4 Practical Steps to Overcome Academic Fear

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When reading the phrase “I like history, but math is too hard”, (or vice versa) what memory comes to mind? The dreaded fear, anxiety and overwhelm attached to that one particular subject we’re not too fond of is oh so real and reassuringly, you are not alone. We like praise for the things we have mastered, which creates a feedback loop: we stick to what we are good at versus embracing the persistence to grow through conquering the unknown. We all face this fear, but what if the fear you meet is actually more manageable than we thought? Every student faces this fear at some point in his or her academic career. However, there are practical steps to overcoming the limiting beliefs of subject affinity. In actuality, every student can take the reins of his or her academic potential, control his or her mindset, and take the necessary steps to seamlessly transfer learning skills across disciplines.

Here are four practical steps to emotionally and academically help you overcome this fear:

       1) Master the Locus of Control:

Curveball. Students control much more than they realize. Rarely are we taught to confront the inner critic voice. Not every thought that pops up is correct or true. Give students the knowledge they need to reframe negative self-talk in a way that is more realistic (and more helpful).

Teach students to validate themselves and challenge the idea that emotions are tied to “hormones” or are somehow an unbreakable pattern. It is important to recognize with helpful cognitive tools; self-talk can be altered with simple shifts. Encourage students to be mindful of projecting assumptions that past mistakes or failures will indicate similar results in the future. We cannot predict the future.

Ask your student to practice being in the present moment. Encourage your student to focus on what he or she can control in the “now” rather than fixing the past or avoiding the future. This will minimize the intensity of the discomfort or anxiety surrounding a student’s academic struggle.

     2) Embrace Schema-building:

Students need to remember that they have many skills in your back pocket. Some may need a little dusting off and more practice, but the fundamentals are there. Fear can cause us to overreact or give up too quickly. Encourage students to take a deep breath to aide in easing brain’s response to fear, providing him or her the headspace to “learn by connecting the new to the known.

Oftentimes, our least favorite subjects don’t get a fair look. We get caught in a debilitating feedback loop of looking at the subject through a specific and often negative lens. Rather than jumping to conclusions when confronted with new or challenging material, teach students to pause and ask questions. Encourage questions like “What do I know about this topic or subject matter? What do I want to know? What skills do I already know to help me read this passage or solve this problem?”

Encourage students to build upon the foundation already established in other subject using this step-by-step approach. In other words, build the scaffolding for new learning on the foundations of prior knowledge. Remind them to start slowly to decrease the anxiety, to Set a purpose and activate prior knowledge. Having a system to approach new subjects or anxiety-producing old subjects, gives everyone a better shot at success.

    3) Realize the Power of Text Graphic Features

For reading passages or math problems, encourage students to steadily climb up the steps by using the schema skill in the previous paragraph to notice and observe key text graphic features. Text graphic features are the key to mastery. Sometimes, less is more.

Encourage students to start new material with these questions: are there maps, graphs or pictures and captions? Bold words? What does the title or what do the headings mean to you?

Remind them to be intentional in order to appropriately tackle problems. Summarization or condensing can also work. The best way to combat new subject anxiety is creating a plan of attack. Predicting and practicing the skills, resources, and methods needed to learn decreases anxiety in the long run.

    4) Teach or contextualize your learning

Making personal connections and building our schema is vital to understanding how to learn. Memorization is great, however research in Applied Cognitive Psychology  had “critical finding[s] that the teaching-without-notes group outperformed the group that had spent the same time completing arithmetic problems . . . or the retrieval-practice group.”

Ask your students to teach what they learn and contextualize learning that caters to their creative interests. Infuse their love of music, movies or food in their learning. That is the beauty of learning, it can be individualized to fit the individual. For example, have your student act out a history passage out to a sibling, make a math problem into a song to perform for friends, or find some other creative way to contextualize and personalize learning.

Teach students to utilize these practical tools and fight that fear back. Learning is hard and tough. There are no time frames. Slow and steady will build that bridge between the known and unknown. Teach students to avoid boxing themselves into a limiting identity of “I am a math or history or English” person. We all grow, evolve and change. Happy learning!

Mylinh Vo

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