Who’s Afraid of Academic Writing? A Reflective Essay on Dispelling Anxiety and Fear in an Academic Writing Course

WONG Jock Onn
Centre for English Language Communication (CELC)

Jock Onn considers how educators can apply an ethics of care in their teaching, as he takes us through survey findings on students’ perspectives towards academic writing, particularly the emotions they associate with this activity and the challenges they face.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Wong J. O. (2024, March 24). Who’s afraid of academic writing? A reflective essay on dispelling anxiety and fear in an academic writing course. Teaching Connections. https://blog.nus.edu.sg/teachingconnections/2024/03/24/whos-afraid-of-academic-writing-a-reflective-essay-on-dispelling-anxiety-and-fear-in-an-academic-writing-course/


I had previously spent many semesters in my teaching practice developing methods that I thought would help students excel in academic writing. It did not matter to me at the time that student feedback told me that my coursework was demanding; I took it to mean that I was on the right track (Wong, 2023a). It was only in recent years that I realised the need to show more care in my teaching (Wong, 2023b). Last year, amazingly, for the first time, the word ‘care’ appeared in my student feedback. A student wrote, “Dr Wong displays care for his students…” Realising the importance of care, I decided to find out why students need care and conducted a simple Google survey (entitled “Attitudes Towards Academic Writing”) last semester with my three classes. I asked them to make known the emotions they associate with academic writing, write qualitative comments on their answers, and tell me what challenges they face. I received 41 responses, and the survey yielded some tentative but interesting findings.


The survey asked, “Which of the following emotions do you associate with academic writing?” As shown in Table 1, over 50% of the students associated academic writing with fear and anxiety. Slightly over a quarter associated it with a rather positive feeling (26.8%) and only a very small percentage (4.9%) associated it with something very positive. The fact that over half of the respondents associated academic writing with fear (53.7%) and anxiety (63.4%) was a surprise to me. Fortunately, less than 10% hated academic writing.

Table 1
Student attitudes towards academic writing (in descending order of student percentages)


Students also gave qualitative comments on why they experienced fear and anxiety in academic writing. Some indicated that they had insufficient linguistic knowledge, including the vocabulary and skills to write academically. A few even claimed that they did not know what academic writing entails. Other respondents indicated a lack of confidence. For example, a student wrote that knowing that their work is being graded caused anxiety. Several students attributed their anxiety to uncertainty and a lack of confidence in academic writing. In some cases, fear or anxiety was a result of bad experiences in junior college (JC). A student recounted their JC experience, when they had to produce an essay in three hours, causing their brain and hand to hurt.


The survey further asked respondents to tick the problems they face in academic writing from a list. Table 2 shows that the top three problems students face in academic writing have to do with not knowing what constitutes academic writing, not having enough ideas, and sentence cohesion. More than half of the students said that they did not know how to write academically (58.5%) and did not have enough ideas for writing (51.2%). Also, over 30% of respondents had problems with the introduction (‘don’t know how to start’) (36.6%), and grammar (34.1%).

Table 2
Problems that students face (in decreasing order of importance)



Anxiety is said to be “one of the critical individual affective factors in the process of learning a second language or a foreign language” (He et al., 2021, p. 1). Presumably, the same could be said of the process of learning academic writing. Anxiety, as studies suggest, is linked to “avoidance of the feared situation and loss of motivation to perform”, which could adversely affect retention (England et al., 2017, p. 2/17). Student anxiety and fear can ultimately affect language performance (Soriano & Co, 2022, p. 450). Thus, dispelling anxiety and fear among students is a pedagogic imperative.   


To dispel anxiety and fear, one would benefit from understanding what they mean. I believe most of us do. However, two co-authors offer an interesting perspective. According to Kastrup and Mallow (2016), fear “deals with things of which there is good reason to be afraid”, whereas anxiety means “being scared of something that is not intrinsically fearful” (pp. 3-1). Although Kastrup and Mallow (2016) speak in the context of science, their definitions seem to make general sense. As educators, we recognise that while some student concerns are practical in nature (e.g., they do not know the rules), others seem to be psychological. The solution to practical concerns could be addressed in a more straightforward fashion by using sound teaching methods; however, psychological barriers may require a different approach.


My proposed way of addressing the psychological challenge is to replace the bad experiences with pleasant ones. As Cook (2021) puts it, teachers “must provide instructor presence by providing a positive education experience for students” and give them “a sense of belonging” (p. 136). The teacher can achieve this by creating a positive learning experience through an ethic of care (Noddings, 2012). The teacher can display “empathic concern” (Patel, 2023) by acknowledging student perspectives in class, using inclusive languages, encouraging open communication, and accommodating student needs (p. 64). The teacher can create “a safe learning environment” by establishing “rules of engagement” and encouraging students to “explain their answers” in class without labelling the answers as “wrong” or “incorrect” (Teo, 2023, p. 79). After all, “harsh criticisms” can impede learning (Soriano & Co, 2022, p. 452), whereas positive feedback can alleviate anxiety (He et al., 2021). A student recently gave feedback that I often asked them whether they understood what I had taught, and this suggests that checking for understanding regularly is reassuring. To this end, the teacher could use ungraded quizzes, which do not cause student anxiety (England et al., 2017). There are many other things a teacher could do in this vein to help address such psychological learning barriers (Harvard Medical School, 2017; Abigail, 2019).


To maximise student learning, the teacher plays a big role, a role much bigger than I had previously thought—the teacher has a responsibility to dispel fear and anxiety among students. I agree with Kastrup and Mallow (2016) that it is the teachers “who most affect the anxiety (or lack thereof) of the students” (pp. 3-12). I would now say that what makes an excellent teacher is not just the use of time-tested teaching methods but also a capacity to care (Wong, 2023b). Thus, for me, the obvious way forward is to ‘integrate care in higher education’ by ‘teaching with heart’ (Holles, 2023, p. 18).



Abigail, H. (2019, March 5). Tips to beat back writing anxiety. Retrieved from IUPUI University Writing Center Blog: https://liberalarts.iupui.edu/programs/uwc/tips-to-beat-back-writing-anxiety/

Cook, M. (2021). Students’ perceptions of interactions from instructor presence, cognitive presence, and social presence in online lessons. International Journal of TESOL Studies (Special Issue “ELT in the Time of the Coronavirus 2020”, Part 3), 3(1), 134-161. https://doi.org/10.46451/ijts.2021.03.03

England, B. J., Brigati, J. R., & Schussler, E. E. (2017, August 3). Student anxiety in introductory biology classrooms: Perceptions about active learning and persistence in the major. PLoS One, 12(8), e0182506. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0182506

Harvard Medical School. (2017, October 13). Write your anxieties away. Retrieved from Harvard Health Blog: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/write-your-anxieties-away-2017101312551

He, X., Zhou, D., & Zhang, X. (2021, July-September). An empirical study on Chinese University students’ English Language classroom anxiety with the idiodynamic approach. Sage Open, 11(3), 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1177/21582440211037676

Holles, C. (2023). Faculty-student interaction and well-being: The call for care. International Journal of TESOL Studies, 5(3), 7-20. https://doi.org/10.58304/ijts.20230302

Kastrup, H., & Mallow, J. V. (2016). Student Attitudes, Student Anxieties, and How to Address Them: A Handbook for Science Teachers. Morgan & Claypool Publishers. https://dx.doi.org/10.1088/978-1-6817-4265-6

Noddings, N. (2012). The caring relation in teaching. Oxford Review of Education, 38(6), 771-81. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2012.745047

Patel, S. N. (2023). Empathetic and dialogic interactions: Modelling intellectual Empathy and communicating care. International Journal of TESOL Studies, 3, 51-70. https://doi.org/10.58304/ijts.20230305

Soriano, R. M., & Co, A. G. (2022, March). Voices from within: Students’ lived experiences on English language anxiety. International Journal of Evaluation and Research in Education, 11(1), 449-58. http://dx.doi.org/10.11591/ijere.v11i1.21898

Teo, C. (2023). Beyond academic grades: Reflections on my care for university students’ holistic development in Singapore. International Journal of TESOL Studies, 5(3), 71-83. https://doi.org/10.58304/ijts.20230306

Wong, J. (2023a, March 29). When angels fall: The plight of an ambitious educator. Teaching Connections: Advancing Discussions about Teaching. Retrieved from https://blog.nus.edu.sg/teachingconnections/2023/03/29/when-angels-fall-the-plight-of-an-ambitious-educator/

Wong, J. (2023b). What completes an excellent teacher? Care in higher education English language teaching. International Journal of TESOL Studies2, 5(3), 1-6. https://doi.org/10.58304/ijts.20230301


WongJO profile pic

WONG Jock Onn is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC). He has taught semantics and academic English in the Centre for many years. A linguist (more specifically, semanticist) by training and an educator by vocation, Jock has published in both areas, and in areas such as pragmatics and intercultural communication. As an educator, he believes in maximizing student potential, and publishes with his undergraduate students and provides opportunities for some of them to be the first author. He also subscribes to an ethic of care.

Jock Onn can be reached at jock@nus.edu.sg.


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