Support Anxious Adult Learners Online

How to Support Anxious Adult Learners Online

Many adult learners find online learning sends their anxiety levels soaring sky high.

It’s not because they’re not up to the challenge.
It’s not because they don’t know how to turn on a computer.

But adult learners often come to the online learning environment with several barriers already in place.

For example:

  • They work full time and have many other commitments.
    So they are always rushed.
  • They start their study after a full work day.
    So they are pre-exhausted and find it hard to concentrate.
  • They resent having to prove their expertise after decades working in their industry.
    So they are resistant to doing the work.
  • They are irritated by having to master new technology.
    So technology itself becomes a barrier – even before they access the content.

All of these factors come together to create a strong sense of anxiety.
And that makes it much more difficult for these learners to progress through the course.


anxious adult learners come with barriers

How to Spot an Anxious Adult Learner

Adult learners who are feeling anxious about their course of study tend to display a few specific characteristics.

Here are a few to look out for:

  • Lack of email response.
    Your emails may be ignored, or be answered weeks later.
  • Missed deadlines.
    The sense of overwhelm might mean that a learner can’t bring themselves to start on an assignment and so they can’t possibly submit on time – or sometimes at all.
  • They ask for multiple extensions.
    Sometimes, there’s just too much to manage in their lives.
    More time is still not enough.
  • No participation in discussions.
    To an anxious learner, the discussion boards are just another part of the course that’s “too hard”.
    I often get emails from learners asking if the discussion boards are compulsory – they just can’t face them.


how to spot an anxious adult learner


What Can You Do to Help Anxious Adult Learners?

There are several ways to support adult learners who are paralysed by the inertia of anxiety.

Try some of these techniques:

1.  Double check your instructions are really clear.

The online instructions might seem self-explanatory to you, but you’re a subject expert.
Try putting yourself in the shoes of an overwhelmed learner.
Will they understand what’s required of them?

2.  Make navigation of the LMS intuitive.

For the overwhelmed adult learner, Blackboard or Moodle is a different planet.
They are immediately lost, and don’t know how to navigate to what they need.

So make sure there’s a logical sequence for learners to follow to find their way through the online content.
Is every relevant link or section clearly labelled?

3.  Are you using simple language?

Overly technical language or jargon will make learners feel inferior and, yes, even stupid.
This makes them more anxious.
And undermines their confidence from the start.Instructions should be so clear they can’t be misunderstood.


make instructions clear

4.  Make yourself available.

By using a friendly tone and being approachable, you add a human element to the experience.
If you’re warm and helpful, you increase the chances of a disoriented learner reaching out for help.

Try directly inviting learners to contact you with questions.

5.  Answer questions promptly.

Your adult learners may be studying late into the night and have an urgent question.
You don’t have to answer at 2am, but try to respond quickly in the morning to help them keep their forward momentum going.

6.  Provide feedback on time.

Learners who are already anxious just get more and more worried when their assignments are not returned quickly.
Timely feedback is a great way to stop them worrying.
It’s so helpful to confirm that they’re on the right track – and should keep going.

7.  Critique the work, not the learner.

Avoid using phrases like: You haven’t done this…
Instead, keep your language objective: The assignment is asking for this…

8.  Include some positivity in your feedback.

There’s almost always something to be praised in the work you mark.
Even if it needs a considerable amount of revision or review to pass, find something to praise first, and then be specific about what needs to improve.


include positive feedback


It’s not surprising that many adult learners arrive in your courses already feeling anxious.
There are so many competing pressures and commitments they’re already dealing with.

But with some simple strategies like these, you can make the learning journey less frightening – and let your learners know that they have someone in their corner…


Graphics used under license from Deposit Photos.

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