Approaches to Teaching Students with Anxiety: Meeting Report

 

September 13, 10am-5pm, at the Institute of Classical Studies, Senate House, London room 349
 
Organised by Esther Eidinow and Susan Deacy

Supported by the Institute of Classical Studies; funded by the HEA (National Teaching Fellowship) and  CUCD Education Committee

 

This one-day event was set up in response to requests from the members of Teaching and Learning about Ancient Religions network. They identified it as an issue on which they would like help to enable them to support the needs of students. Increasing numbers of students are living with anxiety and anxiety-based depression, and those teaching them face a wide range of challenges in providing appropriate support. Religion is a key feature of many Classics/Ancient History programmes, and it can also generate a variety of specific concerns among students, exacerbating anxiety and mental health conditions.

We soon found that there was a broader audience for this topic, and the workshop developed accordingly. We invited speakers who taught at School-level, and who were teachers of different disciplines, including drama and history of art. We also advertised widely across the Liverpool List, reaching out to teachers of other areas of Classics, as well as asking colleagues to spread the word across disciplines within their institutions. We were grateful that people responded in the same spirit, and, as a result, the participants in the workshop came from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, including neuroscience and history as well as Classics and Ancient History, and comprised not only HE professionals but also secondary school teachers and school governors.

The Presentations

The presentations at the workshop offered individual case studies as well as more general investigations of the educational environment.

1. Narrative, Fantasy and Latin: A Teenager Talks about His Worlds.

Steve Hunt (Cambridge)

Steve began the day with an inspiring case study focused on his experience of teaching Latin to a student with mild Aspergers, as part of a small class of students who had chosen to take the language as an extra subject, taught via fortnightly classes. Steve identified a gap in the literature on supporting autistic students and other disabled students, namely a discussion of what students themselves experience. He reported on how, through talking about the stories in the textbook (the Cambridge Latin Course), the student was enabled to explore his own feelings, something that he otherwise found it hard to do. Steve brought out the role that stories play in language teaching and its potential for enabling students, with and without mental health issues, to learn about the lives of others.

A summary of Steve’s presentation is also available.

2. Supporting Postgraduate Students with Mental Health Conditions: The Role of Supportive Supervision

Chrysanthi Gallou (Nottingham)

Chrysanthi began her presentation with an account of her own experiences supervising a student with mental health issues. She expanded this with a presentation of the survey that this had prompted her to carry out into the experiences of supervising PGR students with mental health issues. This was conducted as her PGCHE project: it collected data from among staff in the seven departments of the School of Humanities at the University of Nottingham. In this paper, she used this research to explore the needs of research students with mental health conditions,  examining how these conditions may affect their ability to engage with their research. She went on to offer some initial answers to the question of how research supervisors can support these students more efficiently, and make the supervision process more effective and engaging.

3. Temples, Classrooms and C-PTSD

Emma Griffiths (Manchester)

Emma drew on personal experiences to explain how students’ anxiety can evolve into a form of ‘Complex PTSD’, where the experience of being in a learning environment triggers further anxiety and hence impedes learning. With a series of vivid images, she demonstrated the effects of this disorder, revealing how it distorts perceptions of people and places. Drawing in insights from the study of religion, she went on to show how, by thinking about how we define spaces as ‘sacred’, ‘formal’, etc., teachers can make simple changes to their teaching practice. These can support not only students with anxiety disorders, but also all students to feel more relaxed and focussed.

4. Thinking about Assessment: Formative Assessments and Anxiety: Essay Plans and Presentations

Gaby Neher (Nottingham)

One of the ways in which anxiety can impact on a student’s engagement with a course of study is through a drop off in attendance, particularly towards a course deadline. As Gaby explained, the ensuing vicious cycle of anxiety impacting on attendance, creating poor performance, leading to poor performance impacting on a student’s ability to engage with an assessment is well known and difficult to manage. Extensions for pieces of work often just shift the problem, rather than resolving it. Formative, scaffolded assessment may be one way to address some of these issues, and in this talk Gaby explored two case studies focussing on formative and summative assessment of both essay plans, and presentations.

5. MA Students: Mental Health and Magic

Jane Draycott (Glasgow)

Jane brought us back to ancient religions and magic by discussing the development and implementation of a module on Women, Witches and Witchcraft, which she convened at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David for the Classics department’s postgraduate courses. She described how the module originated (the requirements of the institution, rather than her own research interests), and the approach she took, bearing in mind the cohort and the students’ needs.

The text of Jane’s presentation is also available.

 

Emerging Themes

During the day, the discussions highlighted the following ideas:

  • The level and nature of support that teachers are expected to be able to provide to students with mental health issues: participants often observed the contrast in the approach taken to physical and mental health at universities. Specifically, whereas teachers are not expected to offer guidance/advice or support to students about their physical health, they are often expected to support students suffering from mental health issues. This is made worse by a lack of adequate resourcing for counselling services within institutions.
  • Lack of institutional support in times of crisis: Colleagues from different institutions stated that they had felt particularly unsupported by their institutions in times of crisis, for example, when students who suffered mental health issues blamed the lecturer for their own lack of progress. They observed that the structures for dealing with such complaints were not even-handed: for example, the student was not required to provide evidence to support their complaint, while the staff were required to gather evidence to show that this was not the case.
  • The lack of discussion around or support for the mental health of staff: there is a notable lack of provision of support for staff who are supporting students. It was observed that providing such support is stressful in itself; moreover, the experience may exacerbate existing mental health issues for staff.
  • The gendered nature of support for students with mental health issues: anecdotal evidence suggests that the provision of support for students with mental health issues falls largely on female members of staff. This can be a very time-consuming and emotionally draining process, which is difficult to record in official workload, and so tends to go unrecognised.

 

Conclusions

The workshop was intended to provide a space for shared reflection on the pedagogical issues raised by teaching students with anxiety. We aimed to offer participants a safe space within which to raise problems that they had encountered and discuss possible approaches that they had tried—with more or less success. This was very much ‘a toe in the water’, intended to raise awareness, build a network across institutions and encourage related initiatives. We are pleased that a number of ideas were raised by participants for taking particular themes and topics further, including a survey among Classics staff investigating experiences of mental health issues during their supervision of PGR students; and a workshop that would bring school and university teachers together to examine the challenges of teaching ancient religions.

Feedback from those present, via an anonymous survey sent a couple of days after the event was mostly very positive, though one respondent noted something that it will be important to address, especially if we continue conversations between HE and school teachers:

  • ‘It was very focussed on academic level and not so much on the teaching younger people. Academia and school education are two different fields and should be treated differently.’

Other comments included:

  • ‘The speakers were all very competent and talked about relevant topics.’
  • ‘I liked the different student cases and how teachers dealt with them.’
  • ‘The diverse topics covered; the vivid discussion after each paper.’
  • ‘This was an excellent and eye-opening event. Definitely worth attending more of this kind.’
  • ‘It was really helpful to be able to discuss the challenges students face in learning situations specific to our subjects. Student anxiety is a real concern and many of the established teaching methods we have (eg for language teaching) are tricky to use with mixed ability groups, or are framed in a way that student don’t find inclusive. Hearing about innovative practice and the things that worked was very helpful & made me feel more confident about teaching my new module this year.’

 

 

 

 

 


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