense that both involve fairly high levels of arousal. But the two emotions are different in one important respect: Although we are usually afraid of something in particular (a roaring lion, an intense electrical storm, or the bogeyman under the bed), we usually don’t know exactly why we’re anxious (Lazarus, 1991). And it’s difficult to deal with anxiety when we can’t pinpoint its cause.

Almost everyone is anxious at one time or another. Many students become anxious just before a test that they know will be difficult, and most get nervous when they have to give a prepared speech in front of their peers. Such temporary feelings of anxiety are instances of state anxiety. However, some students are anxious a good part of the time, even when the situation is not especially dangerous or threatening. For example, some students get excessively nervous even before very easy exams, and others may be so anxious about mathematics that they can’t concentrate on the simplest math assignment. A learner who shows a pattern of responding with anxiety even in nonthreatening situations has a case of trait anxiety, a chronic condition that often interferes with maximal performance.

How Anxiety Affects Learning and Performance

Imagine, for a moment, that you are not at all anxious—not even the teeniest bit—about your grade in Professor Carberry’s psychoceramics class. Will you study for Carberry’s tests? Will you turn in the assigned research papers? If you have no anxiety whatsoever, you might not even buy the textbook or go to class. And you probably won’t get a very good grade in your psychoceramics class.

A small amount of anxiety often improves performance: It is known as facilitating anxiety. A little anxiety can spur students into action. For instance, it can make them go to class, read the textbook, do assignments, and study for exams. It also leads students to approach their classwork carefully and to reflect before making a response (Shipman & Shipman, 1985). In contrast, a great deal of anxiety usually interferes with effective performance; it is known as debilitating anxiety. Excessive anxiety distracts learners and interferes with their attention to the task at hand.

At what point does anxiety stop facilitating and begin debilitating performance? Very easy tasks—things that learners can do almost without thinking (e.g., running)—are typically facilitated by high levels of anxiety. But more difficult tasks—those that require considerable thought and mental effort—are best performed with only a small or moderate level of anxiety (Kirkland, 1971; Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). A high level of anxiety in difficult situations can interfere with several aspects of cognition that are critical for successful learning and performance:

  • Paying attention to what needs to be learned
  • Processing information effectively (e.g., organizing or elaborating on it)
  • Retrieving information and demonstrating skills that have previously been learned (Cassady, 2004; Covington, 1992; Eysenck, 1992; Hagtvet & Johnsen, 1992; Sarason, 1980)

Anxiety is especially likely to interfere with such processes when a task places heavy demands on either working or long-term memory—for instance, when a task involves problem solving or creativity. In such situations learners may be so preoccupied with doing poorly that they can’t get their minds on what they need to accomplish (Beilock & Carr, 2005; Eysenck, 1992; McLeod & Adams, 1989; J. C. Turner, Thorpe, & Meyer, 1998).

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