This post is essentially a handout I distributed during a faculty development workshop about alleviating students’ writing fears. I hope you find some useful suggestions here, and I hope you share your own via the comments section.
Because writing involves personal ideas, opinions, interpretations, and voice, it is a very personal academic endeavor, even when the writing is non-personal. Therefore, our attempts to alleviate these fears need to address not only the skill-based writing fears but the emotion-based fears, as well.
Causes: low confidence level, intimidated by instructors, fear of exposure
Effects: expects failure, refuses to seek help, apathetic attitude*
Low Confidence Level
1. Assure your students that you are aware of the lack of writing, and thus of college writing preparation, in many high school English classes. They should know that you’re “privy to” their lack of preparation and thus aware of the writing fears that they may be feeling.
2. Emphasize writing as a process that requires time and sincere effort. I’ve had students tell me that they’re not good writers because it takes them a long time to write a paper. This faulty logic proves that some students do not understand the nature of writing. They equate proficiency with speed and effortlessness.
3. Explain that even strong writers may experience problems successfully fulfilling college writing requirements because unfamiliar purposes and tasks can create writing weaknesses.
4. Clarify that struggle and even failure can be positive by assuring your students that…
- a. having uncertainties, inabilities, and even fears makes them ideal learners because these concerns provide a foundation upon which to create meaningful goals and leads to deliberate actions in the pursuit of achieving these goals. (Students must maintain a fight, rather than a flight, state of mind.)
- b. struggle and failure is the only way to learn and improve, only if students avoid becoming discouraged and instead learn from their failures and seek help. In other words, they must be encouraged to fail successfully.
5. Demand that your students get out of their own way so that the thinking, discovery, and drafting processes are not hindered.
Intimidated by Instructors/Fear of Exposure
1. Be aware of the intimidation factor attached to your authoritative positions as expert and evaluator. Keeping this in mind will allow you to be proactive and thoughtful in your interaction with students.
2. Talk to your students about this intimidation factor and their possible writing fears. Assure your students that one of your roles as expert and evaluator is to help them overcome their writing deficiencies, insecurities, and fears so that they can learn and improve.
3. Ask your students to explore their writing experiences, knowledge, and strengths in small groups and then compile “common place” reports. Have each group present its findings to the class. If you do this on the first or second class day, you’ll be able to base your first general writing lesson on this information. It will also help you to achieve numbers 1 and 2 above.
4. Explore with your students ways that you and they can alleviate their writing fears. This collaboration may help you create innovative lessons and provide you with scholarship of teaching material.
5. Create a “safe writing zone” at the beginning of the semester, in which students complete a number of short writings that are not graded. Some should be kept private, some shared with peers, and some turned in for you to respond as a reader and guide. Focusing your comments first on their ideas and apparent thought and writing processes will help alleviate the intimidation of you and of writing in general. However, you should let students know what you’re doing so that they don’t gain a false sense of ability. This “safe writing zone” will allow students to gain some level of comfort so that they approach later, graded assignments from a more confident and knowledgeable place.
6. Emphasize the prewriting process so that your students can learn to tame “the monster.”
7. Devote class time to individual and group prewriting work, especially brainstorming and organizing. If class time is limited, and you don’t want to forego peer review of drafts, this can be started outside of class. Students would then be responsible for brainstorming ideas and then bringing two copies to class: one for you and one for the group.
8. Emphasize the importance of developing effective writing behaviors:
a. creating a confident writing persona.
b. creating a writing-friendly atmosphere.
c. working on the assignment some every day.
d. writing in different locations conducive to each stage of the writing process. For example, students may think and generate ideas better outside or in the library but draft better in their rooms. The revising and editing processes may work better where friends are around to help or in the Writing Center where tutors are readily available.
The following bullet points are quoted from Rita Smilkstein’s 2007 presentation on brain-based 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.
*In The College Fear Factor, Dr. Cox explains that, many times, the apathetic attitude is a survival mechanism.
What tips and suggestions would you like to share?