Effectively tackling student anxieties

Last Updated 24 September 2014, 15:57 IST

Anxiety among students is not a feeling to be dismissed. If ignored, it may take larger forms in the long run, writes Mohan Das.

It is common misconception that for students, anxiety means only exam anxiety. However, it is true that students can be gripped by two other kinds of strong anxieties: subject and relationship anxieties.

 What comes to mind when students begin to show signs of restlessness, indigestion, insomnia, dizziness and lack of concentration among other things. Public (Board) exams, of course. There are few who have not experienced these symptoms of anxiety; in some cases they can even turn into an emergency. 

There is preparation anxiety, performance anxiety and post-exam anxiety. It appears that the unpredictability of questions can dispel performance anxiety while predictability of exam questions can actually fuel anxiety. This could explain why students are somewhat more relaxed before taking entrance exams where questions are less predictable, and therefore their performance is also less predictable. 

Besides, entrance exam anxiety is less than public exam anxiety because students have been “toughened” by public exams. Needless to mention, the well-prepared have minimum exam anxieties. It is to help students overcome exam anxieties that, generally, public exams begin with language exams. 
Subject anxiety

Many students are silent victims of subject anxiety. Subject anxiety can have different origins, like preconceived notions (“Mathematics is hardest”), teacher bias (“I hate my Physics teacher, I cannot understand her teaching”), recurring unchecked underperformance in some subjects can, which, if left untreated, develop into full blown phobias (“I will never do well in Chemistry”). 

The presence of subject anxiety in just one person in a family is enough to transmit it to a sensitive child; the greater the attachment to the phobic person the greater the chances of its successful transmission.

 Teacher bias is a reason for developing subject anxiety. No teacher is perfect, as is no student. Sometimes even the finest of teachers can be momentarily insensitive, inadvertently sowing seeds of self-doubt in a student’s mind. Generally such insensitive comments are popped on students who are already falling behind in the subject. 

Such outbursts can, almost instantly, offer such students an excuse for continuing to fall behind even reporting a phobia towards the teacher. 

Whatever the cause, the anxiety must be quickly countered by authorities and parents. But how can parents know. Opportunistic students will reveal the teacher bias generally only after they underperform. Now they have a good excuse to avoid the subject at the very first opportunity they get. 

Lazy and emotionally disturbed students, particularly among primary school children, are known to blame all sorts of extraneous factors such as bad peers, allergy of some kind, bad teachers and even bad schools for their falling behind . 

Such excuses must be dealt with squarely, but kindly. Parents must be particularly sensitive to individual subject performances and notice early signs of subject anxiety revealed by test scores. Subject anxiety can also develop if underperformance in a subject goes unchecked for a long time. 

Insensitive parents and indifferent teachers can both contribute to a student taking this route in academics. In my experience, unless this route to subject anxiety is checked not later than middle school its advance into a subject phobia becomes pretty much unavoidable. 

Relationship anxieties

Broadly speaking, students are vulnerable to three kinds of relationship anxieties: parental, peer and academic. All the three are somewhat interlocked. Parental anxiety can be countered by maintaining consistency in performance if not continuously improving upon it. 

Generally, parental anxiety is greater where communication between parents and children is minimum. Not only does this initiate poor performance, but actually causes underperformance. Therefore, the key to countering parental anxiety is to win the trust of parents and maintain it.  
Countering anxieties

The stretch of exam anxiety lasts for about two months. Subject anxiety can last for years, perhaps an entire lifetime. But relationship anxieties can last generations. How can students (and families) counter these anxieties? Precaution, careful scheduling of work and play and a little extra effort from students in the subject that makes them most anxious will go a long way in minimising  anxieties.

 The ability to control one’s anxieties can give weak students immense psychological boost. It may not be possible to expunge subject anxieties completely. 

But why, and what continues to feed subject anxiety despite strong efforts made to expunge them? It is the inherent human proclivity towards laziness that gives subject anxiety enough nourishment to last. Teacher rebuke need not result in subject anxiety but is an opportunity to learn tolerance and accept the frailty of human nature. Students, no matter how young, must be educated in these things as well. 

Exam anxieties are common and there is nothing that can altogether keep a student free from it. A regular check on their performance in and out of class, in exams and assessments will definitely help. Corrective measures to improve performance and overcome weaknesses must be administered at the earliest signs of falling behind. Parents must learn to keep all channels of communication open. 
Aptitude and freedom

A few weeks after entrance exam results are declared, students are expected to take “course counselling.” Course counselling is understood to be a process of allocation: students are allocated to professional courses based on their scores and their choices. In doing so, these counselling sessions are missing out on what is most expected of them: allocating courses based on aptitude for the subject instead of merely scores or choices. 

How can good scores in science subjects determine a student’s aptitude for chemical engineering or medicine? In following such a process, we are actually giving exam scores too much importance. We should have a way to establish a student’s aptitude for a certain course. 

And every student must be offered freedom to study subjects they are passionate about. Indeed, the very presence of such freedom can go a long way in minimising student anxieties.

(Published 24 September 2014, 15:57 IST)

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