How to tell if your students suffer from anxiety

Science, the apocalypse, and teaching / Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

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When teaching in college we usually expect students to ‘have their shit together’ but I have come to realize this is not the case. Students have trouble transitioning from a dependent high school to an independent college lifestyle. After spending the last five years teaching freshman non-majors (students who aren’t biology majors), I’ve been able to pick up on some nervous ticks many of my students have. Then I’m able to pull the student aside and reassure him/her that it’s okay. Sometimes it’s not okay, but now we can work together and find a way for them to succeed in my class.

So here’s a list of the top 10 subtle nervous habits I’ve noticed some of my higher anxiety students have:



1. Nail biting

A lot of people do this to deal with stress. It’s easy to spot, the student has his/her hand in their mouth usually followed by spitting. This one is hard in my anatomy labs. We do dissections and the lab is anything but sterile.


2. Picking their nails/skin around fingers

Nail/skin picking is a little more subtle. This is a little more noticeable when they are picking at their skin. There is noticeable wounds around the fingernails and sometimes their fingers are bleeding.


3. Lip picking

This one is similar to the nail biting. The hand will be by the student’s mouth. They’ll pull the top layer of skin off of their lip. It’s easy to notice when the student does it excessively. You’ll notice scabbing and sometimes bleeding.



4. Excessive phone checking

As we all know, all of our students are addicted to their phones! I’ve noticed when my students are stressed or upset they go straight for their phones. It’s kind of sad. They pick it up, look at it, and sit it down *repeat*.


5. Plucking out eyebrows or facial hair

Plucking out eyebrows just looks painful! Sometimes the student just look like they’re rubbing their eyebrows. Then, you see them pinch and pull out their eyebrows. If a student is missing patches of facial hair or eyebrows, look for this activity.


6. Hand wringing/clasping

I think hand wringing is more self explanatory. It’s harder to notice as a ‘bad habit.’ It’s hard to notice, the student may be cold.


7. Hair twirling or pulling at ends

Hair twirling could just look like the student is playing with their hair. The difference is, you’ll notice when they’re doing it. Is it during an exam, office hours, or with friends? Pulling at the ends of their hair is more noticeable. The student will just look at their hair and start breaking it off and pulling pieces out.


8. Excessive water drinking

We have a lot of athletes here and they all have this signature green Gatorade water bottle. When some of these students get nervous they take quick excessive swigs from these bottles. Maybe they’re just thirsty, but I noticed some students tend to only do it during certain times.


9. Attentive in class but failing exams

This could mean the student has severe test anxiety. I’ve noticed this a handful of times. Sometimes you can’t really do anything about it – but try to make reasonable accommodation for the student. You may be surprised and see a drastic increase in their performance and confidence. I usually pull the student aside and ask if they have test anxiety. Then we discuss different ways to take the test and how to study the material.


10. Drastic change in appearance

If you have a student who usually dresses really nice but then suddenly started dressing down there may be something going on. Try to pay attention to the student, they may be depressed. Try to compliment them when they do dress nice. That may be the friendly words they need to hear that day.

If you have any other anxiety ticks you’ve noticed your students doing feel free to share in the comments below! I feel it’s best to make sure students are on their ‘A’ game. A little kindness can go a long way. You might be the one to unlock their academic potential and facilitate their success!

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