Breaking the Silence (Part 2):  Practical Strategies for Educators to Support Students with Social Anxiety

By Melanie Jackson and Lisa Du Plessis

In Part 1, we looked at how social anxiety presents in students in the classroom and the impact the condition has on learning.  In this Part 2 article, we will address what academics can do to best support socially anxious students.

Options for educators

Peer review as a means of grades exposure

Socially anxious students often judge their competence poorly in contrast to positive evaluations from observers.    

This type of judgement is a classed as a cognitive error or unhelpful thinking habit which is common in social anxiety. This happens when someone compares a positive or another person against a perceived negative trait in themselves giving a very unfair comparison. Academics could use group safety/ ice breaking strategies to improve trust and communication in groups, leading to a peer review process prior to assessments.  Providing students with the opportunity to present to their peers before being graded by the educator provides opportunity for students to hear positive feedback that may reduce levels of anxiety before assessment. This grades their exposure to appraisal and is consistent with graded exposure, which is an evidence behavioural treatment approach used by cognitive behavioural therapists to reduce distress when exposing people to their feared situations.

Encourage student integration

Academics could do a better job of helping students to get to know one another.  This can help students build trust and increase openness to feedback and reduce anxiety in social situations.  Students working with or performing in front of people that they don’t know increases anxiety.  Academics should invest more time at the start of semesters or build into their curriculum ways to increase student interaction and collaboration between peers.   

Consider teaching techniques, assessments and learning outcomes

Higher education students have reported lack of understanding and criticism from academics as unhelpful.  Students with social anxiety reported they would prefer not to be singled out for questioning or to have assessed oral presentation assessments in their first semester.  Certainly in legal education, academics are compelled to teach certain skills.  Negotiation, client interview and mooting and advocacy skills are all essential skills that all law graduates must possess.  However, evidence suggests that first semester might not be the best time to use these types of assessment.  Academics should also consider learning outcomes for an assessment and think about assessment design.  What is the skill being assessed and Why is it assessed in that way.  This will help when considering what accommodations academics may be able to provide.

Consider student experience

Universities should consider student experience.  Evidence suggests that social anxiety is related to poor communication with instructors, lower engagement and leads to less satisfaction with their studies.  In our law programmes at Bond University, class sizes are capped to no more than 12 students in a tutorial and students have close working relationships with academics and a strong sense of community with their Faculty.  This is important to foster positive relationships between students and staff so students feel comfortable to approach academics or professional staff and ask for help when they need it.    

Academics don’t need to reinvent the wheel.  Adapting existing evidence-based advice targeted towards school teachers, the authors have created a useful guide for academics to provide optimal support for university students.

Educators can implement the following strategies:

1. Read accessibility and inclusions plans carefully.  Think about how you will provide adequate accommodations to students.

2. Allow students the autonomy to choose their own partner(s) for group-based assignments were possible.

3. Extend assistance or allocate extra sessions for students who require rehearsal for class presentations or skills assessments.

4.  Use peer review techniques as a form of graded exposure.

5. Incorporate the “think pair share” strategy in large group teaching such as lectures.  Hand raising frequencies increase after exchanging ideas with a partner.  Collaboration with peers improves class participation.

6. Encourage a safe and positive learning environment.  Let students know they are welcome to use relaxation techniques.  Therapists often equip students with the tools they need to get through a challenging situation.  Teachers therefore need to allow students to feel safe using those techniques when they need them.

7. Use ice-breaker games or group activities to improve trust and communication amongst students, making peer review process less stressful.

8.  Provide assessment information and marking criteria/rubric ahead of time to reduce anxiety and allow students time to adequately prepare.

9.  Use formative assessment.  Formative assessment is not a major feature in higher education teaching.  But stress and anxiety are reduced when students have the opportunity to submit their work for formative assessment.  It demonstrates a student-centred approach to teaching and demonstrates a commitment to student success.

10.  Get to know your students.  Improved communication and increased engagement between academics and students leads to higher engagement and improved student satisfaction.  The above advice has been summarised into a one-page downloadable practical guide that can be accessed below.

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