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Feeling stupid: A survey of university students’ experience of social anxiety in learning situations

Topham, Phil


Phil Topham


In this study, 300 university students at UWE Bristol reported on their experiences of social anxiety in learning situations. Participants were self-selected using an initial screening tool and were invited to complete a web-based questionnaire. Descriptive statistics were prepared and student comments were organised using qualitative content analysis. The findings were consistent with previous research and models of social anxiety, and suggested that for a significant minority of students social anxiety related to learning situations is a persistent, hidden disability across the university community.
Social anxiety was reported to be an emotionally painful and inhibiting element in a range of learning situations and there were strong indications that it affected the scope and quality of learning. The fear of exposure and consequent concealment that is associated with social anxiety meant that student social anxieties tended to be overlooked or misunderstood.
Participants responded to their anxieties with strategies ranging from the pragmatic to the nihilistic and, while many coped and even benefited from challenging situations, there was a sizeable minority for whom the student experience was a continuing struggle with anxiety and its impact. Participants did not experience an intentional and organised approach to their concerns while at university and this was exacerbated by their own unwillingness to seek professional help or social support.
Based on the study findings and its congruence with previous work, the following recommendations were made with regard to research, teaching and learning, and student support:
With regard to research:
i. Establish objective indices of the impact of social anxiety on learning.
ii. Obtain data on developmental processes in social anxiety and evaluate the contribution of the university community to these.
iii. Explore the meaning and function of student coping strategies and what role external factors play in altering these.
iv. Develop and trial a method of profiling learning-related social anxiety.
v. Collate research on help-seeking processes and barriers with a view to trial interventions in facilitating engagement.
With regard to teaching and learning:
i. Teaching and learning committees to discuss a strategic approach to student social anxiety.
ii. Academic support systems such as Blackboard used to raise awareness of anxieties affecting learning and to offer pathways to support.
iii. Individual and group contact with academic staff to be used for guidance and skills practice.
iv. Staff development to include understanding and working with student social anxiety.
With regard to student support:
i. Student services web pages to offer self-appraisal tools and pathways to information and support.
ii. Professional development on the dynamics of social anxiety and its impact on helping relationships.
iii. Student services to provide opportunities for students to practice academic skills.
iv. The counselling service to consider screening student clients for social anxiety as part of initial meetings.
v. The counselling service to consider the optimal use of evidence-based therapies for social anxiety.
These recommendations were presented as inter-related and intended to encourage an integrated approach to social anxiety and learning across the university.


Topham, P. Feeling stupid: A survey of university students’ experience of social anxiety in learning situations

Report Type Project Report
Peer Reviewed Not Peer Reviewed
Keywords Social anxiety, shame, avoidance, learning situations, university students, help-seeking


SA_FINAL_REPORT_FEB_2009.doc (6.6 Mb)

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