Managing anxiety in active learning classrooms

by Trisha Sippel

When I was a student, you could usually find me in the middle or back of the classroom. I would be just close enough to see the board, but far enough to inconspicuously blend in with the crowd and avoid being noticed. My early school days were spent hiding out this way while praying my teacher wouldn’t call on me, my face turning red-hot if they did. College was less anxiety producing. Sure, I was getting older and becoming more confident, but mostly I didn’t have to worry as much about being called on in class. Typically, the professor would stand at the front of a large lecture hall without much interaction with the students.

As active learning has gained traction in science classrooms, I have thought a lot about the possible anxiety of some of my students, especially those who are less comfortable speaking up in class, as I was. I could imagine being intimidated by and resistant to the amount of interaction and group work involved with active learning. After implementing these techniques in my own classroom, through the Science Teaching Experience for Postdocs (STEP) program, I clearly see the advantages of this type of learning compared to passive lecturing. Now, I wonder how we can make the active learning classroom a more comfortable place for all of our students.

Recently, a study published in the International Journal of STEM Educationby Cooper, Downing, and Brownell addressed this subject. In the study, the investigators interviewed college students in either an introductory biology or an upper level physiology course, both of which used active learning techniques. From these interviews, they picked the three active learning practices that were most commonly identified by students as either anxiety-inducing or anxiety-relieving: clicker questions, group work, and random call. Next, they explored what about these practices increased or decreased student anxiety.

Clicker questions and group work seemed to be both anxiety producing and relieving to students. Many students reported that both techniques helped to clarify concepts and deepen their understanding of the material, as well as identify the areas they did not understand as well, leading to more efficient studying outside of class. Additionally, students liked that group work allowed them to hear the concepts from the point of view of their peers. On the other hand, these techniques caused some students to fear negative evaluation by their peers and feel as though they were not as smart as their peers.

Overwhelmingly, the students identified random or cold call as anxiety producing, especially in large classes. The underlying reason was similar to those described for the other active learning techniques: students primarily feared being negatively evaluated by their peers. In some students, the fear of being called on overpowered their ability to think through the problems posed to the class. If they were unable to answer the question or articulate their thoughts, they were less likely to willingly participate in the future. These concerns were ones I could easily relate to. They were also the reasons that the authors stated: “Given the degree to which cold call can increase student anxiety and lack of evidence for the benefits of cold call, it seems as though we as a community could find alternative ways to engage students in class that would not elicit high anxiety for students”.

So why not just get rid of random call all together, as Cooper et al. suggest? There are several advantages to random call, which the authors feel do not outweigh the negative effects it can have, but are important to consider. First, random call can encourage students to pay attention and prepare for class ahead of time1. If they know they have a chance of being called on, they are more likely to try and learn the information to be able to answer the instructor’s question. Additionally, it allows for all voices in the classroom to be heard2,3. Too often, there will be one or two students who will dominate the conversation while the others sit silently. Random call lets those quieter students have a chance to give their opinion when they normally would not offer it on their own.

Why is this so important? In Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Just Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain discusses how, in group situations, introverts are less likely to speak up, despite having different and sometimes more productive ideas. Introverts and extroverts tend to approach problems differently, and it is these differences that could ultimately create a better or more efficient approach if they are able to communicate effectively with one another. Therefore, there is value in listening to the ideas and opinions of each person, rather than only the ones who speak the loudest.

How then, can we make random call less anxiety producing to our students so that we can gain insights from them all? One way is to properly prepare our students before calling on them in class. During my master’s degree, as an instructor for anatomy and physiology labs, I was suddenly transformed from the student who avoided being called on to the person at the front of the classroom—the one doing the calling on. After some adjustment, teaching was something I actually enjoyed quite a bit. Reflecting on it later, I realized that I was now the one with the authority, the expert on the subject, and the one my students were turning to for answers or advice. That empowerment allowed me to feel comfortable speaking in front of the class.

We can provide the same empowerment to our students who are anxious about speaking in class by using some of the practices that I learned through the STEP program that embolden students:

  • Give the students adequate time to think or write before sharing with their group or the class.
  • Have the students discuss with a partner before discussing with their group or the class.
  • Use homework to prepare the students for topics that will be discussed in class—this also allows those that prefer to work alone adequate time to think by themselves.
  • Use online discussions before class to allow students to flesh out ideas.
  • Implement the jigsaw method, which allows each student to become an expert on a certain topic before teaching it to other students in their group. The students must work together to accomplish a task which relies on each expert, ensuring each student has the chance to participate.
  • Make it clear that a difference in opinion is good and desirable.
  • Regularly stress the importance of everyone sharing their ideas.
  • Emphasize to the class it is OK to answer incorrectly or not know.
  • When an incorrect answer is given, explain why it is a misconception or suggest reasons why some might think that answer is correct.
  • Give the students time to develop a positive relationship with their peers and build a sense of community (in Cooper et al., students reported that this decreased their fear of negative evaluation).
  • During group work or individual writing, listen in on the conversations and read what the students are writing to identify students who understand the concept and then call them out during class discussion.
  • Reinforce their answers by writing them on the board.
  • Repeatedly use random call so that it becomes the norm in the classroom and feels less unpredictable.

Note that these strategies also address Cain’s point that introverts tend to need time to think by themselves and reflect quietly on a problem before solving it. This list also draws from suggestions given by Cooper et al. to make group work less anxiety producing.

I propose that rather than eliminating random call in our classrooms, we use these suggestions to empower our students–whether introvert or extrovert–to feel comfortable discussing their ideas and insights with the class. By encouraging them to do so, we are increasing the diversity of voices heard and emphasizing the value of differing opinions–two principles that benefit us all!

  1. Broeckelman-Post M, Johnson A, Schwebach JR. Calling on students using notecards: engagement and countering communication anxiety in large lecture. Journal of College Science Teaching2016;45(5):27
  2. Eddy SL, Brownell SE, Wenderoth MP. Gender gaps in achievement and participation in multiple introductory biology classrooms. CBE Life Sciences Education, 2014;13(3):478-92
  3. Tanner KD. Structure Matters: twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity. CBE Life Sciences Education, 2013;12(3):322-31