Managing Student Anxiety Surrounding In-Person Learning

Categories: Teaching Effectiveness Award Essays

By Ethan Boynton, Plant and Microbial Biology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2023

While the return to in-person education was a welcome return to normalcy, it was a novel challenge for much of the student body. As an instructor, I sought to mitigate the negatives of hybrid-learning by encouraging low-stakes participation and establishing testing routines. 

The Problem: Before beginning Bio1A last fall, many of my students had only ever attended college virtually: they watched remote lectures, participated in online discussions, and took exams via Zoom. Students in my Bio1A section often skipped online lectures and seemed nervous to talk in class. Before the first test, several students expressed anxiety about taking an in-person college exam for the first time. Hybrid-learning seemed to pose two distinct challenges: disengagement online and anxiety in person. While I couldn’t force students to watch online lectures or participate during discussion, I wanted to help students reengage in the classroom.

The Solution: To encourage students to feel comfortable in class and prepared for exams, I changed the format of my discussion questions and created routines around assessments. Each week, I summarized key points from the previous week’s lectures while asking designated “practice exam questions.” I gave two options for each question and asked students to answer via thumbs-up or thumbs-down. I emphasized that students should signal a sideways thumb if they were unsure how to answer. This technique allowed students to participate quietly and discretely. Additionally, providing an option for unsure students increased participation and normalized answering in-class questions. Finally, by calling the questions “practice exam questions,” I helped students get comfortable with the idea of answering exam questions in an in-person environment. All of these benefits centered around reducing common anxieties that come with face-to-face instruction and exams. 

I also worked to establish routines across remote and in-person assessments. Quizzes were taken remotely every few weeks, while exams were completed in-person. Before each quiz, I always turned on my Zoom camera to wish everyone luck. Before the first quiz, my cat ended up on camera alongside me. This seemed to diffuse the pre-quiz tension, so I decided to turn the funny circumstance into a tradition – prior to every quiz, my cat and I gave everyone good luck. Just before in-person exams, I gave words of encouragement alongside a picture of my cat. The comedic relief, and the establishment of a routine, made students visibly more comfortable during exams. 

The Results: Throughout the semester, more students began asking questions in discussion, volunteering to answer questions aloud, and attending my office hours. More of my students regularly attended my discussion, in addition to some students from other sections. My efforts to foster a comfortable and low-anxiety environment were received well; across 32 evaluations, I scored a 6.97/7 regarding helping with “difficulties or questions.” Students described my teaching as “encouraging,” “approachable,” “kind,” and “empathetic.” The environment I established in the classroom and during exams helped my sections consistently score above-average on quizzes and exams. Decreasing classroom anxiety helped my students engage during discussion and apply their knowledge on assessments. At the end of the semester, it was gratifying to see students sharing their knowledge with confidence.