Teaching Strategies

Hard School Work and the Right Kind of Anxiety  

Not all feelings of self-doubt and anxiety are antithetical to learning. In fact, confusion and frustration can be fruitful—and drive deeper learning.

March 3, 2023
Valeriy_G / iStock

When students encounter some academic challenges, like unfamiliar math problems, it activates the same fear center that lights up when people see snakes or spiders, according to Stanford Professor Jo Boaler. The fear can send the mind reeling and lead to feelings of inadequacy and destructive thoughts like “I’m stupid.” 

But not all feelings of anxiety and self-doubt are harmful to learning. A recent Mindshift article clarifies that some anxiety can be fruitful, and even build up a student’s self esteem as they face more difficult tasks in the future. 

“Getting butterflies before a big presentation or feeling jittery when starting a new project are common responses to events that seem challenging,” the article notes. By setting up classroom environments that normalize errors and by giving students time and opportunity to work through challenging emotions, teachers can help students to develop into better problem-solvers, critical thinkers, and collaborators. 

Manu Kapur, the pioneering researcher behind the theory of productive failure, told Edutopia recently that the urge to jump in and make learning easier when students struggle is instinctive. But sometimes, our best intentions put us on the wrong side of learning. 

When students are stuck, they feel all sorts of emotions—shame, guilt, and frustration, for example, Kapur says. But his research demonstrates that believing positive emotions are always positive for learning, and negative emotions are always negative for learning, simply isn’t true. 

“I think good teaching happens when you control that impulse [to help struggling students],” Kapur said. “Any kind of knowledge work, any kind of challenging problem requires a certain level of frustration,” he asserts, sensibly. “In fact, if you’re not feeling those things, that means you’re probably not learning.”

Taken together, the insights point to the importance of planning and designing your curriculum to regularly showcase challenging work that pushes students up against their limits and results in high levels of failure. That means sequencing work carefully so that students aren’t constantly overwhelmed—some work should be relatively easy—but it also means priming your students for this work by creating a supportive classroom environment and teaching your students to view and respond to failure in a healthier way.  

Here are some strategies to get you started.


1. Create a strong relationship with students. Be forthright about your goals. Explain the purpose of presenting them with challenging work, and why you believe they can succeed at it—despite the uncomfortable feelings that may arise in the process.

Research demonstrates that the most effective teachers build rigorous classroom environments by getting to know their students, being approachable, and showing that they themselves truly enjoy the work—and then deftly translating emotional capital into academic capital. “When students feel teachers care about them, they work harder, engage in more challenging academic activities, behave more appropriately for the school environment, are genuinely happy to see their teacher, and meet or exceed their teacher’s expectations,” the researchers concluded.  

2. Be an advocate for errors. Mistakes might be embarrassing to start with, but you can take the sting out by regularly explaining that excellence in all fields of life is achieved through trying and failing. Some teachers in Edutopia’s community make intentional mistakes very publicly and reward students for finding them, while others take the most common mistakes the class made on a test or quiz and analyze them together, or even ask students to debate which common, but wrong answer, is “more right”—which creates the opportunity to tease out important subtleties and normalizes errors. 

3. Encourage ‘rough draft’ thinking. Create a new mindset for students: Explain that the initial work they do to solve a difficult problem is just their “rough draft” thinking. Amanda Jansen, author of Rough Draft Talk in Mathematics Classrooms, writes that this simple shift can ease pressure off of students and encourage them to take academic risks. You can also build reflection into this mental model—similar to how a writer might reflect on a first draft—as a method of taking stock of what a student got wrong and helping them to think through how they might go about fixing it in the future.

4. Grade less, teach more. Correcting every single mistake can make a classroom feel like a pressure cooker, according to research. Consider assigning more work—including work that will challenge students—and formally grading it less often. Students will be more likely to experiment, take risks, and produce a greater volume of high-quality work. 

5. Use student passions to promote risk-taking. Try using surveys and other get-to-know-you activities to gain insights about what your students are passionate about. In addition to solidifying relationships, it will also allow you to use some of those topics to develop engaging, responsive lessons. 

Research shows that people are better at learning information they are already curious about. In fact, researchers found that the teaching of detailed material that is not of broad interest to students might “be best done in the context of instruction on topics that students are highly motivated to learn.” 


1. Design for failure. Instead of giving students problems and activities that they can easily handle, Kapur argues for “productive failure” lessons that include carefully designed tasks “just beyond students’ reach.” Students will likely fail in the process of trying to accomplish the assignment and generate many incorrect ideas and solutions. 

Use this approach at key junctures during the school year, according to Kapur—when a particularly crucial concept is being learned, for example—and allow the failure to go on for 35 to 40 minutes before stepping in, building off of students' ideas and solutions, comparing and contrasting them, and finally teaching the correct concept. The idea is to explore challenging concepts with students in a safe way, so that “over time they learn how to deal with it,” and productive failure becomes the norm. In the end, we want kids to realize: “Okay, I'm stuck. This is normal. I need to do something about it," Kapur concludes.

2. Try pre-testing. A great way to conduct a formative assessment about what students know—and don’t know—about a new lesson is to give them a quick low-stakes or ungraded quiz on the subject before they start learning about it. This will result in high rates of failure and might be a bit uncomfortable, of course, but it can help students identify the gaps in understanding that they’ll need to pay close attention to as they continue learning the material. 

3. Debate before you’re truly ready. Recent research building off of Kapur’s work suggests that letting students debate topics prior to teacher instruction is one easy way to prime them for deeper engagement. Debating also strengthens critical thinking and collaboration skills, as well as organization and presentation skills.

Debates can explore tough topics, such as an ethical issue embedded in a piece of literature they’re reading, or the validity of the theory of evolution. You can also ask students to apply their understanding of concepts to big new areas of inquiry—for example, students might try to use their incipient knowledge of biodiversity to debate whether recycling programs are enough to reduce plastic pollution. 

4. Expose students to challenging, subject-specific texts. Create opportunities for students to read and grapple with challenging disciplinary-specific texts that experts might read on a regular basis. Spark interest by giving the learning experience a purpose. For example, students might be given a complex chemistry question and related text, and be asked to write an explanation of their solution using the discipline-specific language a chemist would use. The exercise will be challenging, but it will also help students see themselves as active participants in the field they’re studying—rather than receivers of knowledge. 

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