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Using Uncertainty Reduction Theory to Help Students Deal with Stress and Anxiety and Improve Their Overall Classroom Performance

Author: Kristin Basinger, Tracy Crawford, Lauren Critchley, and Jennifer Romano, Full Time Faculty, University of Phoenix : Contact: University of Phoenix

Published: 2020-08-06

Synopsis and Key Points:

Uncertainty reduction theory assumes uncertainty in new situations makes communication difficult; uncertainty can create frustration and reduced satisfaction; reducing uncertainty can alleviate these negative feelings.

Stress and anxiety are prominent feelings amongst college students, and these feelings can be magnified in students who already struggle from anxiety.

Creating student-instructor rapport can reduce uncertainty because it allows for an initial connection to be made between faculty and students and students with other students.

Main Digest

According to a survey of beginning college students by Honig (2016), on a scale from 1 to 10 - 1 being not stressed at all and 10 being the most stressed - the average response to how stressed a student feels on a consistent basis was 6.8. Regarding the level of worry students feel regarding the future, on a scale of 1 - 10 with 1 being not at all worried and 10 being very worried, the average response was 7.2. Stress and anxiety are prominent feelings amongst college students, and these feelings can be magnified in students who already struggle from anxiety. The stress, worry, and uncertainty that college students feel can be extremely detrimental to their ability to be successful and directly influences whether they persist in their studies (Sollitto, Brott, Cole, Gil & Selim, 2017). In fact, thousands of students drop out of college every year, and stress and anxiety are a major cause of this (Klochkova, 2016). Crum and Salovey (2013) found that students experiencing a high stress mindset have an increased desire for feedback and guidance. Uncertainty Reduction Theory plays a significant role in reducing this stress mindset, and as faculty, we have found that by applying uncertainty reduction techniques in our classes, we can help reduce the uncertainty felt by new and returning online college students, especially those who deal with anxiety. This essay will discuss the definition of uncertainty reduction theory as well as various strategies to reduce uncertainty; furthermore, it will provide examples from actual online classes.

What is Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT)?

Uncertainty reduction theory (URT), formulated by Charles Berger and his colleagues, strives to explain how people communicate when they are unsure about their environment. According to Berger (2009), URT assumes that uncertainty in new situations makes communication difficult; uncertainty can create frustration and reduced satisfaction; and finally, reducing uncertainty can alleviate these negative feelings.

Relevance of Uncertainty Reduction Theory in the Classroom

New students, especially online students, are unsure of their environment, which can lead to stress and anxiety. For students who already have underlying issues of stress and anxiety, this additional uncertainty can be debilitating and can hinder their academic success. It is therefore imperative that we reduce their uncertainty right away and continue to do so throughout a course. Applying URT techniques will allow for enhanced communication and a stronger community between students and between instructor and students.

Putting Uncertainty Reduction Theory into Practice

What are specific strategies we can use to reduce uncertainty in our classes? Ferreira (2012) identifies specific strategies to reduce uncertainty in the classroom:

  1. Foster student-instructor rapport
  2. Communicate key outcomes and expectations for the course
  3. Promote desired student behavior
  4. Actively involve students

Foster Student-Instructor Rapport

The first strategy we will discuss is fostering student-instructor rapport. Creating student-instructor rapport can reduce uncertainty because it allows for an initial connection to be made between faculty and students and students with other students. This is an essential first step to help ease anxiety in students with high stress and anxiety levels. According to Ferreira (2012), strategies to build rapport at the beginning and throughout a course include:

Communicate Clear Outcomes and Expectations

The next strategy Ferreira (2012) details to reduce uncertainty and anxiety is communicating clear expectations of students. Shea, Sau, Li, & Pickett (2006), explain: "Clear communication of time parameters, due dates, and deadlines contribute to online learning community as do clear course goals, course topics, and instructions on how to effectively and appropriately participate in the course" (p. 185). The first day/week of class, communication should include:

The possibilities of applying this strategy in the classroom are numerous. Faculty could review weekly topics and objectives in weekly overview presentation as well as in weekly welcome and weekly wrap-up messages posted to class each week. Faculty could share rubrics/grading guides with students at the beginning of class/each week. In one class were this type of strategy was employed, student comments such as this one were prevalent: "Tracy, This is good to know for when I do my overview prior to sending it in. Thank you for the tips on what you will be looking for!" By communicating clear expectations for the assignment, students feel more confident and less anxious and uncertain.

Promote Desired Student Behavior

In addition to relating the expectations of the course, students also benefit from knowing the preferred student behaviors ( Ferreira, 2012, p. 2). Some strategies to share this information with students are to acknowledge students' high performance, provide progress reports, and focus on strengths within students' assignment submissions. Providing specific critiques in feedback is also helpful in reducing anxiety.

Actively Involve Students

Students need to be actively involved in the course. The more involved they are, the less anxiety and uncertainty they will feel (Shea, Sau Li, & Pickett, 2016). To help students feel more involved and invested in a course, faculty can identify areas of agreement and disagreement, seek to reach consensus and understanding amongst students and with faculty, encourage, acknowledge, and reinforce student contributions, and set a positive learning environment. While these strategies might seem abstract at first, they can be implemented in the classroom in a variety of ways. For example, faculty can model good participation techniques to promote more interaction with students, ask open-ended, thought-provoking questions of students to engage them in the discussion, and provide research and other supporting outside information.

In conclusion, applying URT strategies can provide a tremendous benefit to students, especially beginning students and/or those who struggle with anxiety disorders. When students can better predict what is expected of them, what objectives they should be meeting in the course, how their assignments will be graded, etc., some of their stress and anxiety related to uncertainty can be alleviated. While these students might still deal with other anxieties beyond the faculty's control, reducing the stress and anxiety that the faculty does have some control over can be tremendously beneficial to students who deal with anxiety and/or are new to the higher education environment.

References:

Berger, C. (2009). Uncertainty reduction theory. In H. T. Reis & S. Sprecher (Eds.), Encyclopedia of human relationships (pp. 1655-1656). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi: 10.4135/9781412958479.n545

Crum, A. J., Salovey, P., & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104 (4), 716--733. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0031201

Ferreira, D. (2012, February). College faculty insider's guide to the first day of class. Three Rivers Community College Idea Center. Retrieved from http://harper-academy.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/First-Day-of-Class.pdf

Honig, T. (2016, March 17). Navigating Uncertainty: Coming to Terms with the Unknown. The Chicago Maroon. Retrieved from https://www.chicagomaroon.com/article/2016/3/17/navigating-uncertainty-coming-terms-unknown/

Klochkova, V. (2015, August 19). Why College Students Drop Out and How to Prevent It. Standford University. Retrieved from https://collegepuzzle.stanford.edu/why-college-students-drop-out-and-how-to-prevent-it/.

Shea, P., Sau Li, C., & Pickett, A. (2006). A study of teaching presence and student sense of learning community in fully online and web-enhanced college courses. The Internet and Higher Education, 9 (3), 175-190. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2006.06.005

Sollitto, M. Brott, J. Cole, C., Gil, E. & Selim,H. (2017, October). Students' uncertainty management in the college classroom. Communication Education, 67 (1), 73-87. Retrieved from http://nca.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03634523.2017.1372586#.Wo8i20bPWwS

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