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 pedagogy.
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 students.
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.
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.”
interviews with more than 120 community college students — typically
first-generation — Cox notes that a “coherent picture
emerged” of their professors.
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.”
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.
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
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 instruction.”
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
Professors Can Change
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.
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.
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 design.”
to the Research
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.
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
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.
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.
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
agrees with the fundamental point of her pedagogical argument.
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.”
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.
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.”
went on to note that he was bothered by some of the study’s implications.
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."