It's #UniMentalHealthDay today! Here are 4 practical ways to reduce students' anxiety about essay writing
4 practical ways to reduce students’ anxiety around essay-writing
Student anxiety about university study is widespread. A 2019 poll of 37,500 students at British universities found that almost nine in ten (87.7%) struggle with feelings of anxiety. Students spend more money than ever on their education, and put themselves under increasing pressure to perform well. But anxiety can make students risk-averse in their essay writing and prevent them from achieving at the highest levels. Most students I encounter are hard-working and ambitious, yet worried about moving away from school-taught formulae that produce boring essays and vanilla grades. As tutors, how can we help students manage their anxiety around essay writing? How can we encourage them to write with greater creativity, confidence, and control? Here are four suggestions:
1. Demystify essay writing
Writing brilliant essays is a creative process. Students need to think afresh about a scholarly puzzle and craft their own answer to a question. Such creativity cannot be forced. Emphasize the fact that there is no ready-made formula for essay writing, and no single ‘correct’ interpretation. Students should know that moving up from a 2.1 to a First requires flexible, original thinking about a question. You can reduce student anxiety and demystify the essay writing process by being open about your own essay-writing journey:
You might even have some of your own undergraduate work sitting in dusty folders or buried on your hard drive. Dig it out! I have a few examples of my own first-year essays that I share with my students. I ask them to critique my first-year self and offer suggestions for improvement. I find that students are more willing to engage in constructive peer review and evaluate their own essays if they have had a chance to criticize my imperfect teenaged efforts.
We need to show students that nobody arrives at university with the miraculous ability to write brilliant essays. Everybody is learning. We are a community of scholars. And it is okay to make mistakes.
2. Make it as practical as possible
Induce confidence in your students by being as practical about the essay-writing task as possible: break the process down into manageable steps and use students’ natural understanding of everyday language to guide their initial thinking. Deploy concrete examples to show what abstract marking concepts – such as ‘original thinking’ or ‘authoritative interpretation’ – actually mean in practice. If you start by asking students to spot hidden assumptions in ordinary speech, you can reduce their anxieties when confronted with unfamiliar essay questions. For instance, if you ask ‘Is this course fun or tedious?’ students should be able to spot the false dichotomy (the options are neither mutually exclusive nor collectively exhaustive: some parts of the course might be fun and others tedious, or the course might be neither). If you ask ‘how did you cheat in the final examination?’ students should be able to identify the assumption underlying the question: that you did in fact cheat. After you have run through the assumptions embedded in ordinary language, you can move on to essay questions:
Start early and often. Essay writing skills should be integrated into the course rather than bolted-on as deadlines approach. In my classes, every single seminar is an opportunity to tear apart essay questions. Once students have got the idea about paying close attention to question wording, this exercise takes only 5-10 minutes and is easily absorbed into a seminar timeframe. Students who can deconstruct and sceptically evaluate essay questions are usually less anxious about tackling new writing tasks.
3. Use skeleton slides
Seminar presentations can help reinforce essay writing skills if you provide the right sort of guidance. Without tutor-set parameters, student presentations can sometimes become a basic, boring, and entirely descriptive exercise. I use skeleton slides to encourage students to utilise higher-order evaluative and analytical skills. The slides prompt students to think carefully about a real question, rather than simply providing a generic overview of a topic. They contain the main elements of a good essay:
Skeleton slides reduce student anxiety by helping them learn the elements of essay-writing in a structured way. They aren’t a straitjacket: you should allow, and indeed encourage, students to reorganise and add to the slides as they require. Giving students prompts helps them feel more secure because it signals your intentions clearly, but without prescribing any particular answer or formula.
4. Offer regular opportunities for (managed) peer feedback
You can also reduce student anxiety by making time for students to read each-other’s work regularly in class, even if it’s just an introductory paragraph or essay plan. Make this a positive and useful experience for students by following these guidelines:
Students who regularly read and discuss each other’s work are usually less anxious about essay writing tasks because they have had plenty of opportunities to practice. As a tutor, you can help alleviate anxieties by ensuring the tone of the discussion stays supportive and constructive, and by signposting students to further resources. Check out the Brilliant Essays Macmillan companion site for free resources to help you – there you’ll find questions for classroom discussion, editable skeleton slides to distribute to your students (with a filled-out example version), and activities you can use in class.
By opening up about your own essay writing journey, breaking the task down into manageable steps, using prompts to signal your intentions, and encouraging the giving and receiving of constructive criticism, you can help reduce student anxiety – and inspire them to engage more openly and creatively with your essay questions. Good luck!