OPINION: The Anxiety Prism


If you are a teacher or lecturer who has ever stood in front of a room full of students who adamantly refuse to engage with your well prepared, innovative, exciting, challenging, interesting and imaginative teaching then consider this.

Everything that you have presented to your students is not as you see it, it is as they see it and they may well be viewing everything you say and everything you do through the Anxiety Prism. I propose that it is that prism that is the central issue in ensuring student engagement in today’s learning institutions.

In a recent conversation with Jeremy Christie, Chair of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy: Universities and Colleges; Jeremy introduced me to a simple exercise that clearly illustrates the barrier created to learning by a pre-occupation with emotions. It is an exercise that I have begun to utilise to illustrate the power of the Anxiety Prism.

Firstly chose an extract from a novel (any novel can be used for this) that contains elements of fact and detail. Then read the extract for exactly two minutes to the person you wish to explain the concept of the Anxiety Prism to. Instruct the subject to only focus on their emotions for the first minute of your reading and then after exactly one minute (which you indicate) to focus on the words that you are speaking.

Once the two minutes of reading are completed ask your subject a series of questions concerning your first minute of reading. It is incredible how little of the information within this section of the reading has been remembered, whereas facts and details are remembered much clearer from the section when they had been asked to concentrate on the words.

This is of course a simple illustration of how emotions cloud a persons ability to both receive and retain information when emotions dominant their view of what is being said and happening in front of them but I believe that issues teachers face when imparting information to a post-millennial cohort are shaped by an emotional prism. This prism has been developed over a period of learning prior to HE learning and established through years of continual testing resulting in anxiety based issues such as fear of failure and depression.

I refer to this prism as the Anxiety Prism and it seems to come to full fruition when students arrive at university and are met with the university’s expectation of the student to understand their approach to learning, teaching structures and student engagement with self-initiated learning. This expectation has little or no relation to their previous school and college experience where failure is rare and independent research rarely required.

In this respect I believe that universities are failing in explaining their expectation of a student clearly enough and early enough in the students HE learning journey. They are also failing to question students as to what their expectations are of their university experience. In this respect I believe that many universities are not addressing the basic issues that allow the Anxiety Prism to influence not only a students learning but also their experience of university.

The Anxiety Prism needs to be recognised and understood by universities if they wish to successfully address the growing levels of student depression, lack of mental wellbeing and social anxiety they are experiencing. The student cohort intake has changed and universities approach to how they explain themselves to that cohort has to change with it.

Grant Scott is the founder of the Contact Sheet and collaborator in the #ConnectedClasses research project. He is a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015).

© Grant Scott 2016

2 thoughts on “OPINION: The Anxiety Prism

  1. This is all interesting and pertinent, but for me the thought that we, as educators, are “failing to question students as to what their expectations are of their university experience” is particularly thought-provoking. Thanks for writing this, Grant.

    Liked by 1 person

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