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Breaking the silence (part 1): Understanding social anxiety in law students

Breaking the silence (part 1):  Understanding social anxiety in law students.

By Melanie Jackson and Lisa Du Plessis

Most students feel nervous or anxious at some point.  Sitting exams, delivering presentations, or even preparing assignments can make students feel nervous or anxious.  This is normal human behaviour that we all experience from time to time.  Given the desire to achieve top grades in their studies, it’s not surprising to see high levels of stress and anxiety among law students.

Law students in particular have to perform in a variety of assessments to demonstrate competencies in several prescribed skills.  One of the threshold learning outcomes for law is that law graduates are able to communicate and collaborate effectively (TLO 5 Communication and Collaboration).  Law schools commonly use a range of methods to assess these skills, including, but not limited to advocacy and mooting assessments, negotiation exercises, client interviews and in-class presentations and/or participation.  Law students can’t avoid these skills, all of which involve a social and performance component.  So for students with social anxiety disorder, it can be a somewhat terrifying experience.

Socially anxious students in the higher education setting

There are, in fact, social components to all aspects of study in higher education.  Making introductions, being called on unexpectedly in class or being asked to form groups can be uncomfortable for students with social anxiety.  Then there are assessment tasks such as presentations, advocacy and tutorial participation.  The problem from an education perspective is that students with social anxiety will either undertake these activities enduring high levels of distress, or for some, they will try and avoid situations altogether, ultimately impacting negatively on student performance and grades.

Higher education also presents new challenges for school graduates.  Moving from a safe school environment that they know well to a new environment with unfamiliar people can be daunting.  Most universities have hundreds of students in a lecture, 30 plus students in a seminar and an authority figure in the lecturer/academic teaching the discipline.  One study in the UK surveying over 1500 students found that students with social anxiety habitually avoided lectures, seminars and group projects.  Studies have shown that 16 per cent of students could be suffering from significant levels of social anxiety, higher than what is reported for the general population.

What is social anxiety and how does it present in the classroom?

Social anxiety is a fast-growing phenomenon which is thought to disproportionately affect young people, and therefore highly likely to play a big part in teaching undergraduate students.  The hallmark of social anxiety in western contexts is an extreme and persistent fear of embarrassment and humiliation. Social anxiety is a condition that arises when individuals experience a fear of social situations in which they expect to be negatively judged by others or believe that their presence will cause discomfort to others. From an evolutionary standpoint, social anxiety can be seen as a beneficial trait when it is present in appropriate levels. It prompts individuals to pay closer attention to how they present themselves and reflect on their behaviours. This heightened sensitivity ensures that we adapt to those around us to maintain or enhance our social desirability and avoid being excluded. However, when social anxiety becomes excessive in relation to the perceived threats posed by typical social situations (such as interactions with peers at school or in the workplace) and significantly impairs one’s ability to function, it may be classified as a disorder (Social Anxiety Disorder), formerly known as ‘social phobia. To put it in a nutshell, social anxiety is the fear of critical appraisal.

Social anxiety disorder is maintained through various factors.  Students with social anxiety may have negative beliefs about themselves and their ability to handle social interactions.  They may also have excessively high standards for their social performance and often engage in catastrophic thinking, assuming the worst-case scenario.  For example, a student with social anxiety might have thoughts like ‘If I don’t say the right answer I might fail’ or ‘people will hate my presentation topic’. 

There is a marked and persistent fear of social or performance situations where the person feels they are being negatively judged by others.  These unhelpful beliefs mean that students with social anxiety disorder will become anxious in anticipation of a negative response.  Those physical symptoms often displayed when people are anxious or nervous are what we usually see as educators when students perform (eg. shaking voice, sweating, forgetting, stuttering and in extreme cases crying).

As a result, students with social anxiety disorder will use avoidance strategies or engage in safety behaviours.  Safety Behaviours are the actions that people take to reduce their social anxiety in the short term. However, these safety behaviours often maintain the problem as they never resolve the core of the anxiety. Typical safety behaviours may include avoiding eye contact, speaking quickly, speaking quietly or hiding behind others, avoiding situations where they perceive increase scrutiny, checking the responses of others and reassurance seeking.  Students may find it hard to talk to fellow classmates or work in groups with new people, so they may avoid them altogether or refrain from contributing. 

Impact on Learning

Social anxiety doesn’t just impact on student performance and mental health, it impacts on learning. 

When students are focussed on their anxieties, they are more likely to be distracted and less focussed.  It has been established that social anxiety negatively impacts on classroom engagement, student learning and retention of knowledge.

If students are uncomfortable asking questions in class, then they will avoid seeking clarification, even if they don’t understand the content.  Being nervous to ask questions or make appointments with academics makes it difficult for academics to know if a student is struggling.  Lack of participation in class or group work may present to an educator as lack of preparation, so students often score very poorly in these types of assessments. Without adequate support, students with social anxiety are likely to engage in safety behaviours such as avoiding class, not showing up for oral assessments or dropping out of group work.

The good news is that there are solutions.  In Part 2 of this series, the authors provide some practical solutions and ideas for educators to provide optimal support to socially anxious students.


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