Ask the Counsellor: Assignment anxiety

Counsellor Belinda Muldoon answers your questions.

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Q. Whenever I have to do an assignment I get really nervous and can’t begin.

This has gotten progressively worse since I started university and I’m worried my grades will slip and I won’t graduate on time.

What can I do to overcome my physical, anxious reaction to starting a uni task?

Dear Reader,

Thank you for your question. Assessment anxiety is a common concern for many students. I have provided some ideas to help process the underlying concern and build some strategies to move forward with your studies. If you find that the issue is still concerning, I invite you to come along and talk to one of the counsellors.

To start with, have a think about what an assignment means to you. For some people it is associated with the feeling of being judged, or possibly criticised. For others it is an opportunity to demonstrate learning or strengthen the depth of knowledge for an exam.

Your perception of assignments will influence how you feel in the assignment process and this will influence your behaviour. Let’s look at some examples of how this manifests.

Example 1

PerceptionTroy* believes that most assignments are a waste of time and are used by lecturers to trick students. He has always struggled with perfectionist thoughts such as “no matter how much work I do, it will never be enough to pass my subjects”.

Emotion: This triggers in Troy the universal fear that all humans experience – “what if I am not good enough”.

Behaviour: As a result, Troy spends hours in front of the computer. As his anxiety and frustration grow, he feels less able to concentrate. He then turns to Facebook and YouTube to distract him from these feelings.

Perception: When he eventually turns in his assignment, Troy worries that it’s not his best work and this supports his belief that he ‘isn’t good enough’.

Example 2

Perception: Sam* has worked hard since leaving school and the only breaks she has taken from studying were to have her four children. Sam believes that study is beyond her and she wonders if she is making a fool of herself coming back to study at the age of 48.

Emotion: Sam feels overwhelmed by the assignments and embarrassed amongst the younger students. She worries that she is too slow to learn all of the information.

Behaviour: Sam attends a ‘Return to Study’ workshop for non-school leavers where she learns about the importance of balancing study with other responsibilities.

She decides to speak with her program officer about reducing her study load to two subjects. Sam speaks to her employer and negotiates a roster change so that she can fit in a PASS session. She also takes one of the Learning Development workshops where she learns time-management and study strategies. Sam decides to study in the library so that she will have fewer interruptions. She sets up a meal roster at home and calls a family meeting to outline the types of things the family could do to support her whilst she is at uni.

Perception: Sam believes that study will be hard because it is supposed to be a challenge, but she also believes that she has good coping skills and knows how to ask for help if she is stuck.

Emotion: Sam feels terrified when she hands in her first assignment in over 30 years.  Whenever the lecturer mentions the assignment, she feels tightness across her chest and a sinking in her tummy. She worries that she has failed. Sam feels a mixture of relief and determination when she passes her first assignment.

Behaviour: Sam makes an appointment with a Learning Advisor to discuss her assignment feedback and get some essay writing tips. She makes a follow up appointment to discuss her essay plan for the second assignment.

Emotion: Sam feels proud, amazed and tired at the end of the semester.

Perception: She believes that her grades reflect her hard work. She also believes that next semester the subjects will be harder, but she has a much clearer understanding of what is involved in being a student.

Example 3

Perception: Alice* believes that she thrives under pressure. She enjoys (emotion) the challenge of creating an essay and sees this as her opportunity to show her passion about her degree. As for exam preparation, Alice sees herself as a ninja – undertaking physical, mental and emotional preparation for the battle of examination!

Behaviour: Alice sets up a schedule at the beginning of each semester that includes assessment tasks, lecture and tutorial times, work hours, and time for relaxing. She reviews her schedule regularly to make changes when ‘life happens’.

Perception: When Alice sits down to write an essay she is clear about what she hopes to achieve in that timeframe.

Emotion: When Alice is worried about an assignment, she lists her fears and destroys the list! She does five minutes of mindful breathing to calm her mind before she starts studying. When Alice starts to feel overwhelmed by her workload, she ‘zooms out’ to look at the bigger picture and uses strategies for healthy work life balance.

Behaviour: She chats to friends about the plans she has for travel when she finishes study, goes for a walk to clear her head or speaks to her tutor if she feels stuck.

*Sadly, Troy, Sam, and Alice are not real people.

Take a Mindful Approach

The next time that you notice a strong physical or emotional reaction to studying, I invite you to take the following mindful approach

  1. Listen (with curiosity and non-judgement) to your fears
    What are your fears trying to tell you about your study? (e.g. “I might fail”) Write these down.
  2. How do you experience this reaction in the body?
    Is it a tightness across the shoulders, a churning in the belly, or something else? What might your body need to receive comfort in this distressed state? Perhaps your body needs a warm bath, a swim, a dance, a hug, or a cry?
  3. Ask yourself – what behaviours have I engaged in to try to avoid sitting with this fear?
    (e.g. watched TV, slept, wrote an essay plan, drank too much)
    Have these behaviours helped me to get closer to achieving my study goals? If not, what would help me to get closer to my goals? Did I lose sight of the bigger picture for a moment? How can I zoom out and reconnect to my study goals?

I hope that this information has been useful. Please remember that there are many supports across the university to assist students with their studies.

Tips

  • Meet with a Learning Advisor – improve your grade point average (GPA) simply by learning the uni rules of engagement such as how to write stylistic essays that meet to the marking matrix, how to effectively prepare for exams, or conceptualise mathematical theories.
  • Attend PASS sessions where available.
  • Are websites or social media distracting you from study? Try a website blocker such as Cold TurkeyFreedom or Leechblock to help curb the itch to click.

Resources

Belinda Muldoon is a Counsellor with the university’s Counselling Service.

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