Optimal Learning Inverted-U

Glenn Amon Magee, Aichi Prefectural University

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: Anxiety reduction, collaborative learning, awareness raising, well-being
  • Learner English level: Low intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity: University
  • Preparation time: Less than 30 minutes
  • Activity time: 60-90 minutes
  • Materials: Handouts A and B (see appendices)

Inverted-U Theory (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908) provides students with an objective way to address learning-related anxiety. The theory proposes that there is an optimal level of pressure at the top of the curve, and beyond that level of pressure, performance starts to suffer. It is a frequently discussed theory in psychology, in particular sports psychology and coaching. Adapting the theory for language teaching presents an opportunity to raise student awareness of strategies to reduce anxiety and pressure in the classroom.



Step 1: Prepare class slides and/or handouts of Optimal Learning Inverted-U (Appendix A) and Pressure Adjectives List (Appendix B)



Step 1: Put students into groups and ask them how they might help, or what they might say to, another student who is struggling to study and concentrate in class. Elicit answers from each group.

Step 2: In the same groups, ask students to recall times they were really engaged in learning. Elicit answers from each group.

Step 3: Show students the Optimal Learning Inverted-U chart and Pressure Adjectives List. Introduce the theme of helping yourself and others move from highly stressed situations to highly immersed learning situations by accessing vocabulary for your own feelings, and creating strategies for helping yourself and others learn more effectively.
Step 4: Explain that they will need to add their own words for numbers 2 through 4 (too little pressure), and 7 through 9 (too much pressure) on the Optimal Learning Inverted-U. You can use your own experiences as examples for students. For instance, “The class was too easy for me, and the teacher lectured all the time without allowing us to interact.” Or if the class was too hard for you, “The teacher always called me by name to answer, so I couldn’t concentrate.” Make sure to point out that the sweet spot is in the middle.

Step 5: In groups, ask students to add words to their charts based on their own learning experiences.

Step 6: Next, demonstrate something you do to relax when you need to. This might be walking outside, breathing exercises, doodling or fidget toys (fidget spinners).

Step 7: Ask students to discuss things they do to make themselves more relaxed when studying. As a group, ask them to give feedback on one activity that students could use in the classroom. 

Step 8: Each group of students should t write up one activity on the board for relaxing in the classroom. 

Step 9: Ask students to vote, by raising hands, for the activity they would like to try first in class and then encourage them to try it.

Step 10: Tell students they will use this chart to monitor their pressure levels in class and will use the exercises they shared to get back to feeling at their best. 



When the activity is introduced for the first time, it takes some time to discuss. However, in subsequent classes, students can reflect and pick out strategies with ease. The ideas they share in the classroom will be valuable resources for them as they navigate life outside the classroom.



Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology, 18, 459-482. https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.920180503



The appendices are also available below


Appendix A

Optimal Learning Inverted-U


Appendix B

Pressure Adjectives List

Under high-pressure words:

  • afraid
  • scared
  • distressed
  • fearful
  • sweating bullets
  • worried sick

Under moderately high-pressure words:

  • concerned
  • nervous
  • uneasy
  • restless
  • fidgety
  • apprehensive
  • shaky
  • jumpy
  • bugged

Under moderately low-pressure words:

  • preoccupied
  • unmindful
  • removed
  • dreamy
  • lost
  • absentminded

Under very low-pressure words:

  • indifferent
  • apathetic
  • faraway
  • out to lunch
  • thoughtless
  • laid-back