View Dyslexie font  |  View high contrast
Subscribe to the ADCET newsletter

Engaging online students who experience high anxiety

As well as being a cause of anxiety in itself, the COVID-19 Pandemic has necessitated a pivot towards greater use of online learning platforms for both synchronous (all together) and asynchronous (individually paced) learning.

Although some students who experience high anxiety find the online learning environment positive, for many others this is not the case. 

Fortunately, there are effective strategies to mitigate levels of anxiety for all students and to engage those with high levels of anxiety in online learning environments. 

What is High Anxiety?

Anxious feelings which: don't go away; happen without a reason; and, make it hard to cope with life

On average, 25% of Australians will experience anxiety at some stage.

    1. Design a supportive online classroom
      Before the course begins, use the data to know your student cohort.  Check if you have any students who have Access Plans due to anxiety.

      Invite students to share why they are at university and in your course. Offer a wide choice of response formats. Alert students to a participatory activity 5-10 minutes before it begins. Model the behaviour you want to see.

    2. Acknowledge the presence of high anxiety
      Talk about anxiety and tertiary study, and introduce coping strategies e.g. regular stretch and eye breaks, a relaxed, topical question/story to begin each session, active mentoring, small group work, anonymous and non-verbal response techniques.

    3. Create a welcoming and inclusive online learning community
      Balance learning dialogues, i.e., you to the student; student to students; students with resources; Plan for personal introductions and culmination and celebration activities to provide a community-based start and end to the course.

    4. Be flexible
      Design curriculum that provides opportunity for students to individualise their work if they wish. For some, this enables a sense of control and relationship with the familiar.

    5. Use and encourage supportive language
      Use terms consistently; Use simple and clear language wherever possible; Check for understanding, especially about course-specific terms; Model language and tone use in discussion forums; Establish your standards early and know and share how you will address contravention.

    6. Seek student feedback about anxiety at critical times
      Student anxiety about some issues reduces with time and familiarity. Week Three is often a good time to check-in with students about high anxiety issues like IT access, workload and time management.

    7. Be available and present
      Be very clear and consistent with students about your expectations and your availability; Use and monitor a range of tools to communicate with students during and after classes; Know and use referral services available to students; Safely share empathetic aspects from your life if you can.

    8. Link learning to the world and students’ ambitions
      Students are usually motivated by a future vision for themselves. Refer to these individual futures to reinforce perseverance and relevance; Link content to current topics and students’ life experiences when possible to foster a sense of the familiar.

    9. Make students’ progress visible to them
      For anxious students especially, knowing how they are progressing can reduce uncertainty and aimlessness. Regularly encourage the use of personal dashboards and progress reviews and any consequent help seeking; Find opportunities to praise the class as a whole; Acknowledge the challenges inherent in tertiary learning.

    10. Be explicit and consistent
      Trusted consistency is a security blanket that can help students reduce their stress levels.
      Being explicit respects students’ need for clarity and reduces the amount of uncertainty
      (= anxiety) which they experience. 

When I’m highly anxious I feel…
Nervous, fearful, tense, worried, irritable, anxious, perfectionistic,
impending danger or doom, slighted by feedback, unworthy,
unconfident, silent, unmotivated,
unable to concentrate ……

Author: Lyn Dunn

February 2021

Further information


Beyond Blue


Online Ice breaker activities for tertiary students

Icebreakers with Discussion Boards (University of Queensland)

Icebreakers for Online Classes (University of Waterloo, Ontario Canada)

Facilitating online discussions

Guide to Online Discussion Boards - Facilitation (University of Tasmania)


Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership Ltd (AITSL) 2020, Spotlight What works in Online/distance teaching and learning? AITSL, Melbourne, Vic.? viewed 18 January 2021,

Bilyeu, A et al 2020, Manzano 13 teaching best practices for virtual, blended and classroom instruction, blog, 31 October, viewed 18 January 2021,

Boettcher, JV 2011 revised 2013, Ten best practices for teaching online quick guide for new online faculty, viewed 19 January 2021,

Life Education ?, 5 ways to manage anxiety in your class, Life Education, viewed 18 January 2021, <>

Stone, C 2016, Opportunity through online learning, Improving student access, participation and success in higher education National Guidelines, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education and The University of Newcastle, viewed 18 January 2021,

Stone, C et al 2016, ‘Opportunity through online learning; experiences of first-in family students in online open-entry higher education’, Australian Journal of Adult Learning, vol.56, no.2 pp. 146-169. 

Unger, S & Meiran, W 2020, ‘Student attitudes towards online education during the COVID-19 viral outbreak of 2020: Distance learning in a time of social distance’, International Journal of Technology in Education and Science (IJTES), vol. 4, no. 4, pp.256-266