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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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.
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.
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).
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/
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