Academic Engagement Amongst Higher-level Education Students with Social Anxiety

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It has been widely reported that higher level education students experience fear of scrutiny and negative perceptions from their peers both within and outside of academic settings to a level that impacts how they engage with their studies. This is receiving increased attention as high social anxiety increases stress levels which significantly interferes with academic (occupational) functioning and compromises the quality of academic engagement. Academic engagement is an indicator that students have interest in the subject matter, thus impacting their academic participation and effort.

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There is a striking propagation of literature that indicates the negative impact of social anxiety on academic engagement. Identifying the personal resources that individuals who experience social anxiety utilise to positively engage with their academics can enable future research and intervention measures that universities and higher level institutes can implement to enhance their academic engagement.

Aims and Objectives

A quantitative cross-sectional survey was conducted to establish an evidence based link between social anxiety and academic engagement. The literature review was complemented by a cross-sectional study with the purpose of investigating how students with social anxiety employ emotional regulation, goal setting, self-motivation and emotional intelligence to engage effectively with their academics.


The literature review yielded 2 online journals that met the inclusion criteria of being published within the last 5 years, open access text, and journal articles relevant to British Psychological Societies ethical standards. An online questionnaire was distributed to current and former higher level education students with a screening measure for social anxiety. A total 231 former and current higher level education students took the survey and a mixed population of 58 participants met the inclusion criteria of social anxiety. Participants who met the inclusion criteria completed the anonymous online survey which asked about their experience of self-motivation, emotional regulation, emotional intelligence and goal setting with reference to their current or most recent interaction with academics.


Students pursuing higher-level education are constantly faced with a multiplicity of difficulties caused by social anxiety. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) V defines social anxiety disorder as marked or intense fear or anxiety, persisting for over 6 months, of social situations in which the individual may be scrutinized by others, significantly interfering with routines, occupational (academic) functioning, social activities, and relationships (American Psychiatric Association, 5th Ed, 2013). As academic studies are a primary cause of stress in students, combined social anxiety and academic anxiety may therefore impact academic engagement. Dweck (1986) assesses academic engagement using various keywords that include implicit theories of intelligence, school performance, cognitive engagement in learning and goal orientation.

To elaborate on Dweck’s (1986) model, academic engagement can be described as the combined factors of academic identification (which refers to getting along with teachers, having an interest in the subject matter, and related behaviours and attitudes) and academic participation (which captures the student’s work effort both inside and outside of school, including hours spent on homework, meeting deadlines, not skipping classes, and so on). This research suggests that intrinsic and extrinsic factors can be applied to influence how individuals with social anxiety engage with their studies.

Patrick et al (2007) promotes that better academic outcomes can come forth as a result of positive interaction and mutual respect between self, peers and teachers, whereas solely promoting performance may lead to worse academic outcomes. Students show more engagement in a classroom that supports positive interaction; where they feel that their goals and efforts are valued and report a sense of belonging (Wang & Halcombe, 2010). The evidence indicates that academic engagement could be measured through the individual participation and value a student places in the content before them, and the presentation of this content to the individual is a key feature that results in positive or negative academic engagement.

Social anxiety has been considered stressful to the extent that it impacts the student’s physical and mental engagement in academic settings. The prevalence of social anxiety amongst current and former higher-level education students and its associated factors has been reported widely. Furthermore, this occurrence is increasing in proportion amongst adolescents and high school students who experience social anxiety from a young age, carrying it forward to their higher-level education years. Mekuria (2017) measured social anxiety amongst high school students as a predictor for further studies occupational, mental and educational problems. The study reported an overall prevalence of social anxiety amongst students, resulting in low confidence, negative social skills and alcohol abuse, all which negatively impact academic engagement. Social anxiety hinders individuals, especially children, in several areas of their lives, notably so causing a decline in their academic performance (Mekuria, 2017).

It is vital to investigate the correlation between social anxiety and learning/academic engagement. Supplementary studies report that giving presentations, participating in group projects, being required to speak in seminars, asking questions and other common features of university life were commonly associated with social anxiety (Veale, 2003). Alden & Taylor (2004) state a dysfunction in the school environment for adolescents who experience fear-based difficulties in communicating with in the classroom. In their study, 91% of students with social anxiety disorder avoided classes, transferred universities to avoid presentation and cited poor grades due to the fear of participation. As a prevalent psychological condition among adolescents (Merikangas et al, 2010), social anxiety is linked as the primary reason that students feel nervous when going to school, in the class and speaking in front of the class.

Investigating whether social anxiety is a risk factor for poor academic engagement would increase awareness and support amongst students and teachers in the classroom. A study conducted by Arjanggi, R et al (2016) reported social anxiety as a predictor of negative adjustment to university. The two scales used measured social anxiety scale and student academic adjustment respectively. The results indicated that students who were afraid of negative judgement, experienced discomfort in social situations and were apprehensive when meeting new people, characteristics of social anxiety, felt the negative effects on their academic adjustment. This study indicated the negative effects of social anxiety on academic engagement and obtained reliability scores of 842.

Most significantly, exploring social anxiety intervention could improve the overall quality of the academic experience, applying especially to high school students and younger learners. Given the literature demonstrating the link between social anxiety and academic engagement, it is essential to investigate mitigating factors or “buffers” that individuals with social anxiety already employ to engage effectively with their academics. The classroom is an inherently social environment with students learning alongside peers and thus is one of the ways in which academic ambition can be nurtured. Classrooms that promote social self-efficacy (defined as confidence about communicating with teachers/students) are linked to academic engagement (Patrick, Ryan & Kaplan, 2007). It is essential for students to have awareness and support regarding their own social anxiety, and this process can be reinforced by the entire academic institute.


The cross sectional study investigated factors employed by students who screen for social anxiety for engaging with their academics.

This study would report items based on extensive literature reviews that would:

  1. Screen for social anxiety as an inclusion criteria.
  2. Measure the predictor variables of emotional regulation, emotional intelligence, motivation and goal setting.
  3. Measure the outcome of academic engagement.

The questionnaire was created using qualtrics survey software and distributed through online channels. Ethical and safety considerations were put into place and all participants were made aware that the questionnaire was voluntary and all data gathered would be anonymized.

The population for this study were current and former higher – level education students, who have either attained or are pursuing a college/vocational certificate, diploma, associate degree, bachelor degree, master’s degree or doctorate. As the purpose of the study is to assess students with social anxiety, there was an exclusion criteria and students were screened for social anxiety disorder. The inclusion criteria for this study was measured by the valid and reliable Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)Screening Questions consisting of an already established combination of 5 yes or no questions which screen individuals from the social phobia module through the fear and/or avoidance of social situations and 13 yes or no questions that look at performance and interactional fears. This screener categorised social anxiety disorder into generalised and non-generalised subtypes, where the generalised subtype was defined as fearing at least 7 (that is most) of the 13 feared social situations and non-generalised subtype as fearing 6 or less of the feared social situations in the DSM IV respectively.

Having established the role of feared social situations in the participant, those with non-generalised subtype of SAD were defined, for the purpose of this journal, as having no history of social anxiety and those with generalised subtype of SAD met the inclusion criteria and proceeded to the rest of the study. For this purpose, the systematic review was conducted via a questionnaire developed from reliable and validated questionnaires that included Situational Motivation Questionnaire , the revised version of Emotion Awareness Questionnaire (EAQ-30), Academic Emotion Regulation Scale (AERS), Daily Goals Scale and a section of Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MLSQ) which measured Cognitive Strategy Use. From the literature review, these predictor variables were deemed important in investigating extrinsic and intrinsic measures which include emotional regulation, emotional intelligence, motivation and goal setting to measure the outcome variable of academic engagement through cognitive interaction with their studies.

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