Should tutors do more to aid sufferers of anxiety?

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It is a tight throat at the sound of the word “activity”. It is the trickling of perspiration down a clenched fist at the first sign of confrontation. It is the chaperon, Paralysis, who escorts any rational, irrational, fear; rational because it makes sense to me when I say it in my mind, rational because it makes sense to us. Irrational because the world refutes it as real, so we search for comfort perpetually. It is the naked dream, and it is the naked self. It is the silence. It is also the loquaciousness, but never the eloquence. It is the try-hard, but never the gregarious. It is the troubled childhood, the suicidal friend, the uncharitable parent and the scary teacher. It is also the imaginary, the call for attention, and the refusal to admit that we’re wrong. It is a yearning to be interesting, and a fear to be forgotten. And in the end, it is mostly just the desire to be loved. John confides: “I did tend to feel quite anxious last year sometimes. I still do sometimes, although less now, I think. Not about the teachers or classmates though really. It’s mainly just about whether people like me and whether I say the right things I think

We often talk of how a good friend should be aware of our issues, but what about teachers? Laura tells me: “Is there anything more terrifying than the choking silence that follows a tutor’s question? I’ll look down at my notes, the answer right in front of me, unable to shatter the quiet enveloping the classroom.” – she reveals.

University has become synonymous with autonomy, yet we seem to deny the real issue of people who need a little extra help – which is most of us. There are support groups, health centres, psychiatrists, wardens, but all of this hardly feels like normality. We’re already nervous enough in our personal lives – so is pushing it to the limit really fair just because we’re in the classroom? Claire feels that: “tutors have quite the tendency to attempt to force students to go in front of the tutorial and show how they derived their solutions. This is quite daunting regardless of how confident you are with the subject at hand and although the intention may be to develop a deeper understanding from material, I would say being forced to engage actually makes for an environment less suited for learning than one that simply generates an open discussion.”

Social anxieties come in many forms and symptoms can occur at any time in public settings, even in class. There is a reason why that person just screamed, why they changed seats and can no longer sit there, why they washed their hands eleven times, or why that guy over there stutters. I know people who frequently have “moments” of social anxiety; these are people who can’t leave their houses certain days and who are so afraid to be noticed that they wear the same oversized sweater each day and end up becoming noticed for just that, these are people who can’t speak.  Harry lets me know that he’s “felt awkward and anxious in class especially in French because you have to speak in the language now”. “ I don’t want to embarrass myself”, he says, “or make mistakes. It’s like I want to say something but then something holds me back for the fear of being judged for my opinions. I wish the tutors would understand people with anxieties – but they don’t. That’s my view.”

Class participation is a daunting combination of words for anyone who even remotely experiences some aspects of anxiety. This begs the question: should tutorials weigh participation? To any department forcing their students to participate in lectures, I bid you notice who is comfortable, and who isn’t. To people who force people to say hi to their crush, to people who raise other people’s hands for them, to people who make choices for other people not knowing what they prefer, to people who bring up personal things in public: consider social anxiety.

In a recent class, a lecturer told students that if they were antisocial, this was not a class for them. She urged them to get out promptly. Although most likely an innocuous passing comment, my friend next to me shrugged. “You’re going to be talking a lot to each other, so get comfortable”, we were told. I felt uncomfortable for both her, and me. After this occurrence, more people were kind enough to share their experience with me. Lily says “I don’t think that telling people to not be anti-social is okay. Personally, when someone tells me that my social anxiety gets worse because I’m more conscious. I’m more likely to be social in an atmosphere in which I feel comfortable. Being around a group of people I don’t know is difficult at first so it sometimes takes me a bit to be able to speak.”

After much reflection, the problem seems to be that the gap between teachers and students sometimes feels awkward, despite many of us being close in age. We aren’t exactly friends, but we shouldn’t be strangers either. We should remember that we’re all humans dealing with our own problems, instead of pawns in a sort of academic chess game. We should be strict when necessary, but compassionate when needed.


Editors Note: Names have been changed for anonymity – this article is about symptoms of anxiety – not specifically clinically diagnosed social anxiety.


  1. When I told a tutor I felt physically unable to do a presentation infront of our tutorial group & confided that this was due to having a really bad time with my anxiety disorder, I was told ‘Well you’ll just have to man up about it, it’s a part of university, you can’t just spend your life hiding in the background because you’re too nervous’. I have never felt so awful at the hands of a teacher/tutor. Something needs to be done to get the support people need into tutorial classrooms and get tutors & lecturers clued up.

    • I understand and I agree. I’m not sure yet about how to solve the problem, but I think agreeing that something is to be done is a step in the right direction. If you need someone to talk to, you can always send me a message!

  2. anonymous – I agree what your tutor said was inappropriate, but what do you see as the solution? Presenting/talking to people/discussing things in groups is a big part of most jobs (including academia) so I don’t think we should ask for exemptions from these parts of class based on our anxiety issues.

    • I’m not saying we should. I’m asking the question, for the readership to think about it! Should we weigh participation? Is there anything we can do about this? How to deal with this when most classes include debates, etc? It’s for you to think about really. If you’d like my personal opinion about it though, I can tell you that I do not feel uncomfortable with public speaking, so for me this isn’t a particular issue. What I see as a problem (including a problem for me) is rather how something is proposed and how it is said – this can make me uncomfortable. I think the solution would be to analyse the way in which we present things: ie instead of “If you can’t speak, then get out”, maybe “I would like to prepare you all for the possibility of having to interact with each other, if you feel uncomfortable about this, do come up and see me in private, and we can work something out”. Working on approachability is key as well – a tutor should never make you feel uncomfortable about reaching out to them. Hope that helps Anon 2!

  3. Anxiety is a very real concern that many face, with social anxiety causing students particular trouble in these situations. However, tutors have been specifically told in training that we are not to be the resource for student mental health concerns. I know because I specifically asked about that in my training session, as it’s actually something I am completely comfortable doing and for which I have outside certification. The vast majority of tutors are not trained to deal with such issues, with the advice of referring such situations on to either the module lecturer, controller or student services. I can easily see how a tutor would completely mishandle such a situation. We tutors are instructed to get all students in tutorials to participate, which includes calling on the quiet individuals to get them to take part. The tutors mentioned in this article and comments were obviously ill equipped to handle such precarious situations. It may be that the university’s tutor training (a two-day course that all tutors and demonstrators must complete before being allowed to take up these roles) needs to include a bit more emphasis on what to do in such situations, like repeating several times if a student approaches you with such difficulties who to refer them to.
    There is also a solution for individual students who know that they experience social anxiety. Tutorials are purposely small and are meant to be much less intimidating than speaking in front of a large group. However, it is understandable that some individuals are too anxious to speak in front of a group of any size, even if it’s only 4-7 people. Such crippling social anxiety is disabling, and it should be treated as such. Which means speaking to student services and requesting special accommodation for this disability. Tutors could then be informed through official channels that specific students are exempt from the participation requirement.

    • Thank you for your comment. As I’ve said before, one of the purposes of this article is to ask the question: what should be done? Can anything be done? So I appreciate your insight on how training works; however, I end the article in a human to human relationship rather than tutor to student, which seems to be the issue. I’m not saying tutors should have certain qualifications, or that they should take it upon themselves to counsel. What I’m saying is that no student should be afraid to approach a tutor, and no student should feel crippled in class. Regardless of whether you have clinically diagnosed social anxiety, or whether you just feel uncomfortable, I think that it’s not just a matter of going to seek help on your own, but I think tutors should be concerned, as humans, of whether or not there is a comfortable atmosphere in there class. As a side note, you said obviously that you’re instructed to refer to someone else as you shouldn’t be the resource for that kind of aid; the question that then comes to mind (as you pointed out yourself) is, should we modify the training to be more inclusive of this issue? And what can we do? I haven’t figured it out myself yet, but I think discussing it is a start. Again, really appreciate your insight, it’s good to see the other side of things. I hope that helps!

      • The main point I was trying to make is that tutors just aren’t equipped to handle such situations and are even told that this is not their role. This means that it’s basically down to luck on the tutor’s reaction if a student needed to discuss this problem. Worst case scenario is the tutor handles it completely wrong (the ‘suck it up!’ variety). Best case is the tutor is someone like me, who understands the situation and could provide some advice (the exact advice I mentioned in my original comment.) Most likely scenario is somewhere in the middle.
        And it’s also important to remember that some tutors and demonstrators are PGs who have been roped into it. While I’m one of the PGs who enjoys teaching and volunteers to do so every chance I get, I know plenty of PGs who would not be teaching if it was up to them.
        The most reasonable solution I think is for more time to be spent on this sort of thing during the tutor/demonstrator training. Unfortunately, this training is two jam-packed days and often there is not enough time left to mention pastoral care. (As I mentioned, the actual guidance about pastoral care is ‘Don’t.’) I think it would be worth to put a little more emphasis during training that some students have situations that lead to difficulty in tutorials. Tutors should be told to respond politely by telling the student that they need to discuss this with the lecturer and/or student services, as they are the ones who can determine what accommodations are to be made.

      • I’d also like to explain the reason I’m saying that the lecturer and student services need to be involved in an official capacity. As tutors, we’re required to mark students on their participation. My module coordinator provided us a rubric to use to determine the marks. It’s therefore unfair to the other students if I mark a student who doesn’t participate unless special accommodation has been officially put in place. So even if a student in one of my tutorials told me they were uncomfortable participating due to anxiety, I would be supportive but stress that they need to speak to someone who can put official measures in place. A student with such anxiety deserves to be accommodated, but in a way that’s fair to other students. This is best done through the official channels.

        • I think you’re misunderstanding my article or reply. I understand very well what you meant! (I didn’t choose the title of this article, just so you know). In the disclaimer at the bottom, I openly say that it’s not specifically about clinically diagnosed social anxiety, but rather the level of comfortability in a tutorial. I agree that if you have c. d. social anxiety, or depression, etc, you should seek professional help. What I am mainly touching on is increasing minor anxiety, that almost everyone experiences, in the classroom by phrasing things inappropriately, or making a situation unnecessarily uncomfortable. I also did not choose the word “aid” – I only mean tutors (and everyone else) should be aware of their students – not that they should act upon it, but just be considerate. It’s of course also important to remember that this is a viewpoint article, and that I’m writing not only because this subject is interesting and important, but because I’ve been asked to write about something. This is not an attack on tutors; this is an appeal to everyone to just consider their wording and actions. I do include peers in the article as well. To me at least, it is also irrelevant if the PG student wants to be there/wants to teach or not – my main point is: as *humans* (and nothing else), let us try to understand each other better not only outside of the classroom, but inside it as well. That is all.
          PS: the specific incident mentioned in the article happened in a lecture and not a tutorial – I think that might make it a bit different. But once again, thanks for your comment and insight.

          • In this case, if it really is just non-clinically significant levels of nerves, then the students really do need to ‘suck it up.’ Speaking in front of small groups is an important skill for working life. Small tutorials and classroom settings are the exact opportunity to learn and gain confidence in front of other people. If someone is anxious in this setting, imagine how they’d respond if they needed to give a small presentation at work. Or were simply asked to give a progress report at a meeting. These are important skills that are extremely beneficial for working life. Heck, everyone needs to be able to speak confidently at job interviews!
            At university, participating in tutorials is a very low-stakes setting to learn and develop confidence and speaking skills. This is actually the entire point of the participation component. In my teaching, I do try to support shy students by positively reinforcing them every time they speak. Some tutors are not so conscientious. As are many bosses and superiors in the workplace. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to be anxious, but university is precisely the place to work on this.

  4. I respect your opinion, but am going to have to disagree with you. Unfortunately, I think this is exactly the attitude that I’m talking about. People can have anxiety without being clinically diagnosed, or can suffer symptoms of anxiety without having anxiety – so I think the “Suck it up” attitude just isn’t going to cut it. Good that you are conscientious though, I urge you to keep that up!

    • The point I was trying to make is that university is precisely the time to work on this. Yes, it can be difficult. But this is one of the ‘soft skills’ university graduates are expected to have learned. The vast majority of jobs involve talking or doing stuff in front of other people. University is the best time to develop this ability and overcome such anxiety.

      • Yes. I don’t disagree – I just think there are other ways than telling someone “get over it”/”suck it up” 🙂 Glad we’re on the same page.

        • I got you now! It sounds like the solution is for the tutors to be aware that many students are nervous and to provide a supportive environment by saying ‘I understand it can be difficult and a bit scary to speak up/stand up in front of the rest of the group. But this is an important life skill to learn, which is why we’re making you do it. So go up and do your best – it will get easier the more times you do it!’


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