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).

Sources of Anxiety

Learners sometimes develop feelings of anxiety about particular stimuli through the process of classical conditioning (see Chapter 9). They are also more likely to experience anxiety, especially debilitating anxiety, when they face a threat, a situation in which they believe they have little or no chance of succeeding. Facilitating anxiety is more common when learners face a challenge, a situation in which they believe they can probably achieve success with a significant yet reasonable amount of effort (Combs, Richards, & Richards, 1976; Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 1989; Deci & Ryan, 1992).

  • Children and adolescents are apt to have some degree of anxiety—possibly facilitating, possibly debilitating—in many of the following circumstances:
  • A situation in which physical safety is at risk—for example, if violence is common in their school or neighborhood
  • A situation in which self-worth is threatened—for example, when someone makes unflattering remarks about their race or gender
  • Concern about physical appearance—for example, feeling too fat or thin or reaching puberty either earlier or later than peers
  • A new situation—for example, moving to a new school district
  • Judgment or evaluation by others—for example, receiving a low grade from a teacher or being excluded by peers
  • Frustrating subject matter—for example, having a history of difficulty with particular mathematical concepts
  • Excessive classroom demands—for example, being expected to learn a great deal of material in a very short time
  • Classroom tests—for example, having to take an important test, especially a high-stakes test that affects chances for promotion or graduation (more about high-stakes tests in Chapter 16)
  • Concern about the future—for example, how to make a living after graduation from high school (Ashcraft, 2002; Cassady, 2004; Chabrán, 2003; Covington, 1992; D. L. DuBois et al., 2002; Harter, 1992; Hembree, 1988; N. J. King & Ollendick, 1989; Matthews et al., 2006; Phelan et al., 1994; Sarason, 1980; Stipek, 1993; Stodolsky et al., 1991; Wigfield & Meece, 1988; K. M. Williams, 2001a)

Learners’ particular concerns change somewhat as they grow older. Developmentally speaking, the most anxiety-arousing period is probably the transition from elementary school to a secondary school format- perhaps to middle school or junior high or even high school.

A Multiple Whammy: Making the Transition to a Secondary School Format

Elementary school classrooms are often very warm, nurturing places in which teachers get to know twenty or thirty students very well. Students in elementary classrooms also get to know one another quite well: They often work together on academic tasks and may even see themselves as members of a classroom “family.” But somewhere around fifth to seventh grade, many students move from elementary school to a middle school or junior high school. As they do so, they simultaneously encounter numerous changes in the nature of their schooling:

  • The school is larger and has more students.
  • Students have several teachers at one time, and each teacher has many students. Thus, teacher–student relationships are more superficial and less personal than in elementary school, and teachers have less awareness of how well individual students are understanding and mastering classroom subject matter.
  • There is more whole-class instruction, with less individualized instruction that takes into account each student’s academic needs.
  • Classes are less socially cohesive. Students may not know their classmates very well and may be reluctant to ask peers for assistance.
  • Students have fewer opportunities to make choices about the topics they pursue and the tasks they complete. At the same time, they have more independence and responsibility regarding their learning. For example, they may have relatively unstructured assignments to be accomplished over a two- or three-week period, and they must take the initiative to seek help when they are struggling.
  • Teachers place greater emphasis on students’ demonstrating (rather than acquiring) competence; for instance, mistakes are more costly for students.
  • Standards for assigning grades are more rigorous, so students may earn lower grades than they did in elementary school. Grades are often assigned on a comparative and competitive basis, with only the highest-achieving students getting As and Bs.
  • High-stakes tests—tests that affect promotion to the next grade level—become increasingly common. (H. A. Davis, 2003; Eccles & Midgley, 1989; Harter, 1996; Hine & Fraser, 2002; Midgley et al., 2002; Wentzel & Wigfield, 1998; Wigfield et al., 1996)

Furthermore, previously formed friendships can be disrupted as students move to new (and perhaps differing) schools (Pellegrini & Bartini, 2000; Wentzel, 1999). And of course, students are also dealing with the physiological changes that accompany puberty and adolescence.

This multiple whammy of changes often leads to decreased confidence, a lower sense of self-worth, less intrinsic motivation, and considerable anxiety. Focus on peer relationships increases, academic achievement drops, and some students become emotionally disengaged from the school environment—and may eventually drop out of school altogether (Eccles & Midgley, 1989; Gentry et al., 2002; Urdan & Maehr, 1995; Wigfield et al., 1996).

If students remain in an elementary school in early adolescence, rather than moving to a middle school or junior high environment, their attitudes and motivation are more likely to remain positive, and they are less apt to experience anxiety or depression (Midgley et al., 2002; Rudolph et al., 2001). By the time they reach ninth grade, however, they almost inevitably make the transition to a secondary school format, where they experience many of the changes that their peers in other school districts experienced a few grades earlier—more demanding expectations, increased emphasis on demonstrating competence, less supportive teacher–student relationships, lack of class cohesiveness, and so on (Midgley et al., 2002; Roderick & Camburn, 1999; Tomback et al., 2005). Students in lower-income, inner-city school districts (especially males and minorities) are especially at risk for making a rough transition from an elementary to a secondary school format, elevating their risk for dropping out before graduation (e.g., see the opening case study, “Starting High School,” in Chapter 1).

In theory, middle schools were developed to ease the transition to a secondary school format (e.g., Kohut, 1988; Lounsbury, 1984). Ideally, they are designed to accommodate the unique needs of preadolescents and early adolescents, including their anxieties about more demanding academic expectations, the changing nature of peer relationships, and their own rapidly maturing bodies. Effective middle schools give attention to students’ personal, emotional, and social development as well as to academic achievement, and they are attuned to students’ individual differences and unique academic needs. They teach learning and study skills that help students move toward increasing independence as learners. At many middle schools, teams of four or five teachers work with a subset of the student population (perhaps 75 to 125 students per team), coordinating activities and exchanging information about how particular students are progressing. Such strategies can ease students’ transition to a secondary school setting (Hine & Fraser, 2002; Midgley et al., 2002).

Students who make a smooth transition to a secondary school format are more likely to be successful there and, as a result, are more likely to graduate from high school (Roderick & Camburn, 1999; Wigfield et al., 1996). The Into the Classroom feature “Easing the Transition to Middle and Secondary School” suggests several strategies for teachers at the middle school and high school levels.