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Learning consequences of fear of negative evaluation and modesty for Japanese EFL students

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Robert. A. Brown, Bunkyo University


Researchers have recently attempted to explain student "apathy" in terms of excessive self-monitoring along with loss of confidence in the value of learning (McVeigh, 2001), and "learned helplessness" (Burden, 2002). There may be some truth in these explanations. These cannot, however, constitute the entire reason as to why students often decline to participate in certain classroom activities. In my own two- year study of peer cohorts, involving 210 first- year university students (Brown, 2003), virtually every student endorsed the statements that English: (a) is worth knowing; (b) is useful; (c) is worth the effort it takes to learn; (d) can be mastered, given sufficient effort; and (e) that if they failed to learn English, it would be because they didn't try hard enough, not because they lacked the ability to do it. Nevertheless, not all students are actually willing or able to do what is needed to acquire the fluency that they claim to desire. Some students may simply not have enough waking hours to devote to study. Others, those Burden (2002) and McVeigh (2001) describe as apathetic, simply choose not to participate in certain classroom activities, specifically, those involving oral production.

Fear of Negative Evaluation and Modesty Norms in Japan

I would like to suggest that a combination of fear of negative evaluation (FNE), and modesty norms, may account for this bafflingly counterproductive learning behavior. FNE is simply the fear of being negatively evaluated by other people, and, of course, this is a matter of degree, since few people are utterly oblivious to the impressions they are making on other people. High levels of FNE however, as measured using an instrument such as Leary's 12 item Brief FNE scale (Leary & Kowalski, 1995), can impede learning in a number of ways. The most obvious is that students who fear negative evaluation will tend to avoid doing things that will cause them to be negatively evaluated. Unfortunately, as Matsuda & Gobel (2001) point out, these may be precisely the things that they need to do in order to learn English.

Students may be afraid of making mistakes in public, as McVeigh (2001) suggests, but the more specific fear is surely negative evaluation in the form of the real or imaged ridicule of their peers. They do not seem to mind quite as much being negatively evaluated for other types of classroom performance, for example, poor attendance. In fact, some students will gladly accept the certainty of negative evaluation in the form of low grades for poor attendance, or class participation, rather than risk the possibility of being negatively evaluated by their peers for making a public mistake.

Students are not only apprehensive about making mistakes in public. They may also be concerned about standing out and appearing to show off their abilities. While obviously related, these are distinct motivations. As McVeigh notes (2001), wanting to avoid standing out cannot be the sole reason students refuse to speak in class when asked to, because by remaining silent, they stand out just as much as if they had spoken. It should also be observed, however, that a student's silence will be evaluated differently by his or her peers than their mistakes, and, additionally, silence requires no effort, while speaking does.

The oft-cited proverb deru kugi wa utareru (the protruding nail gets hammered down) exemplifies this motivation, cautioning against conspicuousness. However, there is a distinct motivation of modesty, exemplified by a separate proverb cautioning against displaying one's capabilities: no aru taka wa tsume o kakusu (a wise hawk hides it's talons). Japanese children internalize modesty norms between the second and fifth years of primary school (Yoshida, Kojo, & Kaku, 1982, cited in Kurman, 2001). Immodest people are generally viewed as less likeable, and students who want to be liked by their peers tend to understate or even deny their capabilities (Kudo & Numazaki, 2003). Students are caught in a double bind: if they make a mistake, they risk ridicule; if they answer correctly, they risk social rejection. No wonder many prefer to remain silent.

According to recent studies (Matsuura, Chiba, & Hilderbrandt, 2001), most native speaker (NS) English teachers prefer communicative instructional methods in which, among other things, oral productive communication is the central concern. Learners are expected to participate actively in class, including exhibiting such behavior as demonstrating ignorance by asking questions&emdash;or so students seem to believe. Students may genuinely believe that other students already know the answer to the question that they want to ask. However, unlike the NS teachers, students seem to prefer, or at least feel more comfortable with, the more traditional teacher centered approaches (Matsuura, Chiba, & Hilderbrandt, 2001). It is not difficult to see why they would. The traditional methods allow students to remain inconspicuous and to avoid making public mistakes, because they are not asked to perform in public.


The solution may be to reduce the performance pressure many students experience simply by refraining from asking them to "perform" English in front of the typically large class. This pressure to perform in itself is apt to make most students uncomfortable, as it singles them out from the others. Making public speaking voluntary would simply increase the extent to which a student is judged to be "showing off".

Speaking in small groups may be less intimidating for many students. However, for those students who are both high in FNE and lack confidence in their English speaking capabilities, even one potentially critical peer may be enough to cow them into silence. For such students, any attempts to induce them to publicly perform prematurely may prove to be counterproductive, and, rather than motivating them to speak, may motivate them simply to avoid the class, thereby missing opportunities to develop receptive skills. Obviously, this generalization doesnot apply to the minority with low FNE&emdash;those with confidence in their speaking capabilities, and little concern for how their peers will judge them&emdash;and for students with high FNE&emdash;no confidence, and great concern for peer evaluation, but who simply push ahead anyway. These students will learn no matter what happens in or outside the classroom. Most students do not fit this description, however, and may benefit from an emphasis on receptive skills in large introductory classes.

The traditional practice of listening dictation remains useful and is simple to do. Dictation exercises can be improvised on the spot, in cloze or free format, and immediate feedback provided. Students believe that dictation practice is useful, so they willingly participate. Moreover, because listening dictation is done collectively, it is also non-threatening. Optionally, the instructor can ask individual students for their answers. Even students who are high in FNE are more likely to speak up when their classmates clearly do not know the correct answers either. Conversely, modesty issues become less prominent when other students are providing correct answers. The key here is that the performance is essentially limited to identifying one or a few lexical items in a context.

Students often underestimate the time and effort that will be needed to learn English (Burden, 2002). Teachers can emphasize that English fluency is a matter of degree, that gains are generally proportional to investments of time and effort, and that a little English is better than no English&emdash;which students tend to believe anyway. While communication is the ultimate objective for many students, communication is not limited to oral production. Listening, reading, and writing are also forms of communication and no less important than speaking. Listening skills, in fact, are as essential as, if not more so than, speaking skills&emdash;in that one can choose which words one will use, but not which words one's interlocutor will use. Emphasizing listening in large introductory classes may be one way to reduce fear of negative evaluation, and the debilitating anxiety that prevents many students from participating and learning, while addressing their modesty concerns at the same time.


It goes without saying that students can vary widely in their abilities, motivational intensity, willingness to expend effort, adherence to prevailing modesty norms, and of course in their degree of FNE. What I am suggesting in the present article is merely that, for some Japanese students, FNE can have a deleterious effect on particular learning outcomes if it interferes with their participation in essential learning activities. I am not asserting that all students are high in FNE, or that high levels of FNE invariably lead to all forms classroom activity avoidant behavior. Similarly, modesty concerns will constrain certain student's public behavior. Both can be reduced, although probably not eliminated, by emphasizing receptive skills in large introductory classes, in which the average level of student competence is relatively low.


Brown, R.A. (2003). Orientations, intentions, and effort. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Burden, P. (2002). A cross sectional study of attitudes and manifestations of apathy. The Language Teacher, 26(3), 3-10.
Kudo, E., & Numazaki, M. (2003). Explicit and direct self-serving bias in Japan. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 34(5), 511-521.
Kurman, J. (2001). Self-enhancement: Is it restricted to individualistic cultures? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 1705-1716.
Leary, M.R. & Kowalski, R. M. (1995). Social anxiety. New York: The Guilford Press.
Matsuda, S., & Gobel, P. (2001). Quiet apprehension: Reading and classroom anxieties. JALT Journal, 23(2), 227-47.
Matsuura, H., Chiba, R., & Hilderbrandt, P. (2001 ). Beliefs about learning and teaching communicative English in Japan. JALT Journal, 23(1), 69-89.
McVeigh, B.J. (2001). Higher education, apathy, and post-meritocracy. The Language Teacher, 25(10), 29-32.

Robert A. Brown has lived and taught in Korea, Brazil, Thailand, China, and the U.S.A. He lived in Japan as a graduate student from 1983 to 1986, and has taught at Bunkyo University in Chigasaki, Japan since 2000. His research interests center around motivation and social cognition.

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