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 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.
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 writing.”
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 instruction.”
“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 design.”
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 classrooms.”
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 teachers.”
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 implications.
“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."