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From: John Matlock [mailto:[log in to unmask]] 
Sent: Wednesday, November 18, 2009 9:06 AM
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Subject: The College Fear Factor (Community Colleges)







'The College Fear Factor'

November 18, 2009

Despite best intentions, today's first-generation college students and
their professors "misunderstand and ultimately fail one another" in the
classroom, according to a new scholarly work on community college

The College Fear Factor <>
, published last month by Harvard University Press, is based upon five
years of observations of community college courses and interviews with
students and professors by Rebecca Cox, professor of education at Seton
Hall University. In her work, she tries to show how "traditional college
culture" is a barrier to student success, particularly for disadvantaged

Why Students Are Afraid

Cox believes a mismatch exists between many students' expectations and
those of their professors, and that some of the current pedagogical
norms used in the classroom may be furthering this learning gap.

"Students can easily arrive at college without understanding what is
expected of them and how to meet the expectations," Cox writes. "Being
unprepared to meet certain expectations, however, is not the same as
being unable to meet them. When students fail to follow, or even
violate, rules that are taken for granted, instructors may easily
interpret the source of the problem. If a student's style of
participation is different from the norm, for example, an instructor may
believe that the student is not as capable as the other students.
Similarly, when a student fails to take the initiative to ask questions
or seek assistance, an instructor may simply assume that the student is
not motivated to learn."

Through her interviews with more than 120 community college students -
typically first-generation - Cox notes that a "coherent picture emerged"
of their professors.

"Students admitted to feeling intimidated by professors' academic
knowledge and by teachers' power to assess students and assign grades,"
Cox writes. "Essentially, students were afraid that the professor would
irrevocably confirm their academic inadequacy."

This nervousness was particularly concentrated among those students
taking mathematics and composition courses, often the "portal to more
exclusive classes." Citing an "underlying fear" that they would be
"exposed" in front of their peers and professors "as too stupid for
college classes," many of the students observed by Cox "exhibited very
low tolerance for feeling confused or making mistakes" and often did not
seek extra assistance to understand new skills or information. Others
even deliberately skipped assignments, for fear that turning them in
would earn them a poor grade and confirm their inadequacy.

Students interviewed by Cox expected their professors to present
"essential facts and clear explanation of the textbook." As a result,
many of these students "seemed wholly comfortable as passive recipients
of professor's expert knowledge" in the traditional lecture format. Cox
determined that "English classrooms may be the site that best
illuminates the pedagogical disconnects, because so often the goal is
for student to take on authority - at least as authors of their own

In observing two freshman composition courses for an entire semester,
Cox heard from many students who complained that they "were not being
taught how to write." The two instructors whom she observed chose not to
lecture their classes and instead opted for a more collaborative
classroom experience, making students discuss readings in a round table
format and having them edit one another's writing. Unfortunately, some
of the students "interpreted the absence of a lecture as the absence of

"Students' firmly held expectations undermined the instructors' efforts
to achieve their pedagogical goals," Cox writes. "Ultimately, students'
pedagogical conception led to overt resistance and prevented them from
benefiting from alternative instructional approaches, which they
perceived variously as irrelevant 'b.s.,' a waste of time, or simply a
lack of instruction. Similar conceptions have guided students'
participation in other classroom I have observed, but the extent to
which, and frequency with which, [these two English instructors] flouted
the established paradigm for college instruction led to unusually strong
resistance from their students. These two cases thus starkly spotlight a
phenomenon that is pervasive in college classrooms."

How Professors Can Change

Cox observed many different instructors who had varying degrees of
success with their students, using both traditional and non-traditional
methods. Still, she believes the key to greater student success is not
necessarily in the method of instruction but in how it is contextualized
and explained.

"When instructors recognized the reasons for students' lackluster
performance - whether in class or on assignments - they were much more
likely to be able to shape students' beliefs and behavior," Cox writes.
"In this way, the most promising pedagogical approach accomplished three
crucial goals: it (a) demonstrated the instructor's competence in the
field of study; (b) clarified both the instructor's expectations for
student performance and the procedures for accomplishing the work; and
(c) persuaded students that they were more than capable of succeeding."

Though Cox believes her research "highlights the need for college
educators to consider students' goals and expectations" when designing
and teaching their courses, she offers one strong caveat.

"Let me be clear: understanding students' expectations and
preconceptions is not the same as adopting pedagogical strategies that
confirm students' existing beliefs," Cox writes. "But without a clear
sense of what students expect when they enter college classrooms,
teachers may find their ability to challenge preconceived notions
sufficiently to help students succeed may depend more on luck than on

Reactions to the Research

Cox, who talked with Inside Higher Ed about her work, said it was not
her intent to give professors a "how-to guide" for engaging students or
to imply that professors should always yield to the preferences of their
students in developing teaching methods. She argued that professors just
need to be more aware of their students' preconceived notions.

"In no way do I think that pandering to student preferences is a good
idea," she said. "I just think some professors might be surprised at
what student preconceptions are out there about college and their
classes. I kind of shied away from presenting a cookbook with bullet
points, but I did observe some things that some professors did which
seemed to be helpful. One of the instructors, for instance, gave out an
anonymous questionnaire to her students before the start of the
semester. There are a million things like that one can do. It should be
all about changing the way they look at a situation in their

Although her research is limited to community colleges and the students
she encountered were primarily first-generation or otherwise
disadvantaged, Cox said the central lesson of her book is applicable at
any level of higher education.

William Tierney, professor and director of the Center for Higher
Education Policy Analysis <>  at the
University of Southern California, reviewed Cox's work before it was
published and appreciates the emphasis it puts back on teaching.

"In terms of practice, we have a long way to go," Tierney said. "But,
there are plenty of discussions about 'How do I improve my teaching?' I,
for one, believe faculty care a great deal about being better teachers
and care about creating conditions that help them become better

He also agrees with the fundamental point of her pedagogical argument.

"There's always been a delicate balance between teaching a topic and
teaching students, especially at community colleges," Tierney said.
"It's essential for us to take into account where they're coming from
and where they're headed in life. We're not saying we're going to lower
standards, but we need to meet students where they are."

Howard Tinberg, an English professor at Bristol Community College and
former editor of the journal Teaching English in the Two-Year College
<> , had a different take on the
excerpts from Cox's work he read.

"First of all, let me say that on the face of it, Cox's observation that
students and faculty may misunderstand each other is obvious," Tinberg
wrote in an e-mail. "The reasons for such a misunderstanding are many
and involve, no doubt, preconceived notions as to what a teaching
subjects demands, as well as how a classroom ought to be conducted."

However, he went on to note that he was bothered by some of the study's

"Mostly what concerns me about Cox's study is its apparent assumption
that a) community college faculty by and large don't lay such a
foundation in their courses and b) that community college students are
likely to resist pedagogical innovation in the composition classroom,"
Tinberg wrote. "Our students come with varied levels of preparedness:
some are more ready than others for the kind of teaching that they meet
in their required composition classroom. But Cox can rest assured that
community college faculty who teach composition take the time to gauge
their students' preparedness and histories as writers, not to mention
learning styles that those students are bringing to the class. After
all, community college composition classrooms are typically small and
very much, as we say, writer-centered. I would also add that most
community college composition faculty are routinely in touch with
academic support services, counselors and various professionals who work
with many of our students who have special needs. We come to know our
students well."

- David Moltz <mailto:[log in to unmask]> 

(c) Copyright 2009 Inside Higher Ed