‘Pretty scary’. Is this how pupils and students feel when asked questions or when they have to present in class? If so, does it matter and what can teachers do about it? Research by Dr Julie Anderson, academic coordinator for ESCalate, HE Academy Subject Centre for Education, based at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, explains

On reading John Holt’s book How Children Fail in the 1990s when still working full time as a teacher of Year 5 pupils, I was taken aback by his description of the fear and anxiety pupils told him they felt when being asked questions in his classroom. He came across as a caring, supportive teacher – but why were the children so nervous? So began work on an issue that has occupied me ever since and taken me from working with children in a north-west England primary school to Master’s students – many with an education background – at a university in the south-west of England. A very different group of learners and yet, as it turned out, sharing much the same experience. ‘Pretty scary’ was the response from a Year 4 pupil in the NW school when I asked her how she felt if a teacher asked her a question in class. I was talking to her as part of research into how primary pupils perceive answering questions in front of their peers and teachers and her response was typical. What I also found in that particular study was that not only did almost every pupil in her mixed-ability classroom find answering questions stressful, they were also commonly employing coping strategies that were both sophisticated and subtle. My concern was that this could not be enhancing their learning. Studying students on an education degree programme on which staff expected students to do a non-assessed presentation as part of their course, I wondered if they experienced anxiety too – and if so, how similar was it to the feelings of the school pupils. As it turned out, being questioned in class (as in the school research) and being asked to do a presentation (as with the university students) seemed to have much in common.

For the purposes of this short article, I will not examine the literature in much detail, nor examine here all the things ‘anxiety’ can cover. If it is of interest, a longer 6,000-word paper goes into these issues in much more depth along with the methodology of the research and more detailed analysis of the data.

However, it is important here to note that social anxiety is common, studies concluding that it is the third most common mental health problem. It has also been shown to be linked to poor attainment in school. It creates difficulties for pupils and students because it typically affects memory and concentration adversely, both important attributes for effective learning. I worked with a class of 32 pupils in the school study and virtually every child I questioned admitted to experiencing some anxiety during times of whole-class teacher questioning. They said that the response of the teacher is fairly unimportant. The reaction of peers, especially significant peers in relation to that child, mattered more. They also said that although the subject of the lesson is relatively unimportant, all subjects seemed to carry some risk. It seemed that what we might term the ‘average-ability child’ found the risks greatest. These pupils, by far the majority of the pupils spoken to, seemed to feel most anxious. Personal identity, especially in terms of learning, seemed to be threatened by a failure to perform, especially in front of an audience of peers. It appears from this study that when teachers ask children to do things in front of their peers, there is the possibility of success but also the risk of failure and loss of face or status. Thus there could be an emotional response that may well include anxiety, worry and fear, and that the associated negative feelings, including embarrassment and shame are leading to pupils employing coping strategies during times of whole-class teacher questioning that could adversely affect their learning. For example, school pupils described spending time thinking about how to avoid teacher questions in lessons, thinking time that would have been better spent on the actual lesson content. Presentation anxiety is not necessarily easy to spot even for the experienced teacher/lecturer. With support from ESCalate, I set up a small-scale study with a seminar group of MEd students who all agreed to be interviewed by me one on one. Just one question was put to them, asking them to recall a time when they had had to present in front of an audience and then describe the event. As part of this, I typically asked them to describe how they felt they had changed in this respect since they were eight or nine, thus creating another link with previous study of school pupils. Many talked about their current course experience; others about experiences in their past. Approximately 60% of the students, all aged from early twenties to late forties had some education background in teaching. Most clearly found the experience of presenting difficult – but this was not necessarily obvious to the observer. They talked of feeling frightened, of not liking it, fearful of looking silly, fearful of being shown up, worried about the content material being presented, and generally being nervous. One student described feeling completely overwhelmed, and hated being the centre of attention. She preferred to present from the back of the class or sitting down. She also talked about feeling naked and on show – very vulnerable. However, in her case, she wanted to present, appreciating the value of developing the skill for the work place but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it.

This student was Erin (names have been changed to protect identity) and because she found the experience especially problematic, I looked at her interview data in more detail to see if we could draw out reasons why she had such difficulties (see case study below).

Other students talked of being so worried that it dominated their thinking in the days leading up to the presentation, which, like the primary children before them, was detriment to their learning, because the time should have been spent on course content. Again, like the young children, they had a number of coping strategies, including using PowerPoint to deflect attention from themselves, being well prepared and using various calming strategies. Perhaps most interestingly, they also talked about the importance of looking calm and self-assured. This most of them did it very effectively for I was unaware of just how difficult a lot of them found presenting and it was only afterwards, when talking with them, that the extent of their anxiety became apparent. For example, a very bubbly, brightly dressed and lively student who seemed confident was in fact exceptionally nervous about presentations overall. The range of support for students in institutions generally covers basic academic skills such as writing but, in my experience, there seems to be less support for developing public speaking skills required for effective presentations. Is there a CPD need here and if so, could it be met in part by senior staff undergoing training themselves which could then be shared with others? Even well known, experienced speakers often admit to nerves before a presentation so rather than offer students ways of overcoming presentation anxiety, it might be more helpful to focus on strategies to deal with the feelings that commonly accompany them. One suggestion is to not present it as an ‘easy’ learning strategy but rather admit that literature and research imply it can be a challenge and offer support. Graham Russell and Steve Shaw, University of Plymouth, have also been looking at the impact of social anxiety on student learning. This has been supported by ESCalate and their work may be found at http://escalate.ac.uk/2159. Their findings have many similarities to my own. Student presentations caused the most anxiety of all approaches discussed, scoring 83% as frequently causing anxiety. In terms of what helps, friends and family support was most helpful with 70% of the students stating these were a key source of support. Personal tutors were the next most important source of help at 18%. Russell and Shaw, like me, suggest that social anxiety may be under-recognised in education. All of the above suggests we should use presentations with some caution and be aware that our pupils and students may hide their discomfort effectively, lulling us into underestimating some of the drawbacks of this teaching tool. Pupils and students can learn without presenting – but if the course requires they do, then these data suggest there must be support offered, perhaps in the form of workshops and opportunities to practise and prepare fully. It should not be expected that students would be able to draw on past experience or simply ‘muddle through’. To expect them to do so risks creating stress and anxiety that may in the end hinder their learning – or worse as in the case of Erin, contribute to a lack of student retention – for sadly Erin left her course.

Case study: Erin Erin had a presentation to make at university for which she had two weeks’ notice, but she was unable to concentrate on anything leading up to it, even after lengthy discussions with me. She felt terrified and nervous that she would forget everything or research the wrong thing; that it would be scrutinised and corrected in front of the class. She was also terrified of boring people. When the time came she read from PowerPoint. She couldn’t explain or think about what she was saying and then ‘halfway through I stop and I froze’; her worst fears came true. She said that she felt angry with herself. It went so wrong that she didn’t want to do any more presentations. I looked at Erin’s background to see if that held any answers to her problems. Support and personality:

  • Family quite close knit but with ‘terrible communication skills’ and are shy.
  • Friends are quite shy.
  • Erin feels best on a one-to-one basis with people overall.

Feelings about speaking out/ doing presentations:

  • She typically felt guilty, and inadequate.
  • Too busy focusing on whether people like the presentation to relax.
  • Really cares what other people think.
  • If she suspects she is saying the wrong thing she starts stuttering.
  • No confidence in her ability – not much experience talking in groups.
  • Scared her presentation might appear childish in terms of phrasing used.
  • Never feels better afterwards as might be expected.

Peers/lecturers:

  • Watching the lecturer closely for reactions.
  • Doing a non-assessed presentation, she found it was ‘worse actually for me’.
  • Worrying more about the lecturer than peers.
  • Comparison issue with peers (who coped and who didn’t).
  • Felt better when people present badly (not the only one!).

Subject matter:

  • Can make a difference – on this occasion it was new and abstract.
  • Found it hard to knit together the theories.
  • Left something out as she thought she was wrong – it was a vital part and she felt badly afterwards.

Coping strategies:

  • Makes her slides as flashy as possible to deflect attention from herself and keep people’s attention.
  • She gets peers to smile and look interested at her to reassure her.

General points she made in addition:

  • Didn’t feel like there was a get-out clause for the presentations (hated doing them and hated trying to get out of them).
  • Did a lot of work for the presentation beforehand so no one thought she was lazy for not presenting with the others in her group.
  • Would have preferred it to be marked as it would have made it all worthwhile.
  • Not effective for people that find it challenging – she didn’t learn anything from it.
  • Annoyed/angered by doing it badly and getting no reward or learning anything.
  • She suggests that we could have a group where half present and the other half prepare the presentation as a means of helping people like herself.

Overall therefore it has be concluded presentations were not a helpful learning tool for Erin on her particular course.

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