"Be afraid, be very afraid: anxiety as an essential element of engaging the minds of learners "

Lowry-O'Neill, Catherine (2011) "Be afraid, be very afraid: anxiety as an essential element of engaging the minds of learners ". [Conference Proceedings]


Over the past 25 years, the place of emotion in higher education has become highly contested. Barnett (2007), for example, claims that 'the primary responsibility of teachers in higher education is to sustain and develop the student's will to learn...' Such a view is anathema to others who argue that prioritising matters relating to emotion, which they term 'therapeutic education', undermines the true purpose of education - the pursuit of knowledge (Eccleston&Hayes, 2009). Emotion is valued in the literature on student engagement which may be defined as: 'students' cognitive investment in, active participation in and emotional commitment to their learning' (Zepke, Leach, & Butler, 2008, p. 1). This paper focuses on one particular emotion - anxiety - and examines the role that it may play in engaging the minds and hearts of learners. With reference to the literature on threshold concepts (Land, Meyer & Smith, 2008), and to transformative learning (Mezirow, 2000; King 2005), the argument is put forward that anxiety is an essential component of learning. If students are to effectively negotiate the often challenging journey towards authentic understanding, and challenge their assumptions, they must be willing to experience and manage a certain amount of anxiety. The paper presents a critical reflection on the issue from the perspective of practitioner as well as learner. An analysis of perspectives of post-graduate students is at the centre of the inquiry. Information is gleaned from learners through a survey and from in-depth interviews. By analysing and evaluating the data with particular reference to therapeutic education, threshold concepts and transformative learning, the paper seeks to contribute to the on-going debate on the role of emotion in higher education, especially with regard to engaging minds and hearts.

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