Anxiety is a very broad term that can be defined in many different ways. According to the definition at WebMD.com, anxiety disorders are a group of mental illnesses, which cause overwhelming and constant fear and worry.
There are various types of anxiety disorders, the most common ones being panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder.
All anxiety disorders can and will interfere with the learning process.
Daniel Stevens, psychologist and author, explains why that is the case:
"Our emotional state greatly affects our learning ability. Everyone feels a bit anxious before an upcoming exam. It's normal, but we're not talking about that when referring to actual anxiety. These disorders practically make learning impossible. Someone with social anxiety disorder finds it impossible to present a project in front of an audience. A person with generalized anxiety disorder will go through so much stress during the studying process that they may get completely blocked during an exam. It's something that teachers should address."
How is learning anxiety related to corporate learning, though?
Why should online course developers be worried about it?
The connection between anxiety and corporate learning
According to the data featured at AnxietyCentre.com, 18.1% of U.S. adults suffer from anxiety disorders. Since many people don't seek treatment or don't get proper diagnosis, it's estimated that anxiety affects approximately 30% of U.S. adults. These numbers are huge.
It means that almost 30% of the people in an average office will face anxiety issues in one way or another. Many of them will struggle with corporate learning due to those anxiety issues.
When you face these people with learning challenges, they worry excessively. The average employee will worry, too. They will get the usual anxiety before a test or presentation, but it won't block their performance. Those with serious anxiety issues will feel on edge all the time. They will face sleep disturbance, psychosomatic issues, and real panic attacks. They fear of being judged. They have difficulty to focus during lectures, and their mind goes blank during examinations.
We're talking about people who may be excellent employees in a more relaxed setting. When faced with eLearning challenges, however, they are outside their comfort zone and it's hard for them to cope with such situations.
Roberta Valverde, eLearning developer emphasizes the need for course developers to make it easier for anxious learners to succeed in their programs:
"Some anxiety disorders, such as panic and social anxiety, increase as people grow older. When we put these people under the stress of learning and showing results, their adrenaline levels rise. They experience physical symptoms that interfere with the way they process information. By making online learning programs more accessible, we'll help them overcome these issues."
How exactly can we make eLearning more accessible to anxious students?
10 specific ways to help anxious students with eLearning
1. Show you understand
During the course introduction, you should tell the learners that you understand they feel challenged to return to an educational environment as adults. Remind them that they already came far in their professional journey. You understand that they have personal responsibilities, and you designed a course that's easy to fit in their schedule.
Remind them that they didn't lose their learning ability with age. In fact, studies show that older adults achieve similar learning scores when compared to younger adults.
When they see that you understand they are nervous, they will trust you to guide them through this process. They will feel supported.
It's not that difficult to motivate adults to learn. All you need to do is show how this learning process is relevant to their professional growth. If you have strong arguments for how this online course will help them make progress in their career, you'll have more dedicated students.
One study showed that Japanese students who had practical reasons to learn English as a foreign language had lower levels of learning anxiety. Instead of being focused on the anxious feelings, they directed their attention to precise goals.
It's more difficult to motivate younger students this way, since they don't see immediate application to the knowledge they obtain. Corporate learners, on the other hand, see it very clearly. If they obtain these new skills that you teach, they will achieve real career goals in close future.
This vision may help them overcome learning anxiety by shifting their attention towards the goals.
3. Design a course that fits into their daily life
When you design a course for adult learner, it will compete for their attention and time. You have to consider the fact that these people have responsibilities outside work. When you introduce a corporate eLearning platform and offer employees to take courses in their own time, you'll add more stress. Stress and anxiety - that's a combination you never want in your learners.
The course must fit into the daily working schedule of a corporate learner. That's why you'll need to organize it into chapters that are no longer than half an hour. You'll recommend them to dedicate more time for learning and research outside working hours. But that's just a recommendation. You can't expect a parent to skip preparing dinner for their kids for weeks just because they have to study.
Make the course as relaxed as possible, even if it takes longer for the student to complete it. When you don't consume too much of the learner's time, the anxiety levels will drop.
4. Inspire the shared experience
The learners should never feel alone.
The greatest flaw of online courses is that they are designed for an individual learning experience. Of course that's a strength. But when the learner is isolated, it's also a serious flaw. You can overcome it!
If you check any course on Coursera, you'll notice that the developers are trying hard to develop a community around it. The educators inspire comments after each lectures. The learners feel free to share their experience and remarks regarding the course.
For people with anxiety, the shared experience is important. They realize they are not alone in this. They see that other people struggle with the same issues. They think they are not smart enough to go through this, and they don't think they will make it. When they realize that almost every other learner is facing difficulties, they start seeing their own situation as extremely serious. They gain new perspective, which will help them put anxiety spikes under control.
5. Assign flexible projects
What happens when you assign a project with precise guidelines? Let's say you're working on an online course about developing communication skills in the corporate environment. You ask each participant to prepare a detailed presentation on a very precise topic.
This puts the learners in a very anxious setting. They will compare themselves to others. Some will end up using a college paper writing service as a way to deal with the pressure.
You don't want that.
When you inspire them to research the topic from any angle they find interesting, they will feel more relaxed. Give them enough flexibility with the projects, so they will push their personal limits.
6. Don't let them procrastinate
Anxiety leads to procrastination.
When a student is overwhelmed by the challenge, they will postpone working on it. They are scared of judgment when they are about to start working on a presentation. Each time they try working on it, anxiety strikes in. Since online courses allow greater flexibility, the student will procrastinate the work.
Don't let your students fall in the procrastination trap. Assign simple, brief projects that don't take much time for them to complete. Assign reasonable deadlines for submission, and send gentle reminders when the due dates get close.
Yes; these reminders will be stressful. But procrastination leads to stress accumulation on the long term. By setting deadlines, at least you'll trigger positive stress that leads to action.
7. Be available
The course provider should be open to any questions and messages. It doesn't matter what type of course you offer. If the number of students is too big for you to pay individual attention to everyone, then you need a team to answer the messages.
Consider it this way: you're providing a service. Each service needs support. Whenever a learner encounters a problem, they should feel free to contact you.
Adult learners want adaptive eLearning solutions, which they can access whenever, wherever. This goes for the support, too. If an anxious learner encounters an obstacle and no one answers their email, the stress levels will rise.
8. Watch the signs
Anxiety impacts one's ability to learn and use information. When the student feels uncomfortable or stressed out, it's hard for them to pay attention to the lectures. They experience negative emotions that spark a vicious cycle of psychological and physiological symptoms.
When you present an online course, it's difficult for you to observe the stress signals among students. However, if you notice that someone is late with the custom research paper that you assigned or doesn't take part in the online discussions, take it as a sign. Write them an email, asking if there's anything you can help with. Be friendly and accessible.
9. Be positive
Can you dedicate a chapter of your online course to positivity? You can position it at the beginning. You'll give your students a motivational talk, which will greatly impact their state of mind. You'll explain that you understand this is going to be challenging. However, you'll also offer support during the process.
You'll reassure your students that they can go through this learning session, and they will be better professionals when they finish it.
For people suffering from anxiety, positive self-talk is hard. Negative thinking patterns prevail. So it's necessary for this positivity to come from the outside. You can be the provider.
10. Adopt the storytelling approach
Online courses have an important expectation to meet: they should be fun. As a course provider, you need to find an approach that keeps the students engaged. Storytelling is a great technique!
When you introduce characters and a story in your online course, you'll create a fun, relaxed environment. You'll make the lectures less serious. Even the most anxious learners will enjoy them.
You make your courses better when you consider the needs of anxious students
Anxiety is a big deal. For the one experiencing it, it's a major issue in their life. When you introduce an online course and get them outside their comfort zone, the stress levels rise. You have to keep in mind that this is a probable issue for many of your learners.
Take the above-listed tips into consideration. They help you make eLearning more effective not just for anxious students, but for everyone else, too.
Related read: What is the Cost of Developing an eLearning platform
This is a guest post by Tiffany Harper. Tiffany is an experienced writer from New York (USA) and an extremely active woman. She began her career as a journalist, and now she works as a subject matter specialist with Bestessays.com, mostly in business and eLearning technologies. Please do not hesitate to contact her on Twitter.