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Back to School!

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Even when we have been away from a formal educational setting for many years, we all experience that late August/early September feeling. Is it anxiety or anticipation? It’s back to school time! I have often been asked for advice on what is most important to focus on when returning to school.  Regardless of age, and whether you’re a parent, a student, or an instructor, my response is simple—confidence.

That may surprise you. It has been said that American students are growing more confident and less capable (Harden, 2013). Confidence in this context seems to be defined as self-aggrandizement with little or faulty evidence to support that perspective. The confidence that I am referring to is something more basic, namely the belief that one is capable of achieving. Clearly that belief must consistently be accompanied by a commitment to practice and to persist. The driving force to fuel said practice and persistence is an innate belief that those efforts can and will produce fruit.

The Fear Factor

For many learners the return to school is accompanied by fear and anxiety, and this stress can be particularly acute for adults who have been away from a classroom for many years. Will I be able to do the work? Can I measure up to all the expectations set around me? What if I fail? Such feelings of fear and anxiety can and do have a physical impact on one’s ability to achieve. “When the amygdala is in this state of stress (fear or anxiety-induced over-activation), new information coming through the sensory intake areas of the brain cannot pass through the amygdala to gain access to memory circuits” (Willis, 2006).

Conversely, during positive emotional states, “students tested under these conditions show better working memory, improved verbal fluency, better episodic memory for events, and more flexible thinking yielding creative ideas for problem solving. They even show more positive social behaviors– helpfulness, sociability, focus, patience, and other higher order executive function and decision-making abilities.” Willis concludes, “In general the type of stress that is overpowering is a helplessness connected to hopelessness,” or a lack of confidence in one’s ability to achieve the learning goals.

This does not mean that students should not be challenged. It means that the challenges need to be presented and structured in such a way to inspire students to feel capable of rising to them.

Nothing Succeeds Like Success

Confidence is not easy to instill or nurture in those for whom it is lacking. One cannot mandate confidence. When students take the risk or summon the persistence to try or re-try to comprehend a concept and succeed at those efforts, that success is a first step in building confidence. Instructors and parents can create learning environments that will foster and support these first steps. Some confidence building strategies include:

  • Getting to know your students. Understanding your students, their goals and dreams, as well as their fears and anxieties helps establish a supportive relationship which in turn produces that positive emotional state for deeper learning.
  • Relevance. Encourage students to see the relevance of the course or the material to their lives, their goals, their future plans, their past experiences, or efforts to change the world at large. Relate to practical real world problems. Ask students to articulate ways in which the topic is relevant to them. In some cases the relevance is that it will prepare them to master the next course, which in turn brings them closer to a career goal.
  • Student Control. Provide opportunities for student control of the learning. Support students in pursuing their interests within the topic; allow them choice in how to demonstrate learning.
  • Scaffolding. Provide guided learning experiences that lead students to conceptual understanding through trial, feedback, discussions, self-correction, re-trial, demonstration of success. “Students need to feel supported to explore and take risks” (Willis, 2006).
  • Positive Reinforcement. Acknowledge real successes. Students know if they are doing well or not. Reinforcing even small successes with motivating words energizes the student to persist. Providing positive reinforcement when it has not been earned has the opposite effect.
  • Focus on Learning. Ensure that the goal is deep learning and understanding rather than the achievement of a grade or simply “covering the material.”

Anxiety or anticipation? Heading back to school, whether a young student returning to fourth grade or an adult resuming undergraduate studies, can be a time of anticipation rather than anxiety when a student’s support system and instructional leaders take the time to reflect on the physiology of learning and create environments that nurture belief in each individual’s ability to succeed. May this academic year be the best one yet!

Harden, N. (2013, January 4). Confident Idiots: American Students Growing More Confident, Less Capable. thecollegefix.com.

Willis, J. M. (2006). Research Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning. Alexandria, Virginia, USA: Association for Supervision an Development.

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