On Monday evening last week, I went up to London for 'Hide and Speak', a series of short talks about pervasive games organised by the fab folk from Hide and Seek.
One talk that made an impact on me was Gethan Dick's about participatory art and the problem of how to make people produce good stuff. She asked us to draw a chair and discuss how the experience made us feel. She repeated this, asking us in turn to draw a specific chair she put on the table in front of us, to draw it with the hand that we don't usually draw with and finally to also draw it without taking the pencil off the paper. Here is the end result of the final set of drawings:
Gethan talked about the importance of constraints. She didn't specifically mention the use of constraints to reduce anxiety but I think that was one of the important lessons from the exercise she gave us. Drawing a specific chair with my left hand was certainly a far more comfortable experience than being told to just draw a chair.
I think there's some relevance here to education and I was reminded me of some research that I read about once where giving students a choice of essay questions resulted in worse essays than if there was no choice. You can imagine that if you are designing optional online discussion activities for a course, then constraining those activities in such a way to both reduce anxiety and the paralysing effect of too much choice might make a big difference to engagement.