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The anxiety of college students is becoming a topic of discussion, causing many teachers to reflect on their practices and to question some of them.

Should an evaluation induce anxiety?

I imagine that most students feel some stress before and during most assessments.

Stress can take many forms. In small doses, it can be a catalyst, a stimulant that leads someone to excel. However, when we consider anxiety, we are talking about an inhibiting stress, a stress that prevents the student from thinking properly.

Learning to manage stress is an important part of education for a young adult, no doubt about it. However, for some people, certain exams or oral presentations can be the most stressful experiences of their lives. (Think back to your own college and university days…) Does it have to be this way?

Colleges are working hard to provide students with stress management workshops and other support. Yes, students who take advantage of these services will learn skills that will serve them well throughout their lives. But, for some students, are these services only needed for the evaluations they have to take in their courses?

Does an evaluation need to be anxiety-provoking to be valid? In fact, one could also ask the question from the opposite perspective: is an evaluation valid for all students if it is anxiety-provoking for some? Is the targeted competency of a mathematics course solving math problems or managing stress?

How to make evaluations less anxiety-provoking?

We can believe that it is entirely up to the student to learn how to manage their anxiety. We can also ask ourselves what we can do, as teachers, to limit the anxiety-provoking aspect of our courses and evaluations.

I think universal design for learning is an interesting avenue. Students can be given choices about certain aspects of the evaluations when it is consistent with the targeted competency. For example, we can let students choose:

  • the specific topic of an assignment
  • the format of an oral presentation (in person to their classmates or as a video recording)
  • how to present the results of a research project (text, poster, video, podcast…)
  • etc.

Ungrading could likely be another promising approach.

Easier said than done…

Nevertheless, sometimes the latitude that a teacher has and can offer to their students depends not on the competency to be attained in the course, but rather on the course outline or other administrative constraints established in the department.

In this regard, I really enjoyed reading “The Chains We Impose on Ourselves,” by Catherine Bélec, in the Fall 2021 issue of Pédagogie collégiale (p. 37).

In her text, Catherine Bélec invites us to question the form of the standards contained in the general course outlines or other departmental guidelines. According to her, these standards are often more useful on the administrative level than on the pedagogical level.

For an institution or group, standards are most often an administrative means of protecting against potential litigation, but I’m not sure that in setting these standards, we think about the consequences they may have elsewhere. Standards slow down innovation and change, and while they may prevent harmful modifications, they also limit improvements.

— Catherine Bélec (“The Chains We Impose on Ourselves,” in the Fall 2021 issue of Pédagogie collégiale)

Food for thought!

About the author

Catherine Rhéaume

Catherine Rhéaume is an editor and writer for Eductive (previously Profweb) since 2013. She also teaches physics at Cégep Limoilou. Her work for Eductive fosters her interest for technopedagogy and encourages her to try innovative teaching practices.

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