Matching the Stress Levels of Content and Teaching Activities

Adapted from the work of Janet Bennett of the Portland Intercultural Institute by
Pat Byrd
Applied Linguistics & ESL
Georgia State University
Atlanta, Georgia USA

Hear the Lecture

Stress Levels of Content and Activities: Definitions of Terminology

In her workshops to prepare trainers and teachers, Janet Bennett, a well-known leader in the field of intercultural training, defines content and activities in terms of their stress levels.  This concept can be very helpful as we make decisions about activities to use in our ESL/EFL courses--and in our courses and workshops for ESL/EFL teachers, too.

Low stress content involves information that does not lead to conflict or to unpleasant emotions for the learner. For example, the learning involved in the orientation sessions for new students--here's the library, here's the dining hall, here's the classroom building, etc. While the information is important, it is not very demanding or emotionally or intellectually challenging.

High stress content, on the other hand, puts the learner on the spot emotionally or intellectually. In Bennet's experience, such content has included racial relations and course content that is difficult for the learner. In my experience, graduate students in English grammar classes often find the process of being highly analytical about English a challenge, and native speakers of English can be especially wary of being made to feel foolish because of not knowing something they think they ought to know. 

Low stress methods and activities are generally those that make little demand on the learner so that s/he does not feel emotionally or intellectually exposed to the world. Such activities include lectures and watching a videotape. Lectures put the burden on the lecturer rather than on the learner. Watching a video is generally less challenging that participating in a roleplay. 

High stress methods and activities are those that make the learner emotionally uncomfortable. These challenging activities can be the source of effective learning, but they are also potentially dangerous for the learner's sense of comfort and competence. For many learners, high stress activities are things like role places or debates or presentations to the whole class--or taking a test.

Matching Stress Levels for a Balanced Presentation of Activites in Appropriate Activities

Bennett warns teachers and trainers to think carefully about matches and mis-matches between stress levels. She suggests that we avoid the following problem matches:

    • low stress content + low stress activity: BORING. The learner goes to sleep--intellectually and perhaps physically ("This class lasts an eternity--when will it ever end.")
    • high stress content + high stress activity: TERRIFYING. The learner flees--intellectually and perhaps physically. ("There's got to be another class I can take this quarter!")

High stress content can be made approachable by presenting it, at least initially, with low stress activities. Bennett's example is about a workshop that she led on racial relationships: she knew she could not start a high stress content with a high stress activity--that is, doing a role play or debate the first night of the workshop would have been a recipe for disaster. She started with a lecture and a videotape. Later in the series, after people had learned to trust her and themselves, they were able to take on more challenging activities.  In an ESL class here in the States, we might want to start the semester with activities that are more familiar to students--teacher-fronted and individual work; then, we can add more challenging tasks such as pair and small group work after the students are more comfortable with each other and more trusting of us as teachers. 

Bennet suggests that we try to enliven low stress content by combining it with challening, high stress activities--turn the orientation to campus into a scavenger hunt, she recommends. As ESL/EFL teachers, we can use games and music and active learning to help students with the necessary but not riveting learning of core content such as the forms of irregular verbs.

Or, low stress content can be selected by the teacher when an activity needs to be learned that is potentially stressful for the learners. For example, learning word processing can be a high stress activity for many adult ESL/EFL students.  Typing tutor programs that combine easy to read instructions and materials can help the adult learner by putting the challenge in the activity not in the content of the materials being typed.  Another example could be the stressful nature of learning to speak on the telephone in a second language.  Highly structured content--such as ordering a pizza rather than having a free-flowing discussion--can help learners develop more confidence in their abilities to use English on the phone. 


Please be thinking about applications of these concepts to your teaching and learning.  I'll be posting a topic in the forum for us to talk about the topic there.  See you in the forum! 

Please send comments or questions to me at