Helping Students through their Communication Apprehension
September 18, 2020
by Dr. Tasha Davis
When I began my sabbatical last fall, I could never have imagined I would be returning to a virtual classroom. The levels of anxiety we’re all now experiencing highlight the importance of addressing the anxiety-inducing elements of our classroom environments over which we have some control.
Last fall I asked ACC faculty to respond to a short questionnaire on communication anxiety and apprehension in the college classroom. Your responses were helpful in framing my research. Now, along with my Communication Studies colleagues, I hope to continue this work by creating and offering professional development opportunities for ACC faculty and staff based on these research outcomes.
Survey responses revealed two common misconceptions about communication apprehension (CA) in our classrooms.
Students experiencing a high level of communication apprehension will often request an alternative assignment.
The reality is, the student most likely to approach you to request an alternative assignment is not experiencing a high level of communication apprehension.
A reasonable level of nervousness while speaking in front of a group is normal, and many students have simply not developed the coping skills to deal with moderate levels of anxiety. Most students can benefit from skills training rather than alternative assignments like writing a paper or speaking without an audience.
There are important distinctions, however, between what can be classified as a normal response to an oral speaking opportunity and a high level of apprehension. As one respondent asked:
“Because most people have a fear of public speaking, I perhaps conflate significant anxiety or communication apprehension with the everyday fear of speaking in public that the average person experiences anyway (is there a difference?)”
The simple answer is, yes.
Experiencing a moderate level of nervousness can be uncomfortable; but it is when a similar level of anxiety is felt when participating in group work or speaking one-on-one with an instructor that the issue moves beyond a case of stage fright to what is most likely a debilitating level of communication apprehension.
Communication apprehension is a real issue for our students. In fact, research suggests it is unlikely you will face a class or section in which you do not have at least one student experiencing high communication apprehension. These are the students my sabbatical work aimed to reach. Because the high CA student will often choose not to disclose their need for assistance, it is crucial for instructors to not only learn to identify behaviors indicative of high CA, but also to ensure we create a curriculum that is responsive to students’ needs. This leads to the second misconception.
Offering written assignments or other alternatives in lieu of speaking in front of a group will help students with high CA feel more comfortable in the classroom.
When confronted with communication anxiety in the college classroom, efforts to help often look like this:
“I may have the students present the information to me one-on-one as opposed to having them present in a group or to the entire class.”
“All students may choose to give their presentation in my office hours instead of in front of the class, if they choose.”
“The student wrote a paper instead.”
Creating alternative assignments that eliminate the oral speaking component will make it harder to ultimately treat anxiety by delaying dealing with the underlying problem. Thus, the harder it will be for a student when they leave our classrooms for much less friendly speaking environments.
A much better approach was offered by one respondent who stated:
“…This [alternative assignment] is only offered after a discussion of their concerns with me and a collaborative problem-solving session or two. My goal is to help them build their self-efficacy for presenting so we work on skills and anxiety management throughout the semester.”
Understandably, such an approach is more easily said than done. I am hopeful my work will open the door for conversations about CA, and the importance of offering the same learning experiences to all students, regardless of their individual level of anxiety or apprehension.
There is no evidence that suggests high CA students cannot deliver effective presentations. Therefore, the solution lies in creating alternatives (not accommodations) that best fit students’ individual circumstances while maintaining rigor and remaining consistent with learning outcomes and objectives.
It is a complicated issue, and one I am excited to continue to work on unraveling. If this is something that also interests you, I welcome your questions and comments.
Tasha Davis, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Communication Studies