The Challenge of over-coming risk aversion in learning

Wendy A. Garnham

University of Sussex

I have to admit, I was more than a little pleased to see a greater emphasis on pupils’ personal development, character and resilience in the proposed changes to the OFSTED criteria for schools in the UK. Could this be the first signs of a reversal in the focus on convergent thinking geared towards exam results? I am optimistic. It’s a small step on a long road.

League tables, moves from module based assessment to end of year assessment, and greater emphasis on rote learning and memorisation in readiness for exams have led to an increasing emphasis on performance goals in secondary and further education. Midgley and Edelin (2010) point to the way in which such goals lead students to become concerned with being judged as able and with their ability to outperform others. To outperform others, intense rote learning takes place and convergent thinking becomes the norm. However the increasingly narrow focus on training students to pass an exam has negative effects on student well-being (Denscombe, 2010). No surprise then that this feeds into a picture of increasing stress reported by students. A recent survey conducted by Unite Students, found 71% of students attributed stress to having to perform well in tests and a 2016 YouGov survey similarly identified study as the primary stressor for 71% of university student respondents.

Shen et al (2018) suggest that convergent thinking, characteristic of traditional exams, is associated with risk aversion and in adults, risk aversion is associated with lower cognitive ability (Dohment et al, 2010). Indeed, Beghetto (2008) points out the importance of teachers in creating an environment where risk-taking and consequently creativity flourish.

The lack of creativity in students is often commented on by corporations in the global market (Synder, 2003). It is worthy to note that entrepreneurial breakthroughs often depend on the willingness to take risks (Baas et al, 2015) and this willingness mediates the effect of intrinsic motivation on creativity in employees (Dewett, 2007). The emphasis on exam performance therefore bears little relationship to the characteristics valued by employers. In fact,  Zhang (2018) goes so far as to suggest that if high scores are the main thing a nation desires, then this has to come…

“… at the expense of innovation, creativity, passion for learning and physical health” (Zhang, 2018, p.299)

As students make the transition to the world of higher education, the focus on independent learning, innovation and creativity is often at odds with the well rehearsed and familiar learning experiences that students have previously experienced and can, in itself, be a challenge for many students (Postareff, 2016). Students often enter university looking for “the right answer” or model answers for assignments and discussion questions rather than using their ability to think independently and creatively about the topics covered. The search for a model answer can lead to heightened levels of anxiety (particularly where none are provided) and a perceived lack of academic control as discussed by Gonzalez et al (2015). The anxiety shifts from having to rote learn to how to move away from this.

How do we introduce students to this in a way which minimises stress and anxiety? According to Khan and Madden (2018), active learning could be useful in reducing anxiety and stress around assessment and is viewed by students as enhancing and positively impacting their learning. Active learning can enable students to adopt mastery rather than performance goals. Using Midgley and Edelin’s description, mastery goals emphasise the process of gaining skills and knowledge and moreover, have been associated with positive feelings about our own learning potential (Urdan, 1997).

Myself and Heather Taylor have been exploring a new approach to essay writing with foundation students. We have called this approach “Active Essay Writing” as the focus is on students to complete a series of preparatory tasks which enable them to develop their own original, creative ideas around an essay topic before they even contemplate writing their essay response. For example, students are encouraged to think of the essay title as a question which may initiate a conversation. If the first person regurgitates a list of evidence obtained from academic articles, this makes for a very one-sided conversation. However, if they think of this as a conversation, it enables students to structure their thinking as a critical argument. Padlet is used as a receptacle for the students to document their thinking and their research as they progress. In thinking of the essay question as the start of a conversation, they can construct an online mind map to show the different angles that the conversation might take. This can be documented on the padlet wall for them to refer back to as they get nearer to the point of writing their essay response. Only later do they begin to read around these ideas using academic literature to support their arguments. The principles of active essay writing stem from an approach to essay writing developed by Professor Tom Ormerod, an approach designed to encourage students to move away from simple regurgitation of lecture material. Did it work? Yes! The preliminary results are promising. In a mid-term review, students gave positive feedback on the active essay writing approach, for example:

“I am already noticing my increased thinking development”


“I like the ideas which we bring up and how we are encouraged to think outside of the box, able to present any idea without restriction.”

Long may it last! So, where does this leave the story? This term, we are focusing on risk taking in learning as our theme and would love to hear from you about your thoughts, experiments and experiences in encouraging students to take risks in their learning. Have you used any active learning methods to promote this? How do you develop independence, originality and creativity in your students? We are looking for blog posts, commentary on our Twitter page (@ActiveLearnNTW) and of course conference submissions (although these can be on any aspect of active learning!). See our website for more details: https://activelearningnetwork.com

A more detailed account of our active essay writing project will be documented in our forthcoming Active Learning book. More details to follow.

Dr. Wendy Garnham




Baas, M.,  Koch, S., Nijstad, B.A. & De Dreu, C.K. (2015) Conceiving creativity: The nature and consequences of laypeople’s beliefs about the realization of creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts 9(3), 340-354. DOI: 10.1037/a0039420

Beghetto, R.A. (2008) Does Assessment Kill Student Creativity? The Educational Forum 69, 254-263. DOI: 10.1080/00131720508984694.

Denscombe, M. (2010) Social conditions for stress: Young people’s experience of doing GCSEs. British Educational Research Journal 26(3), p. 359–374. DOI: 10.1080/713651566

Dewett, T. (2007) Linking intrinsic motivation,risk-taking and employee creativity in an R&D environment. R&D Management, 37(3), 197-208. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9310.2700.00469.x

Dohmen, T., Falk, A., Huffman, D., & Sunde, U. (2010). Are risk aversion and impatience related to cognitive ability?. American Economic Review, 100(3), 1238-60.

Gonzalez, A., Faílde Garrido, J. M. F., Rodriguez Castro, Y. & Carrera Rodriguez, M. V. (2015) Class anxiety in secondary education: Exploring structural relations with perceived control, engagement, disaffection and performance. Spanish Journal of Psychology, 18, 1-10.

Chief Inspector sets out vision for new Education Inspection Framework (2018, October 11), Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/news/chief-inspector-sets-out-vision-for-new-education-inspection-framework. DOI:10.1017/sjp.2015.70

Khan, A., & Madden, J. (2018). Active Learning: A New Assessment Model that Boost Confidence and Learning While Reducing Test Anxiety. International Journal Modern Education and Computer Science. 12. Pp1-9. DOI: 10.5815/ijmecs.2018.12.01.

Midgley, C. & Edelin, K.C. (2010) Middle school reform and early adolescent well-being: The good news and the bad. Educational Psychologist 33 (4), 195-206. DOI:10.1207/s15326985ep3304_4

Shen, W., Hommel, B., Yuan, Y., Chang, L. & Zhang, W.  (2018) Risk-taking and creativity: Convergent, but not divergent thinking is better in low-risk takers. Creativity Research Journal 30 (2), 224-231. DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2018.1446852.

Snyder, K. D. (2003). Ropes, poles, and space: Active learning in business education. Active Learning in Higher Education, 4(2), 159-167.

Unite Students (2016) ‘Student Resilience: Unite Students Insight Report 2016’, Retrieved from https://www.unitestudents.com/about-us/insightreport

Urdan,T. (1997) Achievement goal theory:Past results, future directions.In M.L.Maehr & P.R. Pintrich (Eds), Advances in motivation and achievement 10, pp.99-141. Greenwich, CT:JAL.  

YouGov, 2016, ‘One in four students suffer from mental health problems’, https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/08/09/quarter-britains-students-are-afflicted-mentalhea/

Zhang, Y. (2018) Making students happy with wellbeing-oriented education: Case study of a secondary school in China. The Asia-Pacific Education Researcher, 25 (3), pp. 463-471.

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. Picture By ESB Professional. Royalty-free stock photo ID: 264205910

Retro effect and toned image of a woman hand writing a note witha fountain pen on a notebook. Picture by Constantin Stanciu. Royalty-free stock photo ID: 359823953

A pyramid of stacked balls each marked risk with one reading Reward symbolizing the hidden benefits of taking a risk and overcoming a challenge with a great return on your investment of effort. By IQoncept. Royalty-free stock photo ID: 99993146.

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