Dr. Elizabeth Birmingham Anxiety & The English Capstone Experience
Prior to entering my final semester at NDSU, I had found our campus had made efforts to publicize anxiety management activities offered by the counseling center. Curious to know the reasoning behind NDSU’s efforts to educate their students about anxiety, I conducted research to find the reasoning behind these efforts. Although research has been done in other areas of study such as in the medical field, mathematical settings and writing tasks, research has not been published regarding English courses. My findings indicate undergraduate college students are reporting high levels of anxiety before and throughout the English capstone. Due to the course work required for this class, students have developed increased levels of anxiety due to specific requirements. Through surveys and focus groups, I have gathered research indicating these levels of anxiety and where men and women feel anxious. This is important as previous research has shown how anxiety affects the overall performance of men and women in their career fields today.
In recent years, anxiety has been recognized in undergraduate college students, specifically in courses with a heavy work load pertaining to projects and project management. Recently, campuses are making efforts to acknowledge the difficulties students are having when completing these projects. With the ciriculum being focused upon research reports, professional writing assignments, and a lengthy presentation of research, students involved are experiencing anxiety that they may have not experienced in a course prior. Given that students are becoming more comfortable admitting their own experiences with anxiety and confessing their difficulties dealing with stress in a college setting, it is important to act upon their declarations and provide research for a high anxiety course that has not been publically acknowledged yet. In this paper I analyzed what areas of the capstone experience cause the students involved the most anxiety, and will examine differences among genders and their performance throughout the course in correlation with eachother.
Being an English major for 4 years myself currently taking the capstone course while dealing with anxiety, I wanted to find out why anxiety is so prevalent in undergraduate students and if the capstone course brings anxiety in the same way. I also wanted to find out which areas the anxiety stems, so I can help others in my field by being the voice for others dealing with anxiety and completing these projects. By communicating with fellow classmates in the English capstone course, I hope to inform how to better relieve anxiety by preparing for all aspects of the capstone project. I will be discussing research to better understand the anxieties prevalent in undergraduate students, anxieties in specific areas of study such as mathematics, medical schools, and writing tasks, as well as addressing differences in anxiety within separate genders.
Current research has shown that there has been a noticeable increase in the severity and extent of mental health problems among college undergraduate students (Chernomas, Shapiro, 255). As there is little research pertaining to English courses in regards to student anxiety, I have researched where the English majors’ anxiety lies and where the capstone project curriculum causes the most anxiety. Other professors agree that anxiety affects the overall academics of college students; therefore additional research needs to be done in all fields (Rosenfeld, 151). This research is significant due to the increased levels of stress acknowledged in college students and its correlation with performance levels after college and further into career fields.
Researchers in mathematics, writing, and medical school settings discuss undergraduate student anxiety but few discuss project anxiety (Mein, Martinez, Chernomas). All areas have correlating statistics stating that undergraduate students are reporting high levels of anxiety throughout their programs, none of which acknowledge connections between anxiety and the actual projects assigned (Chernomas, Shapiro, 255). Researching anxiety in a mathematic setting, Lillian Mein states that because anxiety in the classroom has been found to affect the students’ learning capacity, research needs to be done to find the etiology of anxiety. The past research concerning anxiety in mathematics has found that performance in the major has a large impact on attitudes the students possess. The attitude is affected by anxiety experienced whether it is tests, learning new concepts, or various academic principles (Mein, 48). After conducting an experiment to find out if nonmathematic major students are less anxious than mathematic majors, her results depicted little salience. She also tested whether mathematics majors’ anxiety level changes from freshman to senior year in undergraduate academics. Studying grade point averages between both groups of students showed there were no similarities between lower grade point averages and levels of anxiety. The students were higher grade point averages did not convey more anxiety or less anxiety compared to students with lower grade point averages. Also, the anxiety level of mathematics majors did not increase or decrease as their academic level increased (Mein, 53). The research concluded that the mathematics classroom did not create more anxiety than in a classroom concentrated on a different major entirely (Mein, 53). In addition to mathematics, there has also been research done in a nursing or medical school setting.
Wanda Chernomas and Carla Shapiro state that students developing mental health problems is a well known fact throughout scholarly research. Their area of interest was on anxiety and stress among nursing students, focusing their experiement on nursing students’ anxiety during the clinical practice portion of their undergraduate degree process. They conducted a survey among undergraduate nursing students to find themes present in perceptions of clinical practice, coping, personal issues, and the stress involved with balancing school, work and personal lives (Chernomas, Shapiro, 255). Among various results they had received from scaling anxiety levels associated with aspects of the nursing program indicated on the survey, main sources of stress among students were clinical practice issues, academic concerns, and personal matters (Chernomas, Shapiro, 256). Thoughout the study, they found that aspects that were causing the most anxiety are also attributes of the English Capstone course in purpose and structure. The area that nursing students experienced the most anxiety was in their clinical practice, which is similar to what English majors are required to complete upon graduation. This experiment sparked my interest in that I was curious to see if English majors were experiencing similar anxiety at our university as well. Another area of undergraduate anxiety stemmed from writing tasks. I continued to research the anxiety levels associated with writing as it is a large portion of the curriculum in capstone.
Research regarding writing stated that the high expectations for writing across the curriculum are likely to contribute to writing anxiety. The reasoning behind the anxiety was correlated with undergraduate students being unwilling to take writing courses, as well as resulting in poor performance on essay exams and disinterest with career paths that require writing (Martinez, 351). Martinez discussed how previous research had also concluded that students that reported they had higher levels of anxiety and more stress in their everyday life had reported lower grades on essays, written exams, and standardized writing tests. This research had interested me in ways in which showed that writing does increase levels of anxiety in undergraduates, therefore I was curious to see if the amount of writing involved in the capstone ciriculum was causing my classmates anxiety as well.
Reading about anxiety in undergraduate students I had also found there to be previous studies regarding differences in anxiety levels between genders. Nina Donner and Christopher Lowry stated that anxiety is 60% higher in women than in men, therefore women and men deal with anxiety differently and react to different aspects in separate ways. Women underestimated their success in relationship to their performance and men overestimated their success in relationship to their actual performance as well. Factors such as women being more comfortable reporting their anxieties compared to men, women having anxiety disorders being more common, and scientific hormonal experiements. all came into consideration when concluding that women possess higher levels of anxiety than men. My next question was if men and women have different levels of anxiety, what areas affect men’s learning and the way the women learn as well.
Rachel Rosenfeld, a professor at McGill University, conducted an experiement to find out if undergraduates’ learning was affected by their anxiety levels. She also argued that the teaching should incorporate ways to prevent anxiety from affecting the performance of the students being surveyed. She conducted a survey that concluded that teachers do not feel it is their duty to decrease levels of anxiety in the classroom. Her argument included several ways teachers can change their way of teaching in regards to the areas students feel the most anxiety. She states that, “One would want to reduce the anxiety of those whose learning is hindered by it, while at the same time not impeding the performance of those who perform better under some pressure” (Rosenfeld, 153). She believes that because the anxiety levels are affecting students’ learning that it needs to be understood that students anxiety can change over the course over time, and the teachers need to react to it as such.
The research I found will answer research questions that led my experiements throughout my project. I am hoping to decrease the percentage of students that feel anxiety when reaching their capstone course and will do so by conducting quality research methods.
The questions this research will answer are as follows:
What aspects of the Capstone course cause anxiety?
Are anxiety levels prevalent in the Capstone course dissimilar for different genders?
Does anxiety relate to increased academic performance?
What are some ways to alleviate anxiety in these areas that cause the most stress?
I conducted various research methods throughout the semester and found patterns in increased levels of anxiety and decreased levels of anxiety. For my own research I decided to conduct a survey within my English Capstone course to find out if our class would report similar results in relation to the research I had already found. In structuring my survey, I referenced John Creswell’s, A Quantitative Method: Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative Approaches. He emphasized the importance of an organized survey process in which influenced the way I stated my purpose, meaning that by understanding exactly what I wanted to receive from the survey I could get a grasp on the questions I wanted to ask. I studied the population of the class I was going to be surveying, and figured out which questions were important to my research I had at that time, while determining the variable I was going to be using. He included a checklist that provided me with a guide to ensure I included all relevant information in my survey to help me obtain a better outcome in a small number of questions. He also included various ways of analyzing my survey which actually helped me develop the short answer questions at the end. Half way through the semester at the beginning of our English capstone class period, and with Amy Rupiper Taggart’s permission, I gave the students 5 minutes to complete the survey I handed out to all classmates. It consisted of 7 questions that were related to the following:
When the student declared their major
Order previous required English courses were taken
If the student transferred to NDSU or did not transfer
Asked the students to rate their anxiety regarding different aspects of the capstone course; used a scaled numerical system to rate their anxiety from 1-7
1 = no anxiety and 7 = extremely anxious
I also asked questions comparing anxiety levels before capstone starting in relation to their levels during the semester
If any new anxieties surfaced before capstone or now half way through the course
If any courses prepared the students for the capstone experience
See Appendix #1
I then calculated the averages of all classmate’s answers and compared my findings against eachother to find which were salient and were were not.
I also held a focus group of 4 capstone classmates as that will minimize distraction and promote maximum participation (Kelly, 55). I asked questions regarding their thoughts on how the capstone experience offerened new levels of anxiety as well as how the anxiety they are experiencing affects their performance in the class in all areas of the ciriculum being I received the most feedback in my survey when asking those questions. I spent 20 minutes total on the focus group and timed myself from the time I asked my first question to the time I ended the discussion. It is important to time the discussion in order to give the participants an idea of how long to speak on each topic presented (Freeman, 492). I recorded the interview on my cellphone in order to study the feedback I had received and be able to properly quote the classmates when needed. I assured the students their feedback would be anonymous and the only person that would know who states each comment would be myself and myself only. They were aware that their quotes may end up included in my project and did not mind and encouraged me to include their comments to add evidence to my experiment.
I let them converse amongst themselves as interaction between participants is important when creating an organized, focused group discussion. I encouraged my classmates to question eachother’s responses to my questions elicit clarification and explore the reasoning behind their statements (Freeman, 492). This aspect was successful as I received the most honest answers from the students asking eachother questions that stemmed from my focus questions. My job was to moderate and facilitate the focus discussion while taking notes and allowing the group to communicate with eachother in order to receive the most successful focus group (Freeman, 493). I emphasized the time management aspects and deadline aspects of the course as well as the presentation anxiety that is present throughout the task preparation in capstone because of the obvious anxiety assosciated when averaging the scores from the survey. My findings were then collected and analyzed in comparison to one another.
Half way through the semester when I had conducted my survey, it was consisting of 7 women and 3 men, 100% of my classmates not including myself. After I had received my survey results back from the students I calculated an overall mean or average of the numbers they provided on the scaled anxiety questions regarding the various aspects of the course and their personal reaction to them. I then calculated the women’s average before capstone had begun and men’s average before capstone had begun. I did the same with women’s average number after capstone had been in progress and men’s average number after capstone had been in progress. I completed the averages in this way for all 9 aspects of the capstone course. When I had finished calculating my numbers, I found there to be little to no difference in anxiety levels regarding if students (women or men) had taken the required courses in order or out of order prior to the capstone. I found the same results with students (women or men) had transferred to NDSU or had not transferred to NDSU. I did find a significant change regarding the differences in men’s anxiety level averages and women’s anxiety level averages. See appendix #2
The men’s anxiety levels in anticipation of the course was relatively low averaging in at 33.97. I found this number by adding together all averages of all aspects of the course. The women’s anxiety levels in anticipation of the course was relatively high in comparison averaging in at 37.82. I then calculated the same for the men and women’s anxiety levels. The men’s anxiety levels had increased now that the class was in progress averaging in at 38.98. The women’s anxiety levels had decreased now that class was in progress averaging in at 31.90. According to these calculations, the women had experienced more anxiety in anticipation of the course and less anxiety as the class progressed. The women’s anxiety levels had decreased down to a level below the anxiety level of the men before the class had begun. The men’s anxiety levels did the opposite. Their anxiety levels were low in anticipation of the course increased to the highest level while capstone was in progress and surpassed any levels calculated. I subtracted the difference between men and women’s anxiety levels before and during the course and found that the women were reporting a negative number or a decrease in anxiety throughout the aspects of the course and the men were reporting a positive number for all aspects of the course.
See appendix #3
For women the points of highest anxiety calculated were as follows:
For men the points of highest anxiety calculated were as follows:
In regards to the women’s high anxiety, they were more anxious about the performance aspect of the course. They were more anxious about an internal factor such as performing in front of their peers and faculty as well as not being able to manage their time efficiently. The men were more anxious about the external factors such as deadlines. These numbers were exemplified when I asked the short answer questions on the survey asking if the capstone had offered any new levels of anxiety compared to other courses.
The women repeated their anxiety they were experiencing was due to the presentation and the time management portion of the course. They had stated the following:
“Presenting in front of faculty and peers, realization that career is coming soon”
“My anxiety gets increased when the presentation gets closer and still worried about my writing.”
The men repeated their own anxieties they were experiencing which involved the same aspects they scored highly on when asked prior. They had stated the following:
“Heavy workload, a lot of project right away”
“So many deadlines, so much piecing things together”
So again the differences in gender regarding the internal factors and external factors was shown in through their short answers.
The other question I had asked received very little significant feedback if any so I decided to not use that information for my project after I had received the survey answers back from my classmates as the answers were unimportant.
For the focus group I had asked the students what specific items about capstone caused the most anxiety before entering capstone and the women answered as follows:
“Picking a topic”
“Others saying it was a difficult course to take, also intimidation from ENGL167”
“15 minute presentation; actually presenting is the hardest part”
The men answered the same question as follows:
“Final project caused anxiety because they didn’t know what the class all entailed
“Deadlines because there are so many and they are so close together”
I also had asked if anxiety helps or hinders their academic performance in capstone. The women stated the following:
“Depends on the class, if I care more about the class I will have anxiety and try harder.”
“Anxiety makes me procrastinate. It makes me wait until the last minute.”
The women tend to ascribe their success or failure to themselves and their own time management skills. When answered the same question, the men stated the following:
“Anxiety hinders the quality of my work.”
“At the beginning I have a general plan, but as the deadline gets closer I don’t have time to revise my writing so the quality just isn’t there.”
Their work was compromised by the deadlines and anxiety that was intensified by procrastination. Both men stated they were more confident going into the course but were now overwhelmed by the external factor of deadlines. After completeing both my survey and my focus group I connected my findings to the research I had found prior and the information I found during my study.
When analyzing my findings I had realized that when asking the men and women what area caused them the most anxiety in anticipation of the course and during the course, both answers were the same for men and women. The men stated deadlines and the women stated time management. Both were well above average on the scale with women stating a 5.28 before the course and a 4.85 during the course. Though the women’s anxiety level decreased, it was still 1.35 above an average anxiety level which 3.5 meant the women still had above average anxiety levels even though their anxiety decreased during the course. The men started with a 4 in anticipation, which was one of the highest numbers before the course had begun, and reported a 6.66 during the course which was almost to the maximum level of anxiety being only .34 away from 7, meaning extreme anxiety.
This fact alone exemplifies that anxiety is different for men and different for women in regards to the capstone course. Anxiety is also different for men and women in the way that they handle their anxiety. I had found that women were less confident before the course had begun and men were over confident before the class had begun. The women experienced higher anxiety levels due to their confidence levels decreasing before the course and the men’s anxiety levels increased due to their overconfidence in anticipation of the course. The women’s low confidence makes them underestimate their success in relationship to their actual performance and the men tend to overestimate their success in relationship to their performance. The women’s anxiety levels were driven by internal factors such as time management while they ascribe their success or failure to their time management skills. The men were again the opposite and were only driven by external factors such as deadlines associated with the curriculum.
My own results were very similar to the research I had found previous in regards to gender differences and learning experience. Both genders had reported high levels of anxiety related to the course which ended up leading to procrastination in a few cases. That procrastination turned into rushing to complete projects or assignments as well as admitting to completing other assignments during other class periods due to the fact they were behind on certain assignments. The men had even stated in the focus group that their anxiety from deadlines lead to them not having the ability to deal with completing an assignment for a specific date. “The quality just wasn’t there,” was repeated throughout the focus group discussion emphasizing the fact that the anxiety associated to getting the work done on time, essentially affected their academic performance. The women that reported the highest levels of anxiety for the presentation stated they were worried they weren’t going to do their best in preparing for the presentation aspect because they were so nervous of the actual experience of standing in front of faculty and peers and the implications that might arise from the audience before their presentation or even during.
There is obvious research stating undergraduate students absorb the material differently and perform different academically while anxious in the classroom. This is evident through previous research I have found and my own experiment in my capstone course.This means it needs to be considered that men and women that are enrolled in a class will in fact handle the curriculum differently. Women are clearly more anxious and feel the most anxious when performing, or handling their own time management. This is an area that needs to be considered when teaching women in the classroom. Not all women are the same, nor are all men, but it is something that needs to be known when trying to help a student that is having problems academically. Men are less anxious but tend to get extremely anxious when dealing with deadlines and project work. My research proved that women and men do possess separate anxiety levels while they did not feel the same anxiety in regards to the same aspects of the capstone course. Speaking with my classmates and NDSU faculty throughout my research I did obtain opinions on what might help allievate anxiety in the English capstone course for men and for women.
While conducting my focus group, both genders talked at length about restructuring the capstone course to lessen anxiety for the students involved. In the beginning of the course we were to complete assignments that were focused on professionalization for graduate schools or our career. This portion of the semester caused anxiety for the students because of how important yet lengthy these assignments were. Some students were overwhelmed at this point already with the amount of time that went into the projects and the stress that accumulated while putting these professional documents together as a finalization of their undergraduate career. We then started working on our capstone projects which were accompanied with deadlines, lengthy writing assignments and presentations in front of faculty and peers. The students in my focus group offered a solution to the anxiety. They said it would lessen anxiety levels to separate the professionalization portion of the class and the capstone project portion of the class. In doing so it would create more time for the students to process complex academic ideas and challenges specific to their gender such as time management and presentations for the women and handling deadlines, constructing their project and research for the men. Understanding that the capstone course is designed to be challenging as it is what the English majors need to pass in order to graduate, they thought that in separating the classes they would produce more quality work and enjoy the process more.
Another way that we can help students with anxiety is to help the women feel more confident going into the course. They are obviously showing more anxiety before the course has begun so if we can build their confidence right away, hopefully the anxiety will subside sooner. If we make the men feel as if they have more to learn than what they are anticipating I believe we can prepare them for the course curriculum that is ahead so their anxiety levels do not increase so drastically but will subside as well knowing what to expect. It has also been successful in previous studies to separate the men and women in the first weeks to allow each gender to voice their opinions in a way they might not when in a larger group setting or while the other gender is present. Being able to separately voice their anxieties could have the same outcome as the study did prior and help each gender feel less anxious in preparation for the course in session.
Anxiety is prevalent in undergraduates all over the world. The reasoning behind the anxiety is going to be different depending on area, major, curriculum, and even personal or economical issues. Through my extensive research I have found that at North Dakota State University, the English capstone course causes anxiety in different areas for men and for women. By recognizing where the anxiety lies for both genders, the curriculum can be analyzed to benefit everyone enrolled. Recognizing that men and women react to the class differently will hopefully help the planners develop strategies to lessen anxiety in the classroom. Most classes will cause some type of anxiety for the students enrolled and regardless students are going to feel more anxiety the closer they get to graduation, but if we can allieviate some anxiety for our students at NDSU I do believe it will be appreciated by all.
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1. Please circle one Male Female
2. When did you declare a major?
Freshman Sophomore Junior Senior Senior +
3. Did you transfer to NDSU? Yes No
4. Number the courses 1 to 5 in the order you completed them
___ENGL167-Intro into English Studies
___ENGL275-Into into Writing Studies
___ENGL358-Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences
5. Rate the following questions 1 to 71-being not at all 7-being very anxious
-BEFORE CAPSTONE -NOW-
How anxious were/are you about—
Course in general _____ _____
Project _____ _____
Research _____ _____
Writing _____ _____
Time Management _____ _____
Deadlines _____ _____
Sourcing/Citations _____ _____
Presentation _____ _____
6. Compared to other courses, how has the Capstone experience offered any new levels of anxiety?
7. What courses do you feel prepared you best for the capstone experience?