The following is the pithy version of a longer post that outlines suggestions for alleviating students’ writing fears.
The bullet points quoted below are from Rita Smilkstein’s 2007 presentation on brain-based learning and the connection between emotions and learning (http://facweb.northseattle.edu/RSmilkstein/BrainBased/TutoringwiththeBrain-BasedNaturalHumanProcessHandout.pdf):
EMOTIONS AFFECT LEARNING
• When learners feel unconfident or anxious, certain
chemicals flow into the synapses to shut them down:
“Danger! No time to think! Just run away!” This is
the flight reaction. Students mistakenly think they
have a poor memory, but it is their emotions that are
• When learners feel confident, different chemicals flow
into the synapses that make them work quickly and
well: “I can handle this.” This is the fight reaction
As writing instructors, we need to devote time to setting a non-threatening atmosphere and reinforcing it throughout the semester–even if it means playing a therapist’s role of sorts. When students have emotional blocks, learning simply doesn’t happen, so it’s definitely worth it to “sacrifice” some teaching time in favor of getting students in a place where their brains are in the fight and not the flight mode, where students willingly accept the challenges of our classes rather than engage in conscious or subconscious protective/survival tactics.
I highly recommend The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another by Rebecca Cox. Although this book is not about writing fears, it is very telling that Dr. Cox’s research on college fears is conducted through freshman writing classes.
Please read the complete post for a list of detailed suggestions and to offer your own in the comments.