The Best (and Worst) Ways to Respond to Student Anxiety
By Sarah Rose Cavanagh MAY 05, 2019
Lay your finger on the pulse of higher education — teaching centers, faculty-development conferences, student-affairs offices, water-cooler discussions — and you’ll find a steady thrum of concern about the rising rates of student anxiety in and out of the classroom.
People have called it an "epidemic," a "tsunami." Blame has been laid at the feet of changes in parenting practices, of greater willingness to discuss and diagnose mental-health symptoms, and of everyone’s darling scapegoat of the moment: the smartphones in their pockets.
Regardless of the cause, faculty members are faced with the dilemma of how to respond to anxiety in ways that are empathetic yet respectful of the learning goals we have set for all of our students. One of the key points of contention is how to deal with anxiety spurred by that staple of the college classroom: the student presentation.
Clashing sides argue, on the one hand, that student presentations are outdated and perhaps even harmful to those suffering from anxiety, and, on the other, that facing one’s anxieties not only can be a productive learning experience but also a potentially therapeutic one.
As a college instructor who has suffered from lifelong clinical anxiety, I believe that I can speak to the issue from an unusually conversant position.
Before we proceed, it’s important to clarify what we mean when we talk about anxiety. When people who’ve never had a panic attack attempt to understand the experience, from what I can tell, they take ordinary nervousness and dial it up a bit. Sweaty palms, uneasy butterflies, a hitch in the heart rate.
I had such symptoms in high school. But I trace the emergence of truly debilitating anxiety to my sophomore year of college, when I began volunteering for a 24-hour hotline to help parents under stress in caring for their kids. Since the hotline was listed publicly and splashed on fliers around the Boston subways, it wasn’t hard for predators to figure out that it was staffed mostly by young college girls with young college girl voices, who had to listen to at least enough of your story to determine you were a bad agent rather than a parent needing help.
You can imagine the "parental stress" stories they used, which would start innocently enough until they built into something that no healthy person would want intruding on their thoughts.
Away from home for the first time in my life, alone in a dorm room in the dark of night, I could always tell when a particular call was anything but legit. The first few syllables of the men’s voices, tight with arousal and anticipation, would be enough to unfurl something deep in my belly. But endlessly conscientious, I would clutch the receiver with white knuckles and let him talk until I was sure, until the narrative built into something truly stomach-clenching.
This was around the same time that my social anxiety — on a low simmer since early high school — blossomed into full-blown panic attacks.
A true panic attack is all-encompassing and utterly incapacitating. When one strikes, every single biological system in my body rebels — the respiratory, the digestive, the neurological. Most times, I have to confine myself to a bathroom, laying on the floor shaking and gasping for air and repeatedly sick to my stomach, the cool tile against my forehead the only balm. The physical symptoms would be more bearable if they didn’t also come with an unnerving sense of being separate from my typical waking self (depersonalization) and unmoored from ordinary reality (derealization), my swirling thoughts a deep, dizzy tangle from which there is no respite.
I started having these attacks while helming the overnight shifts on the hotline. Then they began happening before my daytime shift. And sitting in my pajamas eating Lucky Charms in my mother’s kitchen. Then during class, when I’d have to flee. The tendrils of anxiety spread throughout my daily life — any sign that an attack might be on the horizon froze me on the spot, my voice caught in my throat.
Professor after professor would respond to my classroom silence by scribbling on my papers, "Would love to hear you share some of these insights in class!" I would pledge to try but whenever I thought about participating my mouth would run dry, my pulse would escalate, and I’d feel lightheaded. By the time I could even think about trying to master these symptoms, the conversation would have moved beyond the point I wished to make.
Not appreciating the severity of a student’s clinical anxiety can lead to misunderstandings. One such misunderstanding occurred recently on Twitter when a college professor (in a since-deleted tweet) objected having to accommodate three students who had obtained exemptions from the university’s disability office from having to give a presentation and participate in class. The professor tweeted that he was glad when students felt anxious about presenting — they should, he said.
Twitter blew up, as Twitter likes to do.
I joined the chorus in thinking that this professor had no appreciation for genuine anxiety and how it differs from the everyday nervousness he was obviously referring to, and that he would do well to educate himself and dial up his empathy for his students.
I am now a college professor and a public speaker. I attribute this remarkable transition — from mute pupil to professional talker — to my women’s-studies professors and their insistence that I participate in class despite my anxiety.
Midway through my college career I realized that I had accidentally assembled half of a women’s-studies minor, and figured why not earn it officially. In those courses, we read parts of Mary Pipher’s seminal book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, and I saw in those pages my life history. We tackled the cultural brainwashing about gender roles that I realized had played a role in the loss of my own voice — my transition from a boisterous and opinionated child to a reserved, participation-reluctant adolescent.
But most important, my women’s-studies instructors took participation quite seriously. The course syllabi regularly awarded something like a third of the grade to class participation, and the instructors announced in the very beginning of the semester that no one would get an A in the class without contributing in class.
Such pronouncements pit my anxiety against my nerdy pride — my previous professors would dole out As despite my lack of participation — and pride won. The first few times I raised my hand and contributed something, I couldn’t hear myself speak at all, so loud was the roaring in my ears. I teared up. I probably turned scarlet. But I participated, and then I participated again. Each time was a little easier. I regained my lost voice.
My experience maps perfectly on what psychologists know is the most effective treatment for anxiety: controlled exposure in a safe setting.
The safety of the setting is key. Professors who believe students are supposed to be anxious when they give a presentation are not creating an accessible classroom climate, one in which all students feel their contributions are both important and respectfully considered. What my women’s-studies courses offered was not just the demand that I participate but also a classroom environment in which I felt nurtured and valued — both by the professors and by my fellow students.
Developing that sort of classroom is critical. Many experts in the scholarship of teaching and learning have offered research and advice on how to do it:
My colleague, Esteban Loustaunau, encourages faculty members to establish their classroom as a "retreat space" — that is, as a place where students will feel they can safely risk failure.
Out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the biologist Kelly Hogan and the psychologist Viji Sathy have written about all the reasons that students don’t contribute to class discussions: Some are introverts, some worry about being wrong, others don’t come from a culture that rewards speaking out. The two scholars advocate inclusive teaching — ways to structure the syllabus, class activities, and assignments so that your classroom makes every student feel equally welcome to participate.
Writing in Scientific American, Bryan Dewsbury, a biologist and principal investigator of the Science Education and Society Research program at the University of Rhode Island, reflected on what he called the "soul of my pedagogy." Instructors, he said, should think intentionally about how to create an equitable learning environment for all students, including those from underrepresented groups. He recommends they "consider using diverse cultural examples in their instruction, utilizing blind grading techniques to minimize the potential effects of bias and shoring up academic support structures (e.g. tutoring and early intervention services)."
All four of The Chronicle’s recent pedagogical advice guides — on how to create a syllabus, teach a good first day of class, be more engaging in your classroom (written by yours truly), and be a better online teacher — have sections on creating an inclusive, welcome environment in your courses.
Building that environment involves more than a series of practical hacks and tips. It means approaching your teaching from a certain philosophy — an orientation toward nurturing not just the intellect of your students but also their emotional lives. "Love in pedagogical work is an orientation," wrote Sean Michael Morris, director of digital learning at the University of Mary Washington. "It is a decision to commit first to the community of learners and second to the material we’ve come to teach."
As a faculty member, you don’t need to decide whether a student with anxiety needs accommodations or determine how to help — because, thankfully, our colleges and universities have set up offices staffed with skilled clinicians to manage that difficult work. There are many students with worse anxiety than mine, who might struggle harder than I did to overcome the fear of contributing in class. I have welcomed some of those students in my own classroom. I’ve worked with our accessibility office to find ways to help them gain exposure, in a safe setting, without having to face an entire classroom of their peers. This work often requires careful discussion and a bit of creativity.
At the same time, I don’t wipe away the learning goal. Even if it is only with me, I still want those students to present, to talk, to share their thoughts out loud.
Because I know what it is to lose your voice — and what a gift it is to gain it back.
Sarah Rose Cavanagh is an associate professor of psychology at Assumption College and associate director for grants and research at the college’s teaching center. Her new book, out this fall, is Hivemind: Thinking Alike in a Divided World.