As Halloween creeps up on us once again, we marvel at the difference in how humans respond to situations and beings designed to frighten. However, for those working in education, it also represents an opportunity to reflect on this inherent aspect to the human experience and to investigate its impact on learning.

Fans of the science fiction novel Dune might be quite familiar with the Bene Gesserit proverb which states: ‘Fear is the mind-killer’. When Frank Herbert wrote Dune, many prescribed the perspective that emotions, which include fear, hinder rational thought. However, most psychologists and neuroscientists now recognise that there is a reciprocal relationship between emotion and thought (Perrin et al, 2014). To better understand this, let’s briefly consider the neurological processes that underpin the experience of fear.

The biological state of fear

Fear responses initiate in the amygdala, which triggers heightened levels of adrenaline and cortisol. The amygdala sends signals to the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex – regions that are equipped in processing the context in which the perceived danger appears. Past experiences and social learning assist us in evaluating the legitimacy of threats. In this way, emotion and thought work together to determine whether a perceived threat is legitimate or not.

What can also be seen in this process is how one’s response to stressors largely depends on their interpretation of a trigger and its context, rather than the trigger itself (Dickerson and Kemeny, 2004). 

However, while fear responses are essential to human survival, not all fears are grounded in reality. Fear is believed to first develop in infants between the ages of six and twelve months (Nelson and De Haan). In early childhood, the development of imagination introduces an additional realm of fear triggers – with fear responses to imaginary elements typically peaking between the ages of four and five (The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2010).  However, as many adults know, fear of the unknown is not something that completely dissipates.ence of fear, but the triumph over it’. 

Fear in education

When it comes to the educational context, different manifestations of ‘fear’ have been studied over the years, with test anxiety and ‘fear of failure’ being of particular interest. While initial studies on test anxiety suggested that the fear of a negative outcome on tests impaired learners’ ability to retrieve and process information (Eysenck et al., 2007; Mandler and Sarason, 1952; Wine, 1971), more recent studies suggest that test anxiety might be the result of factors such as poor study skills – with results on less stressful mock exams being similar to those achieved in actual exams (Theobald et al., 2022).

Research on fear of failure in education has found that this phenomenon often leads to high levels of anxiety, a tendency towards underachievement and reduced resilience – with some learners demonstrating what is referred to as ‘learned helplessness’ (Martin and Marsh, 2003). Several researchers exploring the phenomenon of ‘learned helplessness’ (a state in which individuals accept their fate in the face of adversity), believe that a key contributor to this state is the subject’s sense that their actions have no impact on the outcome of an aversive stimulus (Kim and Kim, 2023). 

However, in cases where learners are exposed to persistent states of fear and anxiety, fear does in fact become the ‘mind-killer’ that Herbert made it out to be. Fatal and chronic fear can significantly hinder learning (Arnsten, 2009). These negative effects extend to those regions of the brain that are involved in processing emotions (Goodman et al., 2018).

However, in contrast to the effects of high or persistent levels of stress, moderate levels of stress have been shown to actually enhance learning (Vogel and Schwabe, 2016). This is most likely due to the heightened sense of awareness created by the increase in glucocorticoids (Roozendaal, 2001). Interestingly, very low levels of stress tends to impair performance (Shors, 2004).rage was not the abs

Lessons for educators

So, having learned that a certain amount of stress can be beneficial to learners, while higher levels or persistent stress can be highly detrimental, what should we do with this information?

Depending on the context in which you teach, your ability to determine the levels of fear and stress among your learners will vary. However, as educators, we should strive to create an atmosphere in which learners feel safe and able to express any concerns they might have. 

It is also important to ensure that assessment opportunities and other learning experiences are developed in a manner that does not give rise to a sense that the outcome of these are outside of the learner’s control. 

To minimise a sense of fear around the ‘unknown’, it is also best practice to ensure that learners have a sense of what to expect at different stages of a programme or course. 

Framing failure as a positive experience that provides opportunities for learning and encouraging a growth mindset in learners can also assist in overcoming any ‘fear of failure’ they might experience.  

But what about the fact that moderate levels of stress can improve learning? 

Here it is valuable to remember that there are many other ways to enhance learning and increase engagement. And while the pressures of summative assessments are likely to always introduce a level of stress, it is valuable to frame these in a way that avoids triggering higher levels of stress.

So, as we continue to strive towards conditions that are conducive to learning, while recognising our limitations in protecting all learners from fears (whether real or imagined), consider the inspirational quote from Nelson Mandela, who said: ‘I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it’. 


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