Introduction In introductory statistics courses, anxious students and complex subject matter combine to create a difficult environment in which to teach successfully. Often in these courses that are mandatory in many disciplines, few students look forward to the content and many students approach the material with dread. To be effective in such a situation, an instructor needs to design a learning environment that addresses the problems created by anxiety.
Students are anxious because they are afraid of failure and, if they experience failure in the classroom, their confidence is undermined and their anxiety increases. By creating a dynamic, active learning environment, instructors can facilitate success for their students. My experience has taught me that there are four key areas instructors can exploit to decrease student anxiety.
Accommodating learning styles: Getting students to focus on the material
For many students, the traditional lecture/note-taking model does not work when there are complex concepts to be internalised. Instead, for each class I provide students with a set of lecture notes containing the material that will be covered in class. There is room on the sheets for notes and problem-solving exercises to be completed in class. This allows me to present information easily in several different ways to accommodate different learning styles. I also supplement the lecture notes with visual demonstrations.
The table below indicates some of the ways I accommodate various learning styles:
||Lecture notes provide a place to interact with the material.
||Notes provide a framework around which they can contemplate and internalise concepts.
||Notes lay out concepts in steps.
||Notes provide an overview of how concepts addressed at a particular moment fit with what has come before and what will follow.
|Visual & Intuitive
||Visual props and PowerPoint presentations illustrate concepts and provide solutions to problems.
By meeting their learning needs, the instructor turns the focus to the material itself and does not give students the opportunity to feel anxious.
Overcoming students passive approach: Meeting the material halfway
Once the attention of an anxious student is directed toward the material, the next step is to encourage active interaction with it. My practice includes two general strategies: simulations of statistical concepts and group interaction. The simulation capability of easily created Java applets (web-based interactive simulations/demonstrations) enables students to have hands-on practice, a method of self-assessment, and visual reinforcement of the concepts outside of class. The frequent formation of discussion groups during class, for problem solving and responding to open-ended questions, encourages students to move beyond listening to ask questions and think critically. Group-project assignments based on real-life research examples get students to engage with the statistical concepts.
Creating a sense of competence: Building upon success
Frequent success is the best way to begin building a sense of competence. If a student succeeds in following along and participating in class, then the student is going to begin believing that mastery is possible. I emphasise to my students that mistakes are an inevitable part of learning; and therefore, I give them opportunities to correct them to gain confidence. I also choose evaluation methods that provide frequent feedback because success is more likely on small units and because it allows misunderstandings to be addressed prior to evaluation on larger units.
Inspiring Students: Enthusiasm is contagious
I am not afraid to allow my passion and enthusiasm for statistics and for teaching to show in the classroom. I find that it inspires students to draw upon all their energy and talents and overcome their anxieties. I also empathise openly with students who are learning the material for the first time. By putting myself in their places and acknowledging their struggles, I can remember to listen carefully, to encourage their questions and to respond to them enthusiastically. I attempt to establish a solid student-teacher relationship by keeping in mind the dictum: Nobody cares what you know until they know that you care.
By designing a dynamic learning environment that accommodates different types of learners, an instructor can significantly reduce the amount of anxiety that students experience. Once the students begin having success with the material, it is up to the instructor to create an environment that encourages accomplishments and inspires students. Lowering the levels of anxiety will lead to better learning outcomes and more success. For another discussion about my teaching method, please see Improving Student Performance by Reducing Anxiety.
- Chan, Elsie. Improving Student Performance by Reducing Anxiety. Positive Pedagogy: Successful and Innovative Practices in Higher Education . Vol. 1, No. 3, September 2001. http://www.mcmaster.ca/learning/posped/Sep01/chan901.html.