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Varieties of Anxieties: The Multifaceted Nature of Students’ Worries in the Classroom

4 months ago

by Josh Brunnote


All of us have experienced some form of anxiety through the daily course of our lives, and may even be able to recall a specific classroom situation that caused us to feel nervous or worried. Anxiety is the most commonly diagnosed psychological disorder in the US and Europe (Wiederhold & Bouchard, 2014), so we may assume a high level of prevalence in developed countries like Japan as well. University instructors like myself have probably overcome the very common anxiety of public speaking phobia to some degree, just through the requirements of our work. But we should never forget that our students come into our classrooms with anxieties of their own, the severity of which may be exacerbated by things we do through our teaching methodologies. Before we can start to think about ways to mitigate these negative feelings; it’s important to examine just what kinds of anxieties our students may be experiencing.

First, anxiety is “a psychological, physiological, and behavioral response to anticipation of an aversive event” (Kalisch et al., 2005). Social anxiety disorder (SAD), in its many forms, may be the most important type of anxiety to discuss for language instructors, as it’s the kind most likely to adversely impact the work of teaching communication skills and managing a class. The onset of SAD is often from around 15 to 20 years old, just in the range of many of the students we come into contact with (Bouchard, Bosse, Loranger, & Klinger, 2014). Although some levels of anxiety may be considered “facilitating” in that they motivate us to do well and prepare for difficult tasks, the types of anxieties we’ll consider here are the debilitating kind that affect the happiness of our students and their ability to function.

As a tertiary-level English instructor in Japan, I know that one of these socially “aversive events” for many of my students is having to speak English in our class, and in front of their peers at that. Foreign language anxiety (FLA) is common and not only uncomfortable; it also negatively affects classroom performance (Horwitz, 1986). Many factors contribute to FLA, including our students’ previous experience with language learning, the atmosphere in our classrooms, language testing procedures and pressures, and much more (Gascoigne, 2012).

Language instructors like myself have probably thought about FLA over the natural course of our teaching, but there are many other forms of anxiety that students bring into the classroom that we may be largely unaware of. That fear of public speaking that we may have wrestled with ourselves exists in our students as well, and this is separate from foreign language anxiety. Public speaking phobia is a form of specific social anxiety disorder related to a particular event (as opposed to general social anxiety disorder which affects almost every human interaction). Although we are always concerned about being understood by others when we speak, the insidious thing about public speaking is that it adds a fear of judgment on top of the desire to make your message clear (Bodie, 2010). Public speaking is becoming more and more of a required component of language courses, and the Japanese Ministry of Education has started putting a heavy focus on communicative skills in mandatory English courses. These higher demands mean more instances of possibly anxiety-inducing public speaking situations for our students.

Researchers like Dwyer and Davidson (2012) have devised some suggestions for helping students deal with public speaking phobia that I have begun to pass along to my students as well. One of the key pieces of advice from them is to get people to reorient their speeches from an informational to a more conversational style. If students think of presentations or speeches as a narrative exercise that includes anecdotes from their own lives, they now switch from having to memorize a series of facts to remembering the beats of a story (a structure that is arguably much more comfortable for many people). Another of their suggestions is to have students switch from thinking judgment-oriented thoughts (e.g. “I want them to like me”) to thinking “I have a story to share” (Dwyer & Davidson, 2012, p. 33). These authors found that students who employed these new orientations to public speaking were less afraid of doing it once the training was done.

Another common anxiety that students may experience is communication apprehension (CA). CA is “an individual’s level of fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with another person or persons” (McCroskey, 1997, p. 78). We can probably all relate to the feelings of dread or fear that accompany pubic speaking, but we have to remind ourselves that to some of the people we teach, simply speaking to other people is an anxiety-filled experience. Like foreign language anxiety, communication apprehension can also have a negative impact on students’ GPA, and it often occurs in tandem with what is known as classroom communication anxiety (CCA). As in the case of combatting public speaking phobia, there are ways we can help those with communication apprehension and classroom communication anxiety as well. The team of Broeckelman-Post, Johnson, and Schwebach (2016) used student cards (used to call on students during class discussions) to try to overcome these anxieties, a practice I have used myself for many years to help with my classroom management. When student cards are used to call on people at random in a class (e.g. in response to a question), you have now democratized who will be speaking to the class as a whole. At first, putting students on the spot can cause anxiety, but it eventually leads to an effect similar to that of exposure therapy and can cause a desensitization to this fear response, reducing the effects of communication apprehension (Bodie, 2010). The use of these cards, along with teacher clarity regarding expectations, examples of target forms and phrases, and other types of scaffolding can help reduce classroom communication anxiety and help our students feel more comfortable speaking in front of their peers during the most common types of activities language instructors use (Broeckelman-Post, Johnson, & Schwebach, 2016).

We should never feel as teachers that we have total control over what happens in our classrooms or within our students’ lives, but at the same time, becoming more sensitive to the types of anxieties people face when they step into the classroom not only makes us more understanding of the causes of certain problems, but also more effective at dealing with them. One hopeful point is that, although we cannot always prevent social anxiety disorder, foreign language anxiety, public speaking phobia, communication apprehension, classroom communication anxiety, and every other type of anxiety students may experience, there are many things we can do to make those that suffer from these conditions more comfortable and at the same time increase our effectiveness as instructors. Let the students know you are sensitive to the realities of anxiety, and put in place practices within your teaching (such as using narrative framing for presentations and others suggested above) that reduce anxiety’s impact. Think about the anxieties you’ve faced and overcame and realize that you probably got some help along the way. Let’s start to not see anxiety as a disorder, but as a place from which students and instructors can grow.


Josh Brunotte is an associate professor at Aichi Prefectural University. He is currently undertaking research in the field of CALL and the use of virtual reality in the classroom, health-related behaviors and their effect on classroom achievement, and methods for classroom-related anxiety reduction.



Bodie, G. D. (2010). A racing heart, rattling knees, and ruminative thoughts: Defining, explaining, and treating public speaking anxiety. Communication Education, 59, 70-105.

Bouchard, S., Bosse, J., Loranger, C., & Klinger, E. (2014). Social anxiety disorder: Efficacy and virtual humans. In B. Wiederhold & S. Bouchard (Eds.), Advances in virtual reality and anxiety disorders (pp. 187-210). New York, NY: Springer Science+Business Media.

Broeckelman-Post, M., Johnson, A., & Schwebach, J. R. (2016). Calling on students using notecards: Engagement and countering communication anxiety in large lectures. Journal of College Science Teaching, 45(5), 27-33.

Dwyer, K. K., & Davidson, M. M. (2012). Is public speaking really more feared than death? Communication Research Reports, 29, 99-107.

Gascoigne, C. (2012). Classroom climate and student-to-student interaction in the post-secondary French classroom. The French Review, 85(4), 717-727.

Horwitz, E. K. (1986). Preliminary evidence for the reliability and validity of a foreign language anxiety scale. TESOL Quarterly, 20, 559-562.

Kalisch, R., Wiech, K., Critchley, H. D., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J., Oakley, D., Allen, P., & Dolan, R. (2005). Anxiety reduction through detachment: Subjective, physiological, and neural effects. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 17(6), 874-883.

McCroskey, J. C. (1977). Oral communication apprehension: A summary of recent theory and research. Human Communication Research, 4, 78-96.

Wiederhold, B., & Bouchard, S. (Eds.). (2014). Advances in virtual reality and anxiety disorders. New York, NY: Springer Science+Business Media.


The article was firstly published in bulletin of the JALT Mind, Brain and Education SIG

Volume 2, Issue 2, ISSN-2434-1002, February 1, 2019


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