Don’t Panic: The hitchhiker’s guide to learning anxiety in (and out) of the classroom

Beyondblue, an independent, bi-partisan agency focused on mental health, states that the incidence of anxiety directly affects about 1 in 4 Australians. The classroom context is no exception to this statistic – it is after all a micro-community where people of all backgrounds find themselves for all kinds of reasons. Although educators, lecturers and teachers have a duty to do their best to address concerns such as anxiety, once students are in the classroom, it could already be too late to mitigate its effects.

This raises some key questions. Could we start addressing the issues of anxiety earlier, before students enter the classroom? Could we measure and evaluate students’ anxiety levels before they start their studies? How could the institution prepare students so that they are as well prepared as they can be for the classroom? Could addressing anxiety earlier be the key to helping students pursue their studies at the highest possible level?

You can watch the full recording of Richard sharing the findings from his research on how anxiety affects learners and their performance, and how teachers and the broader institution can play a role in supporting these students here. Keep reading for a summary of the ideas covered…

‘Don’t Panic’ is a reference to ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ series, but it summarises the findings from quantitative research into the impact of anxiety, specifically learning anxiety, on academic performance. The affective factors or ‘Learning Process Variables’ (Hewison, 2015) which influence academic performance are:

  1. Epistemological (beliefs about the nature of knowledge and learning)
  2. Self-efficacy (perception of how well we do something)
  3. Learning approach (surface versus deep learning approaches)
  4. Learning anxiety

Although anxiety does not directly relate to academic performance, it does influence the other variables, which more directly influence academic performance.

Things to keep in mind regarding the findings

The study focuses on:

  • International University Pathway Programme students studying on-campus in a classroom, specifically Navitas students.
  • Students in language-intensive (LI) subjects including Management and Marketing where they’re dealing with an unfamiliar target language.
  • Learning anxiety is more generally classed as a ‘State Anxiety’, which is an environmentally induced anxiety, for example public speaking. This is compared to ‘Trait Anxiety’, which is a predisposition to being anxious.

‘Altruistic’ versus ‘Anxious’ Learning Process Variables (LPV) groups

According to the study, the LPV group categorised as ‘Altruistic’ had the following relative tendencies:

  • Anxiety: Low
  • Learning approach: Deep
  • Self-efficacy: High
  • Knowledge/ Learning: Relative

By contrast, the LPV group categorised as ‘Anxious’ had the following relative tendencies:

  • Anxiety: High
  • Learning approach: Surface
  • Self-efficacy: Low
  • Knowledge/ Learning: Absolute

What has snooker got to do with ‘Altruistic’ and ‘Anxious’ LPV groups?

In the classroom, we have a learning outcome that we are aiming for, and we have our own knowledge and skills which define our pedagogical approach to achieving the learning outcome. We also have a level of academic performance that must be reached; we want it to be as high as possible given any number of students. The ‘Snooker’ analogy (08:23) aims to explain how when a shot is taken from the blue ‘Pedagogy’ ball to the yellow ‘Learning Anxiety’ ball, this ball will then interact with and influence the other three balls/ factors. The impact of these three balls/factors on the black ball ‘Academic Performance’ determine whether or not the red flag ‘Learning Outcome’ is successfully achieved.

In summary, the ‘Atruistic’ LPV group with low anxiety relates to relatively higher levels of academic performance, compared to the ‘Anxious’ LPV group with high anxiety which relates to lower levels of academic performance. This is further shown below (14:49):

The final message from this research is that if we are to address issues such as anxiety, we need  an evidence-based approach of the student experience in and out of the classroom. Key areas of research include:

• Social and academic acculturation: What are our students’ expectations regarding the new culture and how are they different? How are our students being familiarised with these expectations?
• Environment: Are classrooms upholding their duty to create welcoming, understanding and safe spaces?

The classroom is seen as the ‘end point’ for students. It is here that educators, lecturers and teachers will start to address issues such as learning anxiety by redirecting students to other parts of the organisation, such as academic and language skills support, student welfare and student administration services . However this involves remediation. Perhaps prevention is the more beneficial approach. The addressing of issues as early as the recruitment process, through the admissions stage, right through orientation to the studies themselves, could be what will give students the best possible opportunity to do as well as they can. The earlier we can gather evidence as to how students may approach their studies, the better informed we will be to minimise the potential negative effects of issues such as learning anxiety.

If you’d like to hear about these ideas in more detail, you can watch the full recording of Richard sharing the findings from his research here. You can also contact Richard via email or connect with him on Yammer.

[This story was produced in collaboration with Jen Ng.]


  • Hewison, R. (2015). Predictors of academic performance for international students at a university pathway college. Thesis (Ed.D.). University of Western Australia.