Easing Student Anxiety Bringing Digital Literacy into the Classroom

One of the more interesting questions I have been asked over the years is how do instructors help ease student anxieties over working in and with digitally creative technologies. It is, in all honesty, a fair question as students, like faculty, have all manner of affinities with and apprehensions for digital technologies. Just because they have grown up in a world inundated with digital media, does not mean they are all perfectly fine to just jump off the deep end into editing a documentary with Adobe Premiere. Thus, we need to be mindful of the anxieties that students bring to class, which range from matters rooted in competency to those rooted in access. And while I do not purport to have a perfect mode for all instructors or students, I have found the following practices can help mitigate these matters: ground them in the personal, focus on building better feedback loops, celebrate failure, craft learning experiences (not simply tutorials), and remain flexible.


One of the easiest ways to get students into learning and working with digital tools and creative technologies is to offer them low-stakes entry points where they work on things of personal interest to them rather than course content. While working on course elements does have an obvious value, the students are already in the process of learning about the course, its content, its key practices, and throwing a new technological matter on top of that can be daunting for some of them—especially if what they are being asked is to say or make something intelligent about the content itself. This can, in turn, result in less positive associations with the technology and experience, and what students often need, at least early on, are to form strong, positive identifications with the technology. These help them not only build confidence with working in a given media, but to really begin to see themselves as someone who ‘does this kind of work’ or is ‘a creative person.’ For example, in spring semesters I often have students make a Valentine’s Day cards as a way of learning Adobe Photoshop. Or, as another example, over the years I have helped students learn audio editing and remix practices (in Garageband, Adobe Audition, and Audacity, among other programs) by asking the students to craft a 35 second soundtrack to be played when they walk on stage and get their diploma. The content of these engagements has little bearing on the courses themselves, but they help students foster an affinity with the tools, which can be invaluable in the long run.


A lot of student anxiety comes from students not knowing what to do, not knowing if they are on the right track, fearing that their lack of technical skill or ability will negatively impact their grade, and so on. Thus, one of the best ways to help ease student anxiety is to create more frequent and more meaningful feedback loops. These points of contact not only help reassure students about their own progress and practices, but can be helpful in guiding them at critical moments in a project.

  • Now, more specifically, I encourage instructors to have designated studio days in their class (or even during office hours) where students can work on their projects and get help as needed, with the instructor floating around as an on-demand resource and/or with the ability to ask their peers for help.
  • Second, I often adopt a process-oriented approach with checkpoints rather than a product-oriented approach a singular due date. This not only provides multiple touch points for intervention, engagement, and encouragement, but also helps foreground the process and the learning, which are often key to the ways in which I evaluate student work.
  • Third, I encourage instructors to provide audio/video feedback on student work (if they cannot provide it in person) as that type of feedback can often leave a more meaningful and lasting impression on the student. Also, the stumbles and 'ums' and breathing captured in A/V delivery helps humanize the process. (Though, be aware of accessibility needs for some students and adjust accordingly so that the feedback you provide has the greatest potential value to the students.)

One of the most damaging things we do to student creativity and thinking is to stigmatize failure. But the truth is that failure is often the first step toward something amazing. Yet I routinely see students who carry with them the marks and anxieties of grade-based trauma, and the looming fear of failure is often central to the unsettledness they feel about trying out a new technology in classroom. From their perspective, they know how to write and take tests and respond to questions (standard academic fodder) because they’ve trained for those things their whole educational lives, and as they feel less comfortable with making a movie or designing a digital artifact they worry, in turn, about this 'lack' and its impact on their grade. Thus, what I try to do is foreground the value and importance of failure by embracing a fast failure, fun failure, and formative failure approach.

In the fast failure portion, I have students work through any number of inventive exercises to generate ideas and possibilities they might want to pursue for a project. Then we get in pairs or groups and engage in conversation. What matters here is not necessarily the good/great ideas, but rather helping the students toss out the failures (i.e., the ideas likely to bear less fruit). The sooner we get them off the table, the better. Then I repeat the process, with each subsequent inventive stage designed to extend the thinking or ideas that remain (or come up with new ones, combine old ones, etc.) and the subsequent conversation/discussion stages designed to filter the 'failures' from the pile.

In the fun failure dynamic, I have student share their trials and tribulations as a part of class—and I include my own mishaps and miscues. We engage in what games scholar Jane McGonigal refers to as happy embarrassment, taking the opportunity to share in these misfires and missteps, and to champion the best failures among us. I’ve even had students create and share class memes based on our failures, which range from technological nightmares to complete conceptual misunderstandings. But, as part of this, I also ask students to share what they have learned from the failure and to attempt to turn at least one failure from the semester into a functional success.

The last failure element is the formative failure, and I approach this as peer review. As a professional writer and digital scholar, everything I send off for publication gets reviewed and comes back with critiques, suggestions, requested changes, and the like. This is, at its core, what peer review does, no matter the medium: provide formative feedback to improve the work. Thus, while many do not traditionally consider this stage a failure, I lump it in here because (a) every revision of a paper or every re-edit of a video project means I didn’t get it right the previous time and (b) it situates failure as a critical component of academic work. So, in class I situate this process as formative failure, where what students have created at this stage is formative in its own right, but the feedback will also have a formative impact to help the project reach its potential.


Some students will have clear anxieties about learning a technology and they think what they need is a step-by-step tutorial or training session and all will be right with the world. But they are, in many ways, simply incorrect. Do not get me wrong, there is value in these traditional training orientations and I do some of these things myself, but I have found that while the instrumentalist approach eases in-class tension on the training days themselves, the anxiety reappears (often in full force) when they run into a problem on their own outside of the training. To combat this matter, I structure my technological orientations as learning experiences rather than training sessions (i.e., half tool/practical introduction; half challenge). That is, I introduce the basic tools and terminology of a program and guiding them through a few easy steps, but I go just a little too fast for them to be comfortable. Then I give them a challenge or task to complete and turn them loose. The entire process operates with a bit of anxiety on the surface (not to mention fluctuating moments of frustration), but this challenge orientation creates a meaningful context and helps to motivate student engagement. Further, they learn the tools and techniques much in the way they will operate when they are on their own: teeming with uncertainty.

Of course, this is not meant to be as barbaric as it sounds, for I do float around the room and function as a helpful coach or on-demand resource. Also, the students tend to learn from watching one another, asking questions and forming micro learning communities. And this, to me, is one of the more useful things they get from my classes—this ability to learn amid the anxiety, to leverage their resources (in class and online), and to tinker their way to their goals. Additionally, this approach has them operating right on the edge of their competencies and abilities, which (as video games have shown) can have a major impact on their engagement and investment in the experience.


Perhaps the single most valuable suggestion I can offer instructors to help with student anxiety is to remain flexible and to be responsive to the material and personal constraints of each student’s situation. Students will have all manner of apprehensions and run into all manner of personal and technical limitations during the semester (some made up, some all too real, and all of which only exacerbates their own anxieties), but if we remain supportive and offer a little flexibility (within our approach, requirement, expectations, and the like), students can have a meaningful course experience and still achieve the course goals and outcomes. Thus, it can be helpful to really focus on the pedagogical and then work within what is available to students (in terms of conceptual and physical access) to help facilitate that pedagogy.

For example, in some areas and schools, the campus may have a computer lab, but getting to it and making use of it may simply not be an option given the students other life responsibilities. So, rather than forcing the student to drop the class, an instructor might work with the student (or students) to see if mobile practices and production may make more sense (i.e., creating and editing a video on Adobe Rush on one’s phone rather than at the campus lab). The goal is always tied to people, pedagogy, and purpose, not the technology. So when issues emerge, ask what is really at stake and if it is the tool itself, then perhaps should consider offering the student in question an alternative approach, method, tools, etc.

justinhodgson.com | @postdigitalJH | JH@LinkedIn

Created By
Justin Hodgson


Created with images by Jordan Encarnacao - "Collaboration." • Pau Casals - "Numbers" • John Barkiple - "DIY Electrical Board at Craft Lake City" • Ian Kim - "neon sign" • Tomasz_Mikolajczyk - "computers monitors it" • Alexas_Fotos - "articulated doll flexible doll"

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