Reducing student anxiety in the classroom — Karly Neath

crowMany educators are unaware of what anxiety is, how it affects their students, and what they can do to reduce it.

To cope with anxiety students:

  • Do not participate
  • Skip class
  • Avoid enrolling in classes with participation

These students may be missing out on learning opportunities.

From research literature in neuroscience, it is clear that stress and anxiety inhibit learning through powerful brain mechanisms. The stress response has evolved to avoid threatening situations, however it impairs new learning. By caring about students, and doing our best to reduce anxiety in the classroom, we can help utilize brain processes that contribute to learning.

What can we do to reduce anxiety in our classrooms and help our students learn and succeed?

Below are a few ideas from research conducted by Birkett and Shelton (2011) in neuroscience and practices in higher education:

  1. Be predictable. Numerous studies have demonstrated the anxiety-provoking nature of unpredictable stressors. This does not mean that you have to give up flexibility or spontaneity in your classroom, but it means that you need to make your expectations explicit.  For example, you specify the requirements for a research project but you do not need to specify the topic. This entails providing a clear, detailed and explicit syllabus at the beginning of a course, with the assignments described, due dates listed, and policies for late submissions. This can go a long way towards reducing stressful unpredictability. This is especially important at the beginning of a course when the students’ anxieties about the course are high.
  2. Provide opportunities for student control. In neuroscience and stress research, lack of control is the second ingredient in creating anxiety.  Control or even perceived control of a situation is capable of reducing the physical and psychological reactions to stress. Giving students opportunities to control some aspects of their experiences in our classes is an effective way to reduce anxiety. This might range from flexible due dates to late assignment policies to allowing students to select their own topic for a research project, or using a class poll to determine the next topic in class, to fully student-led projects for classes.
  3. Trust students. Ken Bain claims that the most successful teachers trust their students. Bain writes “trust and openness produce an interactive environment in which students can ask questions without reproach or embarrassment” (p.142). Bain suggests that we can demonstrate trust by sharing a sense of humility with students, occasionally sharing paths in our own learning, expressing our own curiosity about learning, and setting an intention to share a classroom with students as fellow learners. 

Each of these elements can help convey student caring. Each can be considered a characteristic of a classroom environment designed to reduce student anxiety, but a thoughtful and intentional combination of these aspects is required to be successful.

 What strategies have you used to promote student caring and reduce anxiety in your classrooms?


Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.

 Birkett, M.A., Shelton K. (2011). Participating in an introductory neuroscience course decreases neuroscience anxiety. Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education, 10(1), A37-A43.

Published by

Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.