Why Students Get Anxious: The Black Box of Learning

An ominous black box on a desk

“What if I haven’t studied enough?” “What if I get asked a tricky question?” “What if I forget what I studied?” “What if I still have gaps I haven’t found yet?”

Well, what if I told you all of these questions arise from the same fundamental reason?

This is the black box of learning.

What is the black box?

The term “black box” comes from the field of engineering and refers to a system that can be observed only in terms of its inputs and outputs, with no knowledge of its internal workings. The term is often used to describe complex systems where the internal processes are not well understood or are difficult to observe.

In the context of learning, the black box effect refers to the fact that the process of learning is not always well understood by learners. Learners may know what they are expected to learn and what the outcomes of the learning process should be, but they may not fully understand the mechanisms by which they are learning. This lack of understanding can create anxiety and stress for learners, as they may feel like they are not in control of their own learning and unsure of how to improve.

In simple terms, learners know that the “inputs” of learning are “time and effort”, and the desired outputs may be “good exam results” if the learner is a student in formal education. Anxiety arises when they are unclear about how time and effort are converted into good results.

Many students will engage in “avoidant” behaviour due to the black box. This means they avoid situations in which uncertainties around learning or gaps in knowledge may be exposed for fear of triggering anxiety. Examples include:

  1. Avoiding difficult tests to avoid finding gaps and mistakes in learning
  2. Procrastinating as a way to avoid the uncertainty of learning
  3. Becoming more willingly distracted by social media
  4. Disengaging from learning due to the stress of studying

This is similar to the behaviour of someone who is Enochlophobic (afraid of large crowds of people). Those who suffer from Enochlophobia will avoid parties, gatherings, shops, and other situations where there is a risk of a crowd. This often has significant detrimental health effects.

Opening the box

The key to opening the black box is metacognition.

Metacognition is the ability to think about one’s own thinking. When learners are metacognitive, they are able to monitor their own learning, identify areas where they need additional support, and adjust their learning strategies accordingly. This can help learners feel more in control of their own learning and can reduce anxiety and stress.

In many ways, the anxiety students often feel is rational. They are worried they may do poorly because they lack certainty that their methods will produce good results. In many cases, this is true! Their methods are often lacking, and the risk of performing poorly is genuinely high. In this case, the “what if” is not unreasonable. While one solution is to help the person manage their anxiety so it does not affect their mental health negatively, it does not change the fact that they are performing poorly and lack control.

Another way to open the black box is through the use of formative assessment. Formative assessment provides learners with feedback on their learning, which can help them understand how they are learning and where they need additional support. This can help learners feel more in control of their own learning and reduce anxiety and stress.

Unfortunately, many learners have been conditioned to dread formative assessments. If they have fixed mindsets about success and failure, receiving a bad mark in a formative assessment may not be helpful and only trigger them into further anxiety.

Ultimately, if the learner does not know how to improve their situation, more information about the true state of their situation is not helpful. Formative assessments are only valuable if the learner is able to use this information to make adjustments.

Think of an engine light in a car. If you do not know much about engines and cars, the engine light simply tells you that “something” is wrong. While the light coming on tells you that something is wrong, unless you are in a position to fix it, it only adds to the anxiety.


The black box effect of learning can create stress and anxiety for learners. However, by encouraging metacognition and opening the black box through the use of formative assessment and other strategies, learners can feel more in control of their own learning and reduce anxiety and stress. By understanding how they are learning and having a sense of control over their own learning, learners can become more effective and efficient learners.


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