Dr. Joyvina Evans is an Assistant Professor at Howard University in Washington D.C., a self-care advocate, author, speaker, Founder of Advocating for My Uterus (non-profit), and Creator of Confidence Academy. Dr. Evans earned a Ph.D. in Public Health, M.S. in Public Health, and M.S. in Administration. She completed the Women in Education Leadership Program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, Higher Education Teaching and Learning certificate online through Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. She earned the Executive Leadership and High-Performance Leadership Certificates from Cornell University’s E-learning platform.
Students are dealing with new and continuing challenges throughout their college years, which can exacerbate anxiety, stress, and depression. Students must deal with separation from family and friends, living with roommates they may not know or get along with, managing course workloads and assignments, and working to pay for tuition or housing. An article by Harvard University states that psychological distress increases during the first and second years. Increased anxiety and distress lead to increased high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse and excessive amounts of caffeine due to sleep disruption. A nationwide survey by the American College Health Association ACHA) identified stress and anxiety as the most common impediments to academic performance.
Professors are in a unique position to teach students but also to mentor and coach them. College years are an intricate part of the development cycle and can make or break a student’s confidence and spirit. Additionally, understanding that students deserve a great learning experience should fuel the experience from preparing lectures to grading assessments. Professors can help decrease student anxiety through communication and substantive feedback.
Below are a few strategies to help reduce student anxiety and provide a better course experience:
- Regular communication: Responding to student emails in a sufficient amount of time is critical. Many students have a quick question about lecture content, assignment instructions, or a grade. Ensuring students are clear on your communication turnaround time by including the language in the syllabus and verbally discussing this during the first session is imperative. Additionally, replying (or having a teaching assistant reply) at most 48 hours after receipt of the message is helpful. If professors use an online platform, communicating via course announcements and including clear expectations can help the students know their weekly expectations and assist with planning. Including assignment due dates and instructions upfront so students can review them is an excellent way to allow them to plan. Interaction and communication initiated by the professor are intricate components of the education process. Consistent and timely communication that provides strategies for success, clear direction regarding assignments and expectations, and active office hours lets the student know you are engaged and available to help.
- Providing substantive feedback: Providing timely feedback is a great way to decrease anxiety. Lettings students know they are not simply a number by always using their preferred name when replying to emails and preparing feedback is key. Substantive feedback is specific and helps students know ways to improve their work and expand on key concepts. Beginning the feedback with what the student did well in the assessment is helpful. It is beneficial to guide the students and let them know how to improve their assessment. More important is ensuring that we provide constructive feedback that is not condescending or disrespectful. Choosing our words carefully and avoiding microaggressions is essential when giving feedback. When students are clear on what they did right, what they did wrong, and ways to improve, they can move forward positively with future assessments. Lastly, ending with a positive sentence is a great way to conclude the feedback. When drafted effectively, feedback can empower students and guide them to understand their strengths and opportunities.
- Displaying empathy and compassion: Demonstrating empathy and compassion is necessary for decreasing anxiety. While many professors will receive audacious requests from students, it is crucial to understand that some students are honest and transparent regarding their mental health and family. Overall, letting students know you genuinely care about them, and their well-being is paramount and goes a long way. Even if professors deny a request, ensuring that you communicate the denial with compassion goes a long way.
The list of strategies is not exhaustive; however, it can assist students. Additionally, it is essential to note that professors should never take the role of mental health professionals. We must know when to refer the student to campus resources for assistance and help. Our role is teaching, leading, guiding, mentoring, and coaching students through the course and the college experience. While these strategies will not eradicate anxiety, they can ensure that we are doing our part to now add to student distress.
- Hsu, J.L. & Goldsmith, G.R. (2021). Instructor strategies to alleviate stress and anxiety among college and university STEM students. CBE Life Sciences Education. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8108494/
- LeBlanc, N. (2019). Anxiety in college: What we know and how to cope. Harvard health blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/anxiety-in-college-what-we-know-and-how-to-cope-2019052816729