Avoiding Computer Avoidance

Roy M. Bohlin
California State University, Fresno


Computer avoidance can be defined as an overall feeling of aversion to using computers based upon the emotions, attitudes, and motivation levels of the individual. It is very common in teachers and can strongly interfere with their instructional choices. Anxiety, confidence, motivation, and attitude literature can offer some insight into ways that instructors and instructional designer may help people with computer aversion overcome their avoidance of computers. A number of instructions strategies can be prescribed for teacher preparation and teacher inservice programs to help reduce teachers' computer avoidance.

The Importance

There continues to exist a large core of teachers who continue to be very uncomfortable with computers, even in a society immersed in a proliferation of technology. Fletcher and Deeds (1994) for example, found that 40.9% of secondary agriculture teachers suffer from computer anxiety. Gordon (1995) found that 46% of technical education teachers suffer from computer anxiety.

Avoidance of computers can be a severe problem as a society becomes so highly technological, especially when teachers avoid interacting with computers. To properly integrate computers into the classroom curriculum, teachers need the proper disposition. Specifically, teachers should be motivated and not feel anxious about the use of computers. Further, they need confidence and positive attitudes toward computers.

Past experience has shown that merely making technology available does not produce appropriate use of technology. Assuming that good instruction in teacher preparation programs will always change anxiety, confidence, and attitudes is naive. These are very important variables, because attitudes and confidence are strong predictors of actual voluntary behaviors (such as decisions regarding the integration of technology into their curriculum). If computer anxiety is combined with low confidence, low motivation, or negative attitudes, individuals will strive to avoid interactions with computers.

Millions of dollars are being poured into the purchase of computers for schools. If teachers are not motivated and comfortable using computers, then technology use will not be close to its expected potential.

Computer Avoidance

Howard and Kernan (1989) used factor analysis to find that responses to the items from several instruments used to measure computer anxiety actually loaded on several different factors, only one of which seemed to be computer anxiety-related. They argued that computer aversion (or avoidance) is probably the best term for what most of these instruments seem to measure. In their analysis, they showed two distinctly different kinds of constructs within computer avoidance---computer attitudes and computer anxiety. The link between the factors of negative attitudes and high anxiety to an individual's avoidance of computers is known to be a strong one. Many other important affective constructs, however, were not included in this pool of items, so there is no reason to believe that these are all of the crucial factors.

Bohlin (1998, 1999) has developed a model that shows the relationships among a number of important affective constructs related to computers. This model shows that while anxiety and attitudes are important factors, there are a number of other important variables. These include motivation, confidence, and perceptions of relevance. It would seem that the best approach to addressing severe computer avoidance would be to use a multi-pronged approach, which attempts to impact all of these factors.

Strategies have been previously prescribed (Bohlin & Martin, 1990) which are aimed at reducing computer anxiety by improving computer confidence and changing negative attitudes toward the use of computers. This double approach was a beginning for addressing the rather complex problem of decreasing avoidance behaviors of learners. However, this manuscript now presents a more complex set of strategies. The goal is that use of these strategies when designing computer-related instruction for teachers will better assure that they will choose to use computers when they are in their own classrooms and have a choice about the degree to which they use technology.

Computer Anxiety

What does it mean to be a computer anxious person? Anxiety has a systemic effect on an individual. Anxiety-related activity is usually centered in the part of the brain known as the amygdala, which regulates fear and emotion. Working through the hypothalamus, the amygdala releases excitatory hormones into the bloodstream, leading to a procession of physical responses, including alertness to all stimuli, increased heart rate and blood pressure (Givens, 1998). A computer anxious learner is one who is nervous, distracted, and physically and emotionally uncomfortable in the presence of or under the expectation of interacting with a computer.

Researchers (Banks & Havice, 1989; Bloom, 1985; Winkle & Mathews, 1982) stress the importance of designing instruction to reduce anxiety-related fears toward computers. They recommend the use of instructional strategies to reduce such negative feelings in learners. Anxiety is a very serious problem during computer instruction for learners with a fear of computers, because these learners are faced with the problem of having to learn while actually working directly with the very technology that they fear.

Tobias (1979) proposes a model for the effect of anxiety on learning during instruction. This model suggests that anxiety interferes most with learning before and during information processing by the learner. Before processing, anxiety acts as a diversion to attention. During processing, anxiety directly interferes with the cognitive processing by the learner. Postprocessing anxiety obstructs, though to a lesser degree, later retrieval of content mastered (especially physical skills) during instruction. Based on this model, Tobias makes recommendations regarding instruction that is expected to reduce the effects of anxiety on learning. He suggests that instruction for anxious learners should allow learners to repeat content and reduce the extent to which learners must rely on memory. Providing opportunities for learners to be successful while interacting with computers allows these hands-on experiences to act as a desensitization to the anxiety producing stimulus---the computer.


What does it mean to be motivated toward the use of computers? Levels of motivation are usually measured in terms of "time on task" or "degree of effort." Motivation attracts learners toward something and increases their effort in relation to that object (Keller, 1983). A motivated computer user is one who willingly and intrinsically chooses to use computers in a number of ways even under adverse conditions.

Keller (1987) identifies four categories of motivation in learning situations: Attention, Relevance, Confidence, And Satisfaction (ARCS). To facilitate continuing motivation, strategies in these four categories should be addressed. The ARCS model contains specific methods or strategies that are aimed at producing motivational outcomes when learners are lacking sufficient conditions, such as interest or motives.

The initial requirement for motivating instruction is to gain and maintain the attention of the learner. This can be achieved through procedures that take advantage of the curiosity, interest, or arousal of the students by using humor, variety, enthusiasm, etc. Second, the instruction must have perceived relevance to the immediate or long-range personal needs of the learner. These personal needs can be met by matching the instruction to learners' goals, making the benefits clear, keeping the challenge level appropriate, etc. Next the instruction must provide for the confidence of the learner. The instruction must promote the learner's expectancy for success, which influences the actual effort and performance, and can be increased by strategies such as clearly indicating the requirements for success, providing a low-risk environment, and giving accurate attributional feedback. Lastly, the instruction should provide individual satisfaction in order to facilitate continuing motivation. Learners must perceive the rewards gained as fair, equitable, and consistent while meeting their expectations. Learner satisfaction can be promoted by providing appropriate recognition for success, giving informative and corrective feedback, etc.

These strategies and categories were the basis of a factor analysis and item analysis (Bohlin, Milheim & Viechnicki, 1993) that suggested important instructional strategies for the motivation of pre-service and in-service teachers. Many of these strategies focused on ways to make learning about and using computers more interesting. Several strategies were aimed at clearly communicating the benefits of using computers and matching experiences with learners' personal needs. Additional strategies focused on improving continuing motivation.


What does it mean to be confident about computers? Confidence is very strongly and negatively related to anxiety. A confident computer user is not anxious and has a high expectancy for successful and efficacious interactions with computers.

While confidence is a category in the ARCS Model, it is so important in its link to anxiety that it is discussed here independently. Confidence-building strategies can help reduce anxiety in learners (Keller & Kopp, 1987). Using such confidence-building strategies in computer instruction can decrease fear of failure with computers---an important factor in computer anxiety (Johanson, 1985; Rosen, Sears, & Weil, 1987). Reductions in computer anxiety, in turn, result in a decrease in levels of computer aversion.

Bandura (1989) argues that an important factor in the reduction of anxiety is confidence in one's ability to cope with a stressful situation. "People tend to avoid activities and situation they believe exceed their coping capabilities" (Bandura, 1989, p. 1178). Bandura (1988) identifies several strategies to increase levels of coping efficacy, including modeling of coping strategies, breaking steps into progressively more risky but easily mastered steps, and guided mastery experiences, which are especially effective after learners have gained the ability to exercise personal control under the stress.

Computer Attitudes

What does it mean for a person to have a negative attitude toward computers? An attitude can be defined as a way of being "set" for or against something (Murphy, Murphy, & Newcomb, 1937). This definition includes both a motivational perspective, e.g., a state of readiness to act or respond, and a cognitive perspective, e.g., the individual's beliefs and cognitions. An attitude is an internal state that influences behavior. We can infer these internal states from an individual's actions and words. We can say, therefore, that a person who actively avoids computers has a negative attitude toward them. In general, an individual will tend to avoid computers (be set against them) because of his or her conceptions (beliefs and cognitions) about them.

An attitude is highly dependent on past experiences and how these past experiences influence the individual as he or she approaches new situations. In this sense, learned cognitions have colored an individual's perceptions about computers; a change in the individual's attitude toward and response to computers will require a change in the individual's cognitions about them. Both internal and external factors affect attitude change. Attention to attitude change theories and the factors influencing attitude change can help in identifying strategies and prescriptions for changing attitudes related to computers.

Social learning theory (Martin & Briggs, 1986) is one of the most widely accepted theories of behavior change and while it is not strictly an attitude change theory, the work has been applied to attitude change. (The theory defines attitudes as one type of behavior). Social learning theory is an interaction theory in that it draws heavily on behavioral theory--specifically reinforcement-- and on cognitive processes such as attention, remembering, and motivation that help the individual define, discriminate, and generalize environmental stimuli. The theory suggests that behavior change can occur as a result of

  1. directly experiencing the consequences of one's behavior, e.g., by direct reinforcement or by extinction;
  2. watching the consequences of someone else's behavior, called modeling or vicarious learning;
  3. reading or hearing about the consequences of a behavior and inferring a causal relationship; and
  4. associations that arouse emotions.


The literature related to theories regarding motivation, anxiety, confidence, and attitude change, therefore, suggests many strategies that might help reduce the computer avoidance of learners. While most learners will not need such a comprehensive set of instructional interventions, this list can be used in a several ways:

  1. as a comprehensive resource to help learners with particularly strong computer avoidance;
  2. as a prescriptive resource to help meet the needs of a group of learners who have a particular problem with one of these constructs; and
  3. as a teaching resource to generate ideas of ways to improve computer methods courses.


In order to stimulate the learners' interest in working with computers, the instruction should address the following:

Promote enthusiasm about computers. Enthusiasm can be contagious. An enthusiastic instructor can help promote positive feelings and make learning more enjoyable.

Provide information that captures the interest and attention of the learner. Personal anecdotes about people in the field of computing or sharing personal stories about learning computers can make learning less sterile and more engaging.
Make the subject matter seem important. Helping teachers see the importance of learning about computers for their students can make a great difference in motivating them.

Make learners feel curious about the subject matter. Asking interesting and stimulating questions can make learners curious. Using metaphors and analogies can also facilitate learning as well as taking advantage of curiosity.


In order to meet the learners' personal needs regarding working with computers, the instruction should:

Show the learners how the material they learn will be useful to them. This will help the intrinsic motivation of the learners and provide ideas about how to apply the knowledge and skills from the course.

Allow opportunities for practical application of the content. Continuing motivation is very important for the necessary "life-long learning" of computer using teachers. Practice, assignments and projects should involve real-world and personally relevant applications when possible.

Demonstrate to the learners how they will personally benefit from the knowledge acquired in the class. Examples can be cited or modeled.

Make sure that the difficulty level stretches the learners but doesn't create too much stress. Challenging work is more likely to be perceived as relevant, but only if it doesn't raise anxiety levels too high.

Provide opportunities to work with other learners to provide for those with a high need for affiliation. Using small groups to discuss key issues and topics can help to meet this need.


In order to satisfy the learners and promote continuing motivation about working with computers, the instruction should:

Provide learners with opportunities to set and achieve high standards of excellence. Self-esteem is developed when learners complete difficult tasks.

Give learners opportunities to provide input into determining some aspects of the assignments. They need to feel that the amount and kind of work they have to do is appropriate. Alternatively, provide frequent opportunities for them to provide informal feedback that assesses their satisfaction with aspects of the course and use the feedback to adjust components of the course.

Require learners to evaluate their own work and explain how their self-evaluations match the instructor's evaluation. Fair and equitable evaluation of work is very important to continuing satisfaction.

Give clear and thorough feedback to work. Find ways to give recognition in a way that seems natural and fair to the quality work of the learners.


In order to improve the learners' expectancy for success and to relieve their anxiety when working with computers, the instruction should:

1. Provide small easily managed sections with frequent opportunities for hands-on practice to reduce dependence upon memory and improve expectancy for success. Designing success into the instruction, especially early success, into the instruction reduces fear of failing with computers and diminishes computer anxiety.

2. Provide early experiences that are in a low-risk environment. Fear of failure is magnified in highly visible or high-risk situations. Begin with a very low-risk learning environment and gradually, as learners gain confidence, provide opportunities to take some risks under progressively more independent conditions.

3. Emphasize the non judgmental nature of the computer. Many learners perceive the computer as an intelligent entity. Computer "beeps" when learners make errors increases that feeling. Learners need to be reminded that the computer is actually not very "smart" because it can only understand a very limited variety of instructions -- when the computer beeps, it is because it just isn't able to do what you are asking it to do.

4. State clearly the requirements for successful completion. Explicitly relate levels of mastery that are appropriate for each session, as well as reminding the students the skills and abilities they will possess by the end of the training period.

5. Stress the importance of trial-and-error and learning from one's mistakes as potential methods of learning computer skills. In order for learners to continue working with and learning about computers give them guided opportunities to learn progressively harder tasks by trial-and-error. Help them learn form their mistakes by modeling problem-solving strategies in troubleshooting dilemmas.

6. Provide methods for improving the learners' coping efficacy. The instructor may also model coping strategies for the learners, such as inquisitiveness toward the workings of computers. They may also improve coping efficacy by advising learners to cope with feelings of threat but to demonstrate personal control by withdrawing temporarily when highly anxious. Once learners have some perceived personal control when interacting with computers, guided mastery experiences are extremely effective in reducing avoidance behaviors.

Attitude Change:

In order to decrease negative attitudes toward computers and feelings of alienation, the instruction should:

1. Use a credible source or model to present a position about computers. Establish the model's trustworthiness and expertise. For example, use respected teachers, athletes, movie stars, politicians, or public figures who have successfully used computers or who have become successful as a result of using computers. (Remember the model must be seen demonstrating the behavior and being reinforced).

2. Present discrepant views about computers within the latitude of acceptance; that is, provide cognitive information that is consonant with the views already held by the audience and with the attitude to be altered, but discrepant with the attitude to be changed. For example, demonstrate how the audience is already using computers in banking transactions (e.g., the 24 hour automated tellers), in the check-out lines at grocery stores, for school related tasks (e.g., computerized telephone registration), etc. This will increase the latitude of acceptance and is consonant with already held views or behaviors. However, important aspects of the attitude you wish to change are still discrepant and can be presented.

3. Establish wide latitudes of acceptance by using successive approximations. Change is less likely to be rejected by the learner with wide latitude.

4. Present both sides of the argument and present the most important issue or argument last. For example, explain both the positive (e.g., speed, ability to handle large quantities of data rapidly) and negative (e.g., impersonal) aspects of using computers, saving the most powerful argument for the conclusion of the presentation.

5. Create dissonance by setting up decision-making instances, where the preferred decision to be made involves alternatives that are important and attractive to the audience. Present a solution or draw an explicit conclusion to your argument. For example, present situations where a computer could or could not be used, e.g., word processing, drill and practice, and explicitly demonstrate the attractiveness (e.g., time saved, one-on-one tutoring) of the computer alternative.

6. Provide an opportunity for overt verbalization or active participation. For example, provide situations and encourage students or teachers to use computers to complete a task in an non-threatening atmosphere.

7. Provide direct reinforcement for the desired attitude. For example, allow students to take a lap top computer home to use over the weekend.

8. Make the environment where the attitude is displayed pleasant and reinforcing. For example, classes should be stimulating, with low risk opportunities for exploring the benefits of computers.


A large number of strategies are available to those who design classes and workshops for teacher preparation and teacher inservice that can help to reduce computer avoidance. These strategies come primarily from the theory-based literature related to anxiety, motivation, and attitude change. This list can serve many functions for educators and designers. It is important that it be used in ways that can help teachers to feel motivated and comfortable when using technology.

The author would like to recognize the contributions made by Dr. Barbara Martin to an earlier manuscript, which has been partially integrated into this document, especially in the attitude change sections.


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Roy M. Bohlin
California State University
Fresno, California USA

E-mail: royb@csufresno

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