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The Lure of Anxiety

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Helen is an Associate Lecturer teaching on modules in years 1 and 3.

I wear several hats in life, but I write this blog in the role of a lecturer and a psychologist, with experience in the theory and practice of working with people with psychological disorders.

In recent years, there has been an increase in awareness of mental health problems. This is very welcome. Celebrities have talked openly about their own difficulties and high profile campaigns encourage us to bring mental health problems out of the shadows. This is hugely beneficial. When people with mental health problems suffer in silence their suffering is invariably increased, and simply talking and being listened to is often the most important part of the solution.

But with such increased awareness, there can also be well-intentioned but misguided responses which make things worse. I want to talk particularly about anxiety (which is sometimes lumped together with depression to give a diagnosis of “anxiety and depression” – they can and do often occur together but they are different emotions which require different responses). Anxiety is a normal emotion which we all experience. It is essential for survival. It keeps us safe. If children did not experience anxiety, they would wander away from their parents, put their hands in fires, fall off high surfaces or get run over by cars. Low levels of anxiety are associated with dangerous behaviour and psychopathy. High levels of anxiety can, of course, be extremely distressing and debilitating. People with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear to the point where their lives become smaller and smaller and their experience severely restricted.

Of course we should show compassion and understanding to people who suffer from anxiety disorders and some campaigners have suggested that mental health problems should receive the same sort of response as physical health problems. However, psychological disorders, including anxiety disorders, do not behave like physical illnesses. It is not a case of diagnosing a particular “bug” and then prescribing the appropriate medication or therapy to make it go away (in reality, many physical conditions do not behave like this either). Anxiety thrives when you feed it. The temptation when you suffer high levels of anxiety is to avoid the thing that makes you anxious. But anyone who has sat through my lecture on learning theory should remember that doing something that relieves or avoids a negative consequence leads to negative reinforcement. If you avoid something that makes you highly anxious (or do something that temporarily relieves the anxiety, such as repeatedly washing your hands, or engaging in a ritual) the avoidance behaviour will be strongly reinforced. And you never experience the target of your fears, so you never learn that nothing catastrophic is actually going to happen – in other words you prevent the “extinction” that would otherwise occur. So the anxiety just gets worse and worse and worse. And your life becomes more and more restricted.

So, while we should, of course be compassionate and supportive towards people with anxiety disorders, we should be careful not to feed their fears. I remember once becoming frustrated with a member of prison staff who proudly told me how she was supporting a prisoner with obsessive-compulsive disorder by allowing him to have extra cleaning materials. No! In doing so, she was facilitating his disorder. What he needed was support to tolerate a less than spotless cell, so that he could learn through experience that a small amount of dirt does not lead to disaster. Increasingly, we find ourselves teaching students with anxiety difficulties. We need to support and encourage them, to allow them to talk about their problems, and to ensure that their university experience is positive. But we do them no favours by removing challenges or allowing them to avoid the aspects of university life that they fear (such as giving presentations or working in groups). In doing so, we make life easier in the short-term, but in the long-term we feed their disorders and make things worse. As I said earlier, we all experience anxiety and the best way to prevent it from controlling us is to stare it in the face and get on with whatever life throws at us.

 

 

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Findings on the ‘traditional lecture’ format – perfect timing!

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I seem to be reading more and more reports on the need to retain lectures as a form of teaching, as it is claimed to ensure students are more engaged and committed to their studies when this method is used. Well, these findings have come to my attention just as I am testing online technologies to replace the ‘traditional’ lecture, via Collaborate on the new Waterside campus. Collaborate is a tool in Blackboard which opens an online classroom for students to join, listen to the lecture and see slides or other media, while also being able to pose questions via a chat function.

 

On the face of it, not so different, just the physical world replicated in the real world, right? Well, I will reserve judgement as I am still coming to grips with what this technology can do, I am aware younger generations of students may embrace this, and the reality is, it is the only forum I have to offer teaching to large numbers of students. I suspect student experiences are mixed, I know some really like it, some are not so keen, so again, not so different to lectures? The article in the times suggests that students are less likely to drop out if they are taught via lectures and have perceptions of good one-to-one contact with staff. Some more interesting issues were raised from replies in the tweet about the story, raising questions about the need to focus on quality, not method, that many universities are playing catch up with new teaching technologies and that this needs to be better understood from social and cultural perspectives. I think it is also worth picking up on perceptions of students, along with their expectations of higher education and remember, they must develop as independent learners. The setting in this respect would not seem to matter, it is the delivery, the level of effort put in to engage students and reinforcing the message that their learning is as much their responsibility as ours.

 

There is certainly a lot to grapple with, and for me, just starting out with this new technology, I myself feel there is much to learn and I am keeping an open mind. I do feel there are aspects of traditional teaching which must be retained and this can be done via group seminars, with smaller numbers and an opportunity for discussion, debate and student-led learning. If we see the lecture as the foundation for learning, then perhaps its method of delivery is less important. Given the online provision I must use for lectures, during seminars, I step away from the powerpoint and use the time I have with students in a more interactive way. For those modules where I don’t use online lectures, not much has changed on the new campus, but I am always keen to see how online teaching methods could be adopted – and I am prepared to use them if I genuinely can see their value.

 

It would be easy to offer only critique of this technology, and I think it is also important not to see it as an answer to the perennial problems with lack of engagement and focus many lecturers experience from mid term onwards. Perhaps online provision can at least overcome barriers to attendance for commuting students, those who feel intimidated in large lecture halls, and those who simply find they don’t engage with the material in this setting. At a time when some courses attract high numbers of students, and the reality of having lectures with 150+ students in a room means potential for noise disruption, lack of focus and interaction then maybe online provision can offer a meaningful alternative. There is provision for some interaction, time can be set aside for this, students can join in without worrying about disruption or not being able to hear the lecturer and it removes the need for lecturers to discipline disruptive behaviour. It does require some level of ‘policing’ and monitoring, but the settings can enable this. Having done lectures with 100 plus students, it is not something I miss – I’ve always preferred smaller seminar group teaching and so I can see how online provision can be a better support for this.

 

Currently, I use the online session as a form of recap and review, with some additional content for students. This is in part due the timing of the session and I am sure it can work equally as well as preparation for seminars. Students can then use the time to clarify anything they don’t understand and it reinforces themes and issues covered in seminars as well as introducing news ways to examine various topics.  As with any innovation, this needs more research from across the board of disciplines and research approaches. In order to move such innovation on from ‘trial and error’ and simply hoping for the best, as with any policy we need to know what works, when it works and why. Therefore, along with my colleagues, I will persist and keep a watchful eye on the work of pedagogic experts out there who are examining this. There have been the inevitable issues with wifi not supporting connectivity – I can’t believe I just used this sentence about my teaching, but there it is. I am optimistic these issues will be overcome, and in the meantime, I always have a plan B – relying on technology is never a good plan (hence the featured image for this blog), but this is perhaps something to reflect on for another day.

Waterside: What an exciting time to be a student!

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Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.

Last Friday I viewed the new Waterside campus for the first time, and my overwhelming thought now is… it’s a really exciting time to be a student at the University of Northampton.

Leading up to my visit, I had seen a few pictures and people had told me a few things about the campus, but to be honest I kind of let the worries of ‘change’ affect how I was viewing it in my head. I pictured it as a huge and daunting place and that I was going to feel like I was teaching for the first time even though it’s been many years now.

When I arrived, every fear and worry I had about the new term, training and changes I was going to face… just slipped away.  I was blown away by how beautiful the place was and I felt like I was having flash backs to the feelings I had when I went to an open day at Park Campus as a student many years ago now. This feeling however was on an elevated level.  The way the university seems to balance the old with the new and the large feature of natural surroundings almost seems like it’s a signature style of the university as it’s carried these aspects to the new campus.

My reason for attending was for training on the new system which will allow students more freedom to work all around the campus and also some new creative interactive features. Some of these might not be as crucial to criminology lectures and seminars as other classes,  but seeing the scale of what can be done is testament to the university’s aim to advance the student experience.  Following the training, I wandered around and located what would be my new space for teaching in the Senate building. I decided to let myself in to take some pictures and I was really pleased with the room and the view from the window. The space is modern and I could picture the debates and discussions and the group work that I could plan.

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There is a sense of familiarity with the campus, which may sound silly if it is your first visit, but to me it felt like a safe and motivating environment with student life at its focus. The ‘student village’ and the facilities such as the hotel, shops and many places to eat, made me feel rather envious of those experiencing student life at such a place.

There will be learning curves and bumps in the road as everything new does, but ultimately what has been created is a fresh start for the university and everyone in it. It’s an exciting time to be a student at the University of Northampton and I am excited to be a part of the journey.

 

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