I am a professor in a science department and I am working with a student that has significant anxiety about writing, such that they have opted to receive a lower final grade rather than turn in required writing assignments. In discussing the situation with the student they indicated that the pressure of putting their thoughts perfectly on the page was too much for them. They enjoyed the research for the papers but froze when confronted with the blank page. In part they seemed to indicate that this was due to fear of judgement.

In the end this student has essentially stopped doing any writing except that which cannot be avoided and most of this is now late so under increased pressure. I should note that the writing that I have seen from the student is actually well above average.

My initial thoughts are that I need to encourage the student to use writing as a tool for understanding under much lower pressure situations so that they can learn to write for themselves as much as for dissemination. But I am not sure how to go about this or if this is even the correct approach.

I am going to be working closely with this student next semester outside of the classroom on independent research so I will have a lot of freedom to develop custom writing assignments. What approach should I use to help this student overcome their fear of writing?

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    Do you know if the student has the same anxiety about being judged when giving a verbal presentation? – Monica Cellio Dec 5 '12 at 16:34
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    @MonicaCellio good question. Interestingly the student does not and actually really enjoys giving presentations. – DQdlM Dec 5 '12 at 16:40
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    I wonder: could you get the student to use a transcription program like Dragon, and use the resulting text as a place to start the essay/piece of writing? – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Dec 5 '12 at 17:45
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    @LaurenIpsum that is an interesting suggestion, I had not thought of something like that. OR perhaps I could just get them to write out a script for their presentation as a starting point. – DQdlM Dec 5 '12 at 17:54
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    I can't believe i've found this post - i am exactly like your student in every way you've described. I'm getting worse, and always trying to articulate what my problem is but not being able to pinpoint it, i can't fix it. I have thought that having someone have me write during class time would really help, but my uni only has a one hr lecture and a one hr tutorial, no time to really spend on us. If you've had any success, or can recommend who could help me, i'd really appreciate it. I've tried a few therapists but have unfortunately found the experience to be predictable and unhelpful. Thanks! – user15056 Aug 27 '15 at 23:47

I had a friend who was a substitute elementary teacher who had a similar problem. Granted, he was working with a fourth-grader, but essentially, he sat down with her and line by line they created the paragraph together. He suggested something, she suggested something, etc.

At the end, she kept insisting, "I don't do A-plus work." He pointed at the paper and said, "You just did."

If your student is terrified of being judged — making the perfect the enemy of the good — then maybe sitting down and holding the student's hand and actually showing the student, line by line, "I will not critique this. This can be critiqued. This is fine. This is fine too." will work. Actually force your way past the judgment point so the student sees it's not quite the Harshmageddon expected.

This answer might also be useful; if the student gets used to assembling notes and phrases, then fine-tuning might be easier.

ETA something practical which is also rep bait for John Smithers: Another idea might be to get the student to focus on a topic s/he absolutely loves and can talk about for hours: Justin Bieber, Star Trek, dragons. Then ask to student to do an infodump on everything s/he knows about the topic, including Anne McCaffrey, Arthurian legends, George R.R. Martin, and Dreamworks movies. Getting excited about the topic might help the student get past the fear of having every word weighed.

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    the interesting thing in this case is that the student basically is doing A+ work if they would just turn it in. But I do like the idea of focussing on what is OK as well as on what needs improvement. Also thanks for the link... that is helpful – DQdlM Dec 5 '12 at 16:43
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    I'll upvote this when I find the word "Dragon" in it. I like dragons. :) – John Smithers Dec 5 '12 at 20:33
  • If I had known earlier how inspiring dragons can be. I suspected you would put your comment from above into your answer. But +1 anyway ;) – John Smithers Dec 6 '12 at 0:13
  • I was going to repeat it, but I thought it would be too far astray from Monica's original comment. And yeah, dragons are one of the things I nerd out on . :) – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Dec 6 '12 at 2:32

Since the student is fearful of judgement, which I interpret as meaning "getting a poor grade," and has also told you that putting down thoughts perfectly is an obstacle, it seems that the student's conception of how writing works is malformed.

Your student will benefit from learning that no writing is perfect on the first round. I would suggest that you require several drafts of a particular assignment (which aren't graded) and you together work through the revision process. This should mitigate the fear of judgement since there is no worry about the grade, and the student will (hopefully) have confidence that the final version is worthy of a good grade.

Additionally, these exercises should help the student develop good editing skills while coming to the understanding that "perfect" is something that you work at after you write, not while you are trying to compose a first draft. That should help your student breakthrough the anxiety of starting to write.

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    Thanks for your answer, this is a good start and it is basically what I have tried already but I am looking for other suggestions bc this isn't working. Basically the student fails to complete the drafts (due to the obsession with perfection) and I have little leverage because they are willing to accept zeros on the assignments. I am hoping for some methods that will allow us to work up to drafts. – DQdlM Dec 7 '12 at 3:46

A few things I've done, with some success, with students:

  1. Supervised writing sprints: have the student write in the classroom or during office-hours for a short, intense amount of time. Whatever they write is what they provide for review. After the first few sessions, some of the fear is gone and some of the benefits of the draft/feedback/revision cycle become apparent to the student.

  2. Have the student write drafts (or parts of drafts) by hand. I tried using an editor that had a mode that only allowed typing forward, but writing by hand was just more workable.

Unfortunately, the best techniques--and there are scads of sites out there that repeat all the common advice--demand willingness on the part of the student (and tie more directly to intrinsic motivations). If they aren't willing or able to "adjust their head" then it's nearly impossible to adjust it for them.


There's a technique that can be helpful for someone imprisoned by perfectionism, but it does require a certain amount of willingness to try it:

The idea is that you commit to producing a certain amount of writing daily --say 1 page --and that the writing should be deliberately bad: nonsense, stream of consciousness, even just keyboard mashing. It doesn't need to be on topic in any way, and no editing, or fixing of errors is allowed. The writing should not be graded or judged in any way. In fact, it doesn't even need to be read, as long as you can confirm it's actually being produced.

The idea is that it opens the gates, and gets past the tyranny of the blank page. However, it may take a while of doing this exercise before purposeful writing can be reintroduced.

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