Dealing With Anxiety When Promoting Learner Autonomy

Takuto Marutani, Kanda University of International Studies, Japan

Marutani, T. (2018). Dealing with anxiety when promoting learner autonomy. Relay Journal, 1(2), 259-266.

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Abstract

Many high school students in Japan are likely to feel anxious about learning English due to the pressure of exams and feeling anxious can cause various issues for their learning. In order for students to overcome their anxieties and take control of their learning, they first need to be aware of what their anxieties are. In this paper, the author describes a positive effect of an activity which was aimed at helping students to become more aware of their anxieties and to deal with them.

Key words: anxiety, learner autonomy, language advising, activity to deal with anxiety

This paper focuses on language anxiety; as Oxford (2011) notes, language learning “can be highly stressful” (p. 65). For instance, in Japan, where students are put in “exam hell” (Ushioda, 2013, p. 5), learners are highly likely to feel anxious about their learning. Of course, this is by no means an ideal situation for learning a language, but as exams are a part of life in Japan, it is important for language teachers to help students to become aware of what they feel anxious about and how to deal with it by themselves. In this paper, anxiety, one of the major areas of affective factors associated with learner autonomy, and learner autonomy are the foci, and I explore what learner autonomy and anxiety are and how interrelated they are, and analyze and reflect on the activity that I conducted with my students to mitigate their anxieties.

Learner Autonomy and Anxiety    

While there are numerous definitions for learner autonomy, there are also a lot of misconceptions about it and its implementation. For example, it is often seen as isolated learning though researchers on autonomy have claimed that collaboration and interdependence are entailed in developing autonomy (Benson, 2011). It is thus controversial to define learner autonomy as a concrete idea. According to Benson (2011), it is considered a natural tendency of human beings, it is facilitated by certain conditions and it is defined as “the capacity to take control over one’s own learning” (p. 2). Although learner autonomy is not a straightforward concept with a single definition, Benson‘s (2011) definition seems appropriate to employ in this paper because the definition reflects multiple dimensions of autonomy: technical, psychological and political (p. 62). The definition is significant in that the psychological dimension is included and he stresses the importance of interrelationship and balance of those three dimensions.

However, it is not easy for learners to exercise their autonomy, which can cause various issues. For example, anxiety can be a problem that impedes students’ autonomous learning. In fact, from my daily observation of my students, they seem anxious about learning English like Ushioda’s (2013) description of English education in Japan. According to Oxford (2011), anxiety leads to unwillingness to communicate in the target language and other forms of avoidance such as being absent from classes and not doing assignments. Moreover, as Yamashita (2015) mentions, feeling anxious consumes working memory resources and this is obviously a hindrance for learning English.

When learners suffer from anxiety, it is impossible for them to exercise their autonomy. However, in my context, a private high school in Japan, if students would like to achieve their academic goals (i.e. passing entrance exams for prestigious universities), they have to study English so hard by themselves; that demands “the capacity to take control over one’s own learning”, namely, learner autonomy (Benson, 2011, p. 2). Fortunately, Oxford (2011) notes that there are strategies to deal with affective factors which she calls affective/meta-affective strategies. Moreover, as Yamashita (2015) illustrates, those strategies actually promote students’ learner autonomy through advising sessions. Therefore, though my perspectives on my students’ feelings do not seem so far removed from reality, it seems better to actually listen to my students’ voices. I will now describe an activity I designed to raise students’ awareness of anxiety and to help them to deal with it.

“Anxiety-Shooting” Activity

The participants are Japanese third graders in a senior high school aged 17 to 18. I conducted this activity with eleven students in a class who often talk to me about their anxieties about learning English due to the pressure of entrance exams and ask me for help.

This activity was conducted in Japanese and was divided into three phases. In the first phase, students were asked to write (a) how anxious they felt about learning English as a percentage and (b) what made them anxious in language learning (Appendix A). In order for students to intuitively answer the questions, they were given a short time, five minutes, to answer the questions in a class. After five minutes, I collected the papers.

In the second phase, each student was provided with a paper from another student and asked to write advice to deal with the anxieties written on the paper in groups of three or four within five minutes. The first two phases were conducted anonymously to let students feel free to write their anxieties and give advice.

In the last phase, students were asked to read a paper on which I had organized their anxieties and the solutions (Appendix B), then write (a) how anxious they felt about learning English as a percentage and (b) their feelings or thoughts after they had completed the activity. After five minutes, I collected their worksheets (Appendix C).

I analyzed the worksheets based on two points: their levels of anxiety as a percentage and their feelings and thoughts after the activities.

To briefly summarize the findings, by analyzing the data, it was apparent that this activity helped students to mitigate their anxiety. First, the rate of anxiety decreased by about 8 percent on average. Since these activities were informally implemented, this result may not really reflect how the activity helped to mitigate students’ anxieties, but it does indicate that they ‘felt’ less anxious about learning English by doing this activity. In addition, more positive results were seen in their comments after the activities. I translated some of them into English:

“I sympathized with my friends’ anxiety and felt reassured.”

“Giving and receiving advice are wonderful!”

“I enjoyed reading different ideas of my friends.”

“I feel like that I found solutions to my problems.”

“There are many concrete ideas.”

“I would like to take action as I advised my friends.”

“It was useful to know my friends’ ways of keeping motivation and studying.”

“I feel like that everyone is in the same boat to fight [against entrance exams], so I got motivated to study harder.”

The comments indicated that not only did many students become more aware of their anxieties, but the activity was beneficial for both students who gave advice and those who received the advice. Also, it can be said that this activity succeeded in creating a safe environment which shares a sense of common understanding that they are not the only one failing at learning English and are allowed to freely share their issues.

Those effects were brought about by the concept of advising that I learned in my MA Learner Autonomy course, and what is interesting for me is that some of the advising strategies (e.g., repeating, summarizing, complimenting, etc.) are employed by students in this activity though the students were not taught about those strategies.

Reflection on the Activity

Although this activity was conducted within a short space of time during classes, it enlightened me as to specifically what my students felt anxious about and their potential to manage their anxieties and become autonomous learners.

Since students wrote about their anxieties in their own words, I could closely grasp what problems they were facing. Thanks to this, I can give more appropriate advice to them to deal with their problems. Also, this activity reminded me of my own path as a language learner: how similar my and their language anxieties were. This let me have a great opportunity to share my learning experiences with my students and encourage them by talking about them; I felt that I was in the same boat as my students.

Also, this activity uncovered how my students have the potential to handle their anxieties and become autonomous learners. Though I stepped back and just organized my students’ problems during this activity, they wrote honestly about their anxieties, shared them, and gave each other thoughtful advice to help to cope with them. Since learner autonomy does not necessarily mean isolated leaning, it can be said that what my students did in this activity could be considered a huge step to becoming autonomous learners.

As for further work, I am planning to help my students to consciously employ affective/meta-affective strategies (Oxford, 2011) for themselves. Though the safe community where students can freely talk about their anxieties and give advice to each other was created, I did not explicitly teach them those strategies. By raising their awareness of their own affective/meta-affective strategies, I am going to help them to manage their affective states and become more skilful autonomous learners.

Conclusion

Since language learning in an “exam hell” setting (Ushioda, 2013) entails anxiety and has a harmful influence on learning itself, it is essential to deal with it in order to prevent autonomy from being inhibited. I conducted an activity which contained the essence of advising skills to help students to become more aware of what they felt anxious about and the ways to cope with it. This activity helped to mitigate students’ anxiety and to create a safe environment for students to talk about their problems and help each other. Finally, reflecting on the activity, I realized the specific problems my students were facing and their potential to become autonomous learners, though teaching affective/meta-affective strategies (Oxford, 2011) is to be focused on for further work. Just as students’ reflections on their own anxieties through the advising activity contributed to reducing their anxiety rate and helping them to step ahead as autonomous learners, reflecting on myself writing this paper alleviated my own anxieties about teaching and equipped me with confidence as a language teacher.

Notes on the contributor

Takuto Marutani is a graduate student of the MA TESOL Program at Kanda University of International Studies. He currently teaches at a private Japanese high school. His research interests include learner autonomy, cooperative learning and content-based instruction (CBI).

References

Benson, P. (2011). Teaching and researching autonomy in language learning. Harlow, UK: Pearson.

Oxford, R. L. (2011). Teaching and researching language learning strategies. Harlow, UK: Pearson.

Ushioda, E. (2013) Foreign language motivation research in Japan: An ‘Insider’ perspective from outside Japan. In M. T. Apple, D. Da Silva & T. Fellner (Eds.), Language learning motivation in Japan (pp. 1-14). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Yamashita, H. (2015). Affect and the development of learner autonomy through advising. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 6(1), 62-85. Retrieved from http://sisaljournal.org/archives/mar15/yamashita/

 

Appendices

Appendix A: An Example of Student’s Work of Anxiety-Shooting Activity: writing their anxieties

Appendix B: A Paper to Share Students’ Anxieties and Their Advice

Appendix C: An Example of Student’s Work of Anxiety-Shooting Activity: reflection on the activities

 

6 thoughts on “Dealing With Anxiety When Promoting Learner Autonomy”

  1. Dear Takuto,

    The research in your article is a great reminder of how important students’ opinions, insights, and experiences are in the classroom. Though in your study, by allowing students to mitigate their anxiety through peer advising, they were able to go deeper by participating in the discourse about their language-learning anxiety. As your findings show, this activity resulted in lowering student anxiety, which not only cultivates an environment for learner autonomy but also creates better opportunities for second language acquisition, e.g., lowering their affective filter Krashen (1982).

    Adding your students’ comments about the activity in your paper was a great touch. It is apparent by their comments they realized the powerful effect of managing their affect in a way that they weren’t aware of (i.e., getting advice from peers). I am sure that the experience of creating a safe environment in which they were able to share a sense of common understanding will be influential in their studies. This activity can result in students and teachers experiencing “aha moments” (Kato & Mynard, 2016).

    Although not directly related to mitigating anxiety through dialogs between peers, there are a number of studies of how music can have similar effects. In one study, Dolean (2016), the researcher set out to answer the questions, “Can teaching songs during regular FL [foreign language] lessons reduce class average anxiety?” and “Can teaching songs during FL lessons influence differently the anxiety of students from classes with different anxiety levels?” (p. 642). Based on the findings Dolean concluded that “teaching songs during FL [foreign language] classes can decrease significantly the average level of FLCA [foreign language classroom anxiety] of classes with a rather high anxiety, but not the average level with rather low anxiety” (p. 650). I’ll share a few other articles which deal with music and affect in the references.

    Your article is inspiring and I hope to use it in my teaching context in the near future. Like you mentioned this activity also provides the teacher with an opportunity for reflection and becoming aware of their anxiety as a teacher. Who knows maybe in certain contexts teachers can join in the activity and receive advice from students. Another study for you to conduct perhaps? Also, will you be trying this activity with all your classes or only a select few?

    I am looking forward to what you publish next.

    Best,

    Phillip Alixe Bennett

    References
    Dolean, D. D. (2016). The effects of teaching songs during foreign language classes on students’ foreign language anxiety. Language teaching research, 20(5), 638-653.
    Engh, D. (2013). Why Use Music in English Language Learning? A Survey of the Literature. English Language Teaching, 6(2), 113-127.
    Kato, S. & Mynard, J. (2016). Reflective dialogue: Advising in language learning. Routledge.
    Krashen, S. D. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.463.8762
    Lieb, M. M. (2008). Music and listening: Learning gain without pain. In JALT 2007 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT.

    1. Dear Phillip Alixe Bennett,

      Thank you very much for your encouraging comment on my paper. In addition, your references are all very informative. I will definitely read all of them to reflect on my appoarch to my students’ affective issues.

      In particular, Dolean (2016)’s study is very interesting for me because music seems to work to motivate my students as well as mitigate their anxieties. Thanks to your comment, I realized there are a lot of ways to deal with anxiety.

      Your idea that teachers join in the activity I conducted sounds effective to create a better relationship between students and teachers, but we teachers need to be careful not to hog the floor during the activity so as to promote students’ autonomy.
      I will try this activity in other classes as well after modifying it. Next time, I will have my students organize and group their anxieties by themselves in order for them to be more aware of what their anxities are and how to deal with them.
      I hope I share new findings with you.

      Thank you again for reading and making comment on my paper.

      Best,

      Takuto

  2. This was a pleasure to read Takuto. You clearly outline the factors causing anxiety among students in your context (e.g., exam hell) and propose an innovative activity for dealing with this issue head on with your students. Very much looking forward to seeing the details in the appendices once it is published!

    Perhaps you can develop the ideas further here in your MA Project!

    1. Dear Professor Gordon Myskow,

      Thank you for reading and making a supportive comment on my paper. The final assignment of your course, Teaching Innovation Plan, helped me to think about issues in my classroom more deeply. I appreciate your helpful and interesting classes.
      Even though I have not decided on the topic of my MA project yet, I am sure I will focus on something to improve my classes and help my students in some way.

      Thank you again for taking your time to read my paper.

      Best wishes,
      Takuto

  3. Dear Takuto,

    Your article also reminded me of the time when I had to study for an university entrance exam. Those were times when I hated the most. I wish I could have had a teacher like you. I did not have much safe environment where I felt my classmates were on the same boat. It sounds very hostile when I think about it now. But I might have considered my classmates rather some sort of rivals rather than team members to succeed in passing the entrance exams. Especially my days were the times where lots of second baby boomers were sort of competing. It was harder to get into university back then.

    When I teach at KIFL, sometimes my students come up to me, and they talk about which university they would like to go to etc. I don’t really teach anything related to entrance exam, but I always try my best to encourage my learners to at least learn something from my class by combining my talk (dialogue) with them and my teaching contents.

    Your research was very inspiring and powerful. If I have a chance to be able to do that, I would like to use the same or similar idea to let them aware that they are not alone and the others are on the same boat in the future.

    I was truly inspired with your article. From your article, I can tell you are learning/a learner and at the same time a teacher. And also, it seems like you are a motivated and autonomous teacher. As Reinders & Balcikanli (2011) put it, “Teacher autonomy and leaner autonomy are closely linked and without sufficient knowledge and guidance, teachers are unlikely to develop the skills to be able to foster learner autonomy in their own classrooms.” Thank you for sharing your artilce.

    Kyoko Gruendel

    1. Dear Kyoko Gruendel

      Thank you for reading and making a thoughtful comment on my paper.

      Even today, as far as I observe my classes, entrance exams are likely to create a difficult situation where students see each other as rivals in classrooms. However, through the activity I conducted, I learned that they can also be supportive and helpful to each other if they are provided with environment to feel free to open up their minds and share their feelings.

      I am sure that you are a dedicated and autonomous teacher as well, and your students enjoy learning in your classes. I will keep in mind the quote: “Teacher autonomy and leaner autonomy are closely linked and without sufficient knowledge and guidance, teachers are unlikely to develop the skills to be able to foster learner autonomy in their own classrooms” (Reinders & Balcikanli, 2011)

      Thank you again for reading my paper and encouraging words.

      Best,
      Takuto

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