A Model of Student Anxiety

(a work in progress)

Why do some students seem to suffer more with anxiety than others? Limited amounts of stress are good for us (especially if we need to escape from a dangerous situation). This acute stress is often fleeting, involving a complex biological and behavioural mechanism that can increase motivation and cognitive function. But if anxiety passes an optimal level (a level that is different for each of us) it becomes detrimental to learning. Additionally, when stress lasts for too long it can become chronic, lowering the immune system and resulting in more debilitating conditions.

In addition, anxiety can also be a symptom or a cause of other conditions such as depression and it’s never particularly easy to ascertain causal relationship (although they are most likely reciprocal). Anxiety can also lead to behaviours that might be seen as dysfunctional or maladaptive, such as selective mutism or increased aggression.

But why do some people cope so much better with stressful situations than others? Why do some students appear immune to the stress of exams while others fall apart at the mere mention of taking a test?

There is no easy explanation because many internal and external factors play a role. One useful explanation is known as the Diathesis-Stress model. The model proposes that psychopathy is the result of internal predispositions and their interaction with environmental factors (or environmental stressors). The word diathesis simply means predisposition or vulnerability.

No two individuals are identical. Studies into groups at greater risk of psychopathy have confirmed this. In studies investigating the genetic basis of schizophrenia, research has found that concordance rates between identical twins vary from between 40 to 60 percent (compared with 1 percent of the general population). The closer the relationship, the greater the vulnerability, but concordance rates are never 100 percent. Even those who share all of their DNA are still different in some way.

In psychopathy, vulnerabilities would include genetic factors, biological characteristics and psychological traits, while stressors might include traumatic life events, negative family life and economic disadvantage. These might well also play a role in school anxiety generally and test anxiety specifically, however, we can also identify more school-specific vulnerabilities and stressors.

In terms of vulnerabilities, these need not necessarily be innate but could have developed very early on in life. For example, there is some debate over the point at which personality traits arise, whether we are born with them or acquire them at some other very early point in time. Genetic factors are, however, inherited, although not all psychopathy has a genetic element. Biological characteristics usually refer to biochemical factors, such as the functioning of neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine.

Academic-specific vulnerabilities certainly include personality. Certain Big 5 traits, including conscientiousness and emotional stability, are related to higher academic achievement and academic buoyancy. Academic self-concept (ASC) can also be viewed as a vulnerability along with academic self-efficacy beliefs (ASE). If very early experiences of education are positive, then both ASC and ASE are more likely to be high. These then safeguard against subsequent negative school experiences and increase levels of confidence. Another stress factor includes peer relations. Children who are able to build relationships with peers and make friends are more likely to enjoy school.

We might also include teacher-pupil relationships here, as longitudinal studies have found that children who have at least one adult they feel that they can turn to have improved levels of general resilience and future trajectories (see, for example, the Kauai longitudinal study). Negative peer relationships, such as bullying, trigger vulnerabilities.

Stress contagion refers to the transmission of anxiety from one individual to another. For example, if teachers and parents are anxious about students success in exams, the anxiety is then passed to the student, who may not have been anxious to begin with. This would impact those individuals who already possess a vulnerability to anxious thoughts, perhaps through low ASC or ASE.

Not all learners are the same; they have different histories and stories to tell. These histories interact with internal factors which in turn influence attempts to navigate the present. This attempted navigation results in varied outcomes, some positive and others negative, but no two are exactly the same. This is one reason why some of our students will complete their education with barely a hitch, while others will continually struggle to cope.

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