Scholarly article on topic 'Anxiety in Learning and Performing a Shakespeare Play'

Anxiety in Learning and Performing a Shakespeare Play Academic research paper on "Educational sciences"

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{"Performance anxiety" / "Learning Shakespeare" / " Othello " / "Teaching Literature"}

Abstract of research paper on Educational sciences, author of scientific article — Agnes Liau Wei Lin, Nurul Farhana Low Abdullah, Suzana Haji Muhammad

Abstract This paper explores anxiety among 33 undergraduate students of the English Language and Literature Studies programme in Universiti Sains Malaysia, specifically anxiety related to studying and performing a Shakespearean play. It also aims to investigate the positive effect of performance in aiding comprehension. The students’ task was to stage a public performance of Shakespeare's Othello in groups of 5 to 7. Each group was responsible for performing a 15 to 20minute segment of one whole Act of the play. The language of Shakespeare's text was largely retained in the performance. Questionnaire with items designed to gauge anxiety levels were distributed to the students prior to their devising their own adaptation of the Act assigned to them. Based on their responses in the questionnaire, the anxiety scores were tabulated, analysed and interpreted. After the performance and final examination, selected students were interviewed in focus groups to discuss their anxiety levels pre- and post- performance in relation to the text, the performance, as well as the effects of performance on comprehension of the text. The focus group members’ written answers on Othello in the final examination were also cross checked against information from the focus groups in an attempt to draw conclusions on whether performance did in fact enhance their comprehension of the play. The findings of this case study point to a positive trend in the co-relation between performance and overcoming anxiety when learning a Shakespeare play, resulting in more insightful answers in the final examination; thus arguing for the incorporation of performance to enhance the teaching and learning of literature.

Academic research paper on topic "Anxiety in Learning and Performing a Shakespeare Play"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 208 (2015) 233 - 239

3rd International Conference on Linguistics, Literature and Culture (ICLLIC 2014)

Anxiety in Learning and Performing a Shakespeare Play

Agnes Liau Wei Lina*, Nurul Farhana Low Abdullahb & Suzana Haji Muhammadc

a,b,c English Language Studies Section, School of Humanities, Universiti Sains Malaysia,11800 USM, Penang, Malaysia

Abstract

This paper explores anxiety among 33 undergraduate students of the English Language and Literature Studies programme in Universiti Sains Malaysia, specifically anxiety related to studying and performing a Shakespearean play. It also aims to investigate the positive effect of performance in aiding comprehension. The students' task was to stage a public performance of Shakespeare's Othello in groups of 5 to 7. Each group was responsible for performing a 15 to 20 minute segment of one whole Act of the play. The language of Shakespeare's text was largely retained in the performance. Questionnaire with items designed to gauge anxiety levels were distributed to the students prior to their devising their own adaptation of the Act assigned to them. Based on their responses in the questionnaire, the anxiety scores were tabulated, analysed and interpreted. After the performance and final examination, selected students were interviewed in focus groups to discuss their anxiety levels pre - and postperformance in relation to the text, the performance, as well as the effects of performance on comprehension of the text. The focus group members' written answers on Othello in the final examination were also cross checked against information from the focus groups in an attempt to draw conclusions on whether performance did in fact enhance their comprehension of the play. The findings of this case study point to a positive trend in the co -relation between performance and overcoming anxiety when learning a Shakespeare play, resulting in more insightful answers in the final examination; thus arguing for the incorporation of performance to enhance the teaching and learning of literature.

© 2015 The Authors.Publishedby ElsevierLtd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.Org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

Peer-review under responsibility of The English Language Studies Section School of Humanities Universiti Sains Malaysia Keywords: Performance anxiety, Learning Shakespeare, Othello, Teaching Literature

* Corresponding author. Email address: agnes@usm.my

1877-0428 © 2015 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

Peer-review under responsibility of The English Language Studies Section School of Humanities Universiti Sains Malaysia doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.11.199

Introduction

Students learning literature in the English as a second or foreign language (ESL/EFL) context face certain challenges in learning literature, such as grappling with the various content and language complexities of the literary texts they study. In view of this scenario, literature learning at tertiary or even upper secondary school level should not be limited to textual analyses and classroom discussions whereby activities merely evolve around reading the texts, discussion and written responses. This traditional method does not enhance students' soft skills in terms of their ability to be independent, resourceful, ethical and self-directed, having effective communication, willing to work and learn and have a positive attitude. Undeniably, Literature in English educators plays a pivotal role in students' learning of the subject. However, the focus on the traditional (read: teacher centred) method of teaching Literature in English where the lecturers/teachers view themselves as 'imparting' knowledge may not permit the students to engage effectively in the learning process. Hence, creativity on the part of the teacher or instructor is paramount to the students' understanding and ultimately appreciation of Literature in English. Different approaches to teaching Literature in English, both creative and innovative are therefore beneficial, even mandatory in the current scenario of teaching and learning literature. One method that has often been suggested for use in the literature classroom is performance.

One of its advocates, Elaine Showalter in Teaching Literature (2003) conveys the benefits of using performance in teaching literature, including the use of the classroom space as a theatrical stage. Showalter suggests that it is students' involvement in performance activities that will engage them in a "holistic frame with a broad range of options and implications." (81) Showalter defines performance teaching to include "full students' theatrical production, reading scenes in classroom workshops, using film and videos, attending live production, studying the stage history of the plays, and above all, involving teachers and students together in dramatic interpretations of characters, structure, and actions." Previous studies such as Evelyn Vitz in "Teaching Arthur through Performance" convey as well the usefulness of using performance as an added activity to be included in teaching drama. Similarly, Michael LoMonico in the article "Close Reading on Your Feet: Performance in the English Language Arts Classroom" suggests that the use of performance in classroom teaching alleviates the teacher-centred classroom by getting the students' commitment and involvement in reading the texts and participating in performances.

Against the above backdrop, this study was undertaken as part of a larger project which aimed to promote a new approach to teaching literature, particularly Shakespeare. As hinted at previously, the development o f students' soft skills is particularly critical in view of the increasingly competitive job market in Malaysia where much concern has been raised over the recent unhealthy trend where local public university graduates make up the highest percentage of unemployed graduates. Quah C H et al (2009, 'Employers' preference for foreign trained graduates -myth or reality?', European Journal of Scientific Research, vol. 34, no. 3) list some of the perceived weaknesses of local graduates such as the inability to communicate well in English, and being unable to express their thoughts effectively in the language, leading to a lack of self-confidence which in turn causes weak leadership among the new employees and a corresponding lack of enthusiasm for work. This lack of confidence often discouraged such employees from seeking the help of their superiors when necessary, thereby hindering effective problem solving. Researchers also laid the blame for unemployable local public university graduates at the feet of their instructors who encouraged the culture of "memorise and regurgitate facts" (Woo, 2006).

The mere mention of "Shakespeare" conjures the idea of incomprehensible and archaic English language that could induce anxiety among students' faced with his texts in the ESL/EFL classroom. Therefore, the overall project explores how implementing the performance component with an intercultural injection in learning and interpreting Shakespearean plays can be used to construct a new model for a more meaningful learning of literature, specifically geared towards overcoming students' weaknesses in English pronunciation and communication. It taps into the prestige and cultural cache associated with the name of Shakespeare to inspire self-confidence in students, that if they can successfully understand and enunciate their lines in staging a performance of a (difficult) Shakespeare text before an audience then surely, they can communicate effectively in English. Ultimately the project hopes to promote learning literature in general and performance specifically as a viable method to improve students' command of the English language.

This paper focuses on an important aspect of the project, namely the issue of anxiety in learning and performing a Shakespearean play. For the purposes of this research, anxiety in this context refers to a specific emotion which is typified by high arousal, negative valence and negative appraisal in a specific setting of learning

and performing a Shakespearean play.

This study observes students' reaction to internal and external factors in the mounting of a class performance of a Shakespeare play. Selye 1976 affirms that stress is a reaction to any stimulus that results in the disruption of homeostasis. (5) Selye asserts that anxiety is associated with negative consequences and it affects students' performance. This study identifies two layers of anxiety that students confront. The first level of anxiety is associated with learning anxiety toward Shakespeare plays. This anxiety is projected as students are expected to read text and context—which includes Shakespeare's cultural background, historical information along with the complexity of his language. At this stage, the language in Shakespeare play can be considered as one external factor that conditions the learning anxiety and subsequently this induces students' anxiety due to the fact that English is a second language. Learning English as a second language, what more understanding Shakespeare can be challenging enough to students. This study also identifies a second layer of students' anxiety when they are expected to express physically Shakespeare's words as they speak them on stage. This performance anxiety can be associated with internal factors such as students' confidence, their language skills and ability to cope with Shakespeare's language. To ease the anxiety, several workshops and seminars were conducted to acclimatise students with Shakespeare diction and language contexts. Acting workshops were also arranged, since the students were particularly anxious about the performance aspect of the exercise.

Literature Review

Educational research proposes that anxiety is normally either referred to as state anxiety or trait anxiety (Woodrow, 2006). Individuals experiencing trait anxiety feel anxious in diverse contexts whereas individuals sensing state anxiety would have anxiety in a particular situation. With state anxiety, individuals experience anxiety when confronted with what they perceive as threatening situations. When these perceived threats are no longer present, the anxiety recedes. As with trait anxiety, anxiety arises when threats are distinguished. However in comparison with state anxiety, trait anxiety differs from state anxiety with reference to the duration and intensity of the anxiety felt. Trait anxious individuals are more inclined to experience anxiety in a wider range of milieu and with a higher concentration. Trait anxiety is regarded as a predisposition (Liu and Huang, 2011).

Additionally, another type of anxiety is termed the situation specific anxiety where the individual suffers from anxiety in only specific environments (Spielberger, Anton and Bedell, 1976 as cited in Woodrow, 2006). MacIntyre & Gardner (1991) refer to this situation-specific anxiety as trait anxiety which is confined to a certain setting. This sort of anxiety is induced by a certain context over time as in the cases of test-taking, participating in class or speaking in public (Liu and Huang, 2011). Horwitz &... (1986) describe foreign language classroom anxiety as situation-specific.

An individual's reactions to experiencing anxiety could be seen as either depicting emotionality or worry (Woodrow, 2006). If indicating emotionality, an individual would experience physiological (such as palpitations or excessive sweating and behavioural effects such as twitching or fiddling).Worry responses are manifested via cognitive responses where the individual indulges in negative rumination which could be derogatory to the individual (Zeidner, 1998).

According to Powell (2004), although performance anxiety has been documented more than fifty years ago, "the term does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. (American Psychiatric Association, 1994); nor is it listed in any of its predecessors" (p. 803).

Performance anxiety can be described as kind of psychological construct and it has been usually viewed as a component of social phobia (Powell, 2004).Social phobia pertains to undue fear which can be intense when in public situations. In a situation perceived as threatening, individuals who are suffering from social phobia experience anxiety and distress which could hamper their normal functioning. Performance anxiety can be explained as an anxiety faced by individuals who fear performing in public under the evaluation or appraisal of others.

Aim of Study

The aim of this study is to determine whether these students experienced performance anxiety while performing the

play. This study also aims to establish whether performance anxiety enhanced the students' ability to answer an examination essay question related to the Othello play they had performed.

Hence these research question were addressed in this study:

1. What were the students' performance anxiety levels?

2. What is the relationship between the ELLS students' academic achievement in their Shakespeare course and their performance anxiety?

Methodology Participants/Sample

The participants for this study were final year students of the English Language and Literature Studies (ELLS) at the School of Humanities, Universiti Sains Malaysia. (N= 33, 60.6% female students, n = 20; 39.4% male students, n = 13). These ELLS students were required to take a course in Elizabethan Literature as part of their course fulfilment. One of the texts prescribed was Othello and the students were to enact a performance of the said play. The data collection process comprised two stages. In the first stage, questionnaires were distributed to the students. The second stage involved selected students who were requested to attend focus group interviews.

Instrument

The Performing Shakespeare Anxiety Scale (PASHAS) was constructed by the researchers and piloted to ascertain the suitability of the scale and whether refinements to the scale were necessary. The scale has a Cronbach's Alpha value of 0.8. There are 37 items in this scale with each item having a 5-point Likert scale.

Procedure

The questionnaires were distributed to the ELLS students during one of their practice sessions. They were also informed that there were no right or wrong answers and that they needed to provide responses that best described what they felt most keenly in relation to the item concerned. For the second part of the research, the researchers interviewed 10 students during the focus group discussions. These students were selected based on their performance anxiety scores. These students' scores ranged from 95 to 124 on the PASHAS.

Results

The aim of this study was to ascertain whether the ELLS students underwent performance anxiety while performing Othello. This study also endeavoured to corroborate whether performance anxiety augmented the students' ability to answer an examination essay question based on the Othello play they had performed. In order to fulfil the aims, this study also addressed questions exploring the students' performance anxiety levels and the relationship between their academic achievement for the Shakespeare course and their performance anxiety levels.

Performance Anxiety Scores of ELLS gtudents

= 104.64 Std. Dev. = 17.148 N = 33

pashastotal

Figure 1: Performance anxiety scores of the ELLS students.

Based on the results recorded in Figure 1, the students' scores ranged from a score of 75 to a score of 150.The mean score obtained for the PASHAS was 104.64. One student scored 75 and one student scored 150. There were five students who scored below 87 and three students who scored above 121. Thus the pattern of these results depict that the majority of the ELLS students neither experienced high performance anxiety nor low performance anxiety.

Table 1: Academic achievement of ELLS students

Grade for Othello exam essay No of students

question

A (80-100) 2

A- (70-79) 8

B+ (64-69) 4

B (58-63) 10

B-(50 — 57) 3

C+ (45 - 49) 1

Table 1 records the academic achievement of the students in answering the question on Othello. The table shows 28 students' grades and not 33 as 5 students chose not to answer the question on Othello. These results reveal that most of the students who answered the Othello question scored grades B and A-.

Student 1

It helped me in the sense, it helped actually, because I read the book, text, first, and I acted it out, and then we tend to remember it more when we act because we can see...

Focus group excerpts

Student 2

I can say it really helped me to answer my final exam and then because this question is about Othello, so I am, as Iago. I can see how Othello act.I can relate it with the question.

Student 3

It might help me in terms of comprehension of the text itself so it is holistically , helps me to understand the text, the whole text, actually.

Student 4

It really made me understand the text very well, because for me to get into the character I have to understand the character.and in the exam.I mean, the moment I start answering, I start remembering only the voice of one character.

Figure 2: Selected excerpts from focus group discussions

Figure 2 lists excerpts from the students' focus group discussions, indicating that active participation and performing in the play did assist them in comprehending the play thus enriching their capacity to answer the question on Othello in the exam. The focus group discussions were recorded with the permission of the students and duly transcribed. From these transcriptions, emanating themes were observed which depicted with more clarity how performing the Othello play had impacted the students in answering the exam question on the same text.

Conclusion

This research presents salient contributions in terms of performance anxiety and learning Shakespeare. The present findings indicate that for this particular group of ELLS students, most of them experienced mid-range performance anxiety. The results from the focus group discussions revealed that performing a play actually produced positive reactions in some of the students for it aided them in understanding the play better. For some of the students, better understanding ultimately enhanced their confidence in attempting the question on Othello.

These findings however are qualified by several limitations. First, the sample for the study comprised only one group of final year students in USM, since this was the only group in the entire university taking this course. Future research directions could include more students studying Shakespeare from other universities in the country. An extension of this study could also distinguish between female and male students in terms of performance anxiety experienced and the particular type of Shakespeare texts prescribed for study. (e.g. tragedy, history or comedy).

These findings also appear to validate the importance of incorporating performance into the teaching and learning of literature courses. As this was a compulsory project for all students registered on the course, the performance activities placed the students in a real situation of conflict where they were encouraged to think, act and react simultaneously. As educators we believe that the inclusion of performance in teaching literature is similar to exposing student to an insightful practical training where students embody the words with emotional responses thereby encouraging them to internalise the play and indirectly improve their delivery and confidence in using the English language.

The performance gave the students ample room to interact with the language, to incorporate their body language in enacting the various scenes and to gain insight into the complexity of human nature. Othello was selected to be the practical ground for the students to explore and experiment with language and performance. In this manner, the students learnt to associate the words from the play with the corresponding body language, emotion and facial expression thereby presenting a situation for meaningful use of the English language.

Finally, the outcome of this case study asserts that by breaking away from the traditional method of teaching literature (from teacher-centred to student centred, textual analysis to practical performance, passive learning to active exploration), active learning subsequently enhanced students' ability to understand the test as shown in their answers to the exam question. Therefore, the element of performance should be incorporated into the ESL/EFL literature classroom to ensure better understanding of literary texts.

Acknowledgement: This paper was written as part of the outcome for a Ministry of Education Malaysia FRGS grant 203/PHUMANITI/6711203.

References

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Liu M.H. and Huang W.H. 2011. "An Exploration of Foreign Language Anxiety and English Language Motivation." Education Research International, Vol. 2011

LoMonico, Michael, 2005. "Close Reading on Your Feet: Performance in the English Language Arts Classroom." English Journal Vol. 95, No. 1.

MacIntyre P.D. and R.C. Gardner, 1991. "Methods and Results in the Study of Anxiety and Language Learning: A Review of the Literature." Language Learning Vol 41 Issue 1.

Powell, D. H.(2004). Treating individuals with debilitating performance anxiety: An introduction. Journal of Clinical Psychology : In Session, 60(8), 801-808.

Quah C H et al, 2009. "Employers' preference for foreign trained graduates - myth or reality?" European Journal of Scientific Research, vol. 34, no. 3.

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