Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Writing Anxiety and Adult Students

The following excerpt from "Anxiety and the Newly Returned Adult Student," which appeared in Teaching English in the Two-Year College (TETYC) 39.4 (2012): 364-376, is based upon a study of SNL students:

It’s a challenge, especially the writing. Pretty much just getting back into it. — Jessica

Yeah, I had mouth sores. — Sam

Jessica and Sam were two of twenty-five newly returned adult students whom I spent over sixty hours interviewing in the fall of 2008. Twenty-three of these students expressed significant anxiety about writing for school. Like Sam, some had anxiety so intense it produced physical symptoms like mouth sores and muscle spasms. The main sources of their anxiety were not knowing what to write because they had a hard time imagining the university and not knowing if they were writing well enough because they had a hard time imagining themselves in the university. As David Bartholomae has pointed out, “every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion” (60). Because adult students are less likely to have the academic currency and cultural capital of their younger peers, inventing the university can be particularly challenging. As Sam put it, “I don’t fit in here; I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” Focusing on Jessica and Sam, this essay shows the sometimes unexpected ways in which teaching decisions did and did not reduce students’ writing anxiety.

. . .

Sam’s and Jessica’s unique histories shaped their responses to their learning in fall 2008 in ways that sometimes challenged expectations. For Sam, writing about prior learning, but not being able to use prior learning methods, only increased her anxiety and made new learning more difficult. For Jessica, positive feedback successfully reduced her anxiety and enabled learning. Although incoming adults have higher anxiety than younger students, research indicates that adults improve their writing more quickly than younger students (Krause, “Supporting” 209), and adults who persist have no more writing anxiety than younger students (Elias 40–41). The risk is that returning students give up before they gain confidence in their writing. Sam’s and Jessica’s experiences suggest that more adults could be retained through their first year if they received writing instruction that responded to their individual needs. As Mary Kay Morrison says, “What it all comes down to is a willingness to be flexible and individualized in our approach” (32).

The rest of the article is available for download at:

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