Students have been known to do annoying things in class: they come late and leave early; they talk to each other but won't answer teacher's questions; they look at the teacher but with emotionless faces. Behaviors like these and others can get under a teacher's skin and make it easy to conclude that these students are rude and probably lazy as well. And they may be, but authors Bledsoe and Baskin remind us that some students experience fear in courses and that fear finds expression in behaviors with multiple meanings. “It is important to realize that behaviors that appear uniform from student to student, such as anxious glances or nervous twitches, may have vastly different meanings depending on the person experiencing them.” (p. 33)
They also remind us that fear isn't just about sweaty palms and a racing heart. “It impacts our cognitive processes—how we perceive our environment, how we remember things, whether we can focus and pay attention, how well we plan and then execute that plan, and how well we problem-solve.” (p. 33) Fear is a stronger reaction than anxiety. Anxiety is usually an ambiguous feeling of apprehension, an unease or tension that's not always focused on something specific. Fear, on the other hand, results when the threat is precise and known. Some students are anxious about courses and college; some students sit in classes pretty much paralyzed by fear.
And just what are students afraid of? Bledsoe and Baskin identify several common causes of fear for students. First and foremost is the fear of failure. It's good to remind ourselves how closely most young college students connect their personhood and their performance. When that connection is strong, a failing grade isn't just an assessment of one's performance; it's a measure of the person's worth as a human being. Judgments of this magnitude are enough to make most people afraid. Some students are so afraid of failing that they choose to do nothing rather than try to do something and fail. For many students, the fear of failure is closely associated with the fear of looking stupid, of saying something stupid, and then having the teacher point that out in front of others.
Some student fears have cultural sources—not speaking the language fluently, being unfamiliar with this educational system, or perhaps being the first in their family to attend college and not knowing what to expect. Students are afraid because they don't feel like they fit in. They worry that they won't be able to succeed in this very different environment.
The article suggests a number of constructive ways teachers can respond to student fears. The first involves educating ourselves about fear—recognizing that it occurs and can cause students to act in ways that we might not always associate with fear. And as we educate ourselves, we should also educate our students and offer guidance in dealing with fears. If students are willing to apply themselves, work hard on the material, come to class, and get help when they need it, chances are good that students won't fail. Teachers can also express faith in students' abilities to learn and grow. Student fears are lessened when the classroom environment is positive and nurturing, when policies are fair and applied equitably, and when assignments are clear and students are encouraged to ask questions.
If class size permits, teachers should work to establish relationships with students, casually chatting with them before class begins, acknowledging students when they are seen on campus, personally inviting students to stop by the office, and welcoming those who do. It is much more difficult to be afraid when the person in charge knows you and has shown some indications that they care about you. For very fearful students, it is good to be aware of campus resources to which they can be directed.
“Research has shown that when instructors practice even the simplest interventions to help reduce classroom anxieties, student engagement and performance has been shown to improve.” (p. 39)
Reference: Bledsoe, T. S., & Baskin, J. J., ( 2014). Recognizing student fear: The elephant in the classroom. College Teaching, 62(1), 32-41.