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The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another

Students and teachers often misunderstand each other’s intentions.


Rebecca Cox, an assistant professor of education at Seton Hall University, is clearly ambitious. Not only does she research rigorously (her new book is based on hundreds of detailed, personal interviews drawn from four major research studies at U.S. community colleges), she also seeks to use her writing to effect real change. The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another is not just another call for better teaching – it is also a plea for political leaders to rethink the entire postsecondary system: “American higher education is due for reinvention,” she argues forcefully. Dr. Cox wants to redefine the way that the system is structured, and the way that classes are taught, to better meet the needs of those students who, 20 or 30 years ago, never would have even contemplated formal education after high school.

At its core, The College Fear Factor argues that today’s community college students understand education differently than their professors. Students see their degrees as a means to an end. It is not that they do not want to learn; rather, they understand learning as absorbing information from experts and then reproducing it on a test. And they are therefore largely intolerant of pedagogical efforts that promote active engagement if they perceive such strategies to be detracting from their ultimate goal.

Professors, however well intentioned, don’t understand today’s student body. They achieved their positions by mastering an antiquated, teacher-centred approach to learning that privileged those who understood the system and were familiar with the academic culture. Even most of those who have adopted a student-centred approach to their classes have yet to grasp what ‘student’ means in 21st-century America.

As a result, students feel like failures and faculty are conflicted between a perceived choice of either lowering standards or accepting that most of their students will fail the most basic of introductory composition courses, if they manage to complete them at all.

Dr. Cox believes that change is possible. To maximize student learning, faculty must (1) establish credibility by demonstrating expertise; (2) clarify expectations in terms of process and outcomes; and (3) promote self-efficacy among the student body.

Scholars of teaching and learning will not be shocked by these suggestions, although Dr. Cox’s evidence, and particularly her extensive use of verbatim student comments, is helpful in emphasizing how important all three of these factors are. It follows that this book will be more helpful to faculty and administrators who lack a basic understanding of 21st Century teaching and learning than it will to the ‘experts.’

Perhaps that was the author’s intention. Nonetheless, if she genuinely wanted to change the system, her book should have addressed policymakers more directly. And this, ironically, is where the book fails to take its own advice.

Dr. Cox maintains that governments must accept and embrace new learners, and that professors must develop new approaches to engage them without sacrificing academic standards. It is not that these students are less capable, she suggests, it is that they cannot be reached in the old ways. “The task for individual departments and for colleges as a whole is to cultivate a learning environment for faculty members,” she writes. And doing so will take “significant and complementary resources: time and space to reflect, access to research literature, and departmental dialogue,” along with “policies and practices” that “promote consistency and coherence”.

And that’s it. The College Fear Factor lacks the specific policy recommendations, or actionable proposals, as a political operator might say, necessary to make a political impact. It is an easy read, the quotations from students and faculty members are compelling, and the argument is convincing, but inasmuch as Dr. Cox chides college faculty for not understanding their students, she does not seem to understand the culture of those she wishes to effect.

The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another
by Rebecca D. Cox, Harvard University Press, 2009, 198 pages.

Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and an associate professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.

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  1. David / August 10, 2010 at 07:23

    This books is yet another in a long list of recent texts all with a similar theme: the students aren’t the problem, the faculty are. This is a distraction from the real problem. The fact is many entering university today are not of the same standard as they were 10-15 years ago. The root of the problem is two fold: contemporary high school instruction with too much emphasis on student efficacy and not enough focus on educational attainment. This reality then feeds the university system with students who lack the basic skills to succeed. The solutions are reduced standards (already happening, unfortunately) cloaked in all sorts of ‘feel good’ language designed to mask the fact we are short-changing students at the primary level by not insisting on higher levels of academic achievement (lot’s of easy ‘A’s) – this lulls students into a false sense of complacency which follows them into university.

    Regardless of what US community college students may assert, the root of the problem – imho – is preparation and standards leading up to university. The popular pedagogy at the primary school level which supports the notion that self esteem should trump learning and reason severely undermines student achievement at the university level.

  2. John Dong / August 18, 2010 at 08:29

    I have now taught at 4 universities: 2 very good, one middling, and one mediocre. At the top two I got on with the teaching and the students got on with the learning. At the middling one, that was the case with about half the students. And students at the mediocre one were very well suited to what is here described as “21st Century teaching and learning” but which is anything but. After trying very hard with these “21st century learners”, I came to the conclusion that far “better” to simply give easy grades; the “learners” were happy, my student-evaluations went up, and my workload went down (e.g. I would simply give grades by simply quickly looking at a single page of an exam but not actually marking anything). I fear for the future employers of my happy students and their many As, but why beat myself over it when I have books like this one.

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