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  • The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another
  • Elizabeth M. Cox
Rebecca D. Cox. The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. 198 pp. Paper: $24.96. ISBN: 978-0-674-03548-5.

[Note: It is rather unusual to have a reviewer and author share the same last name so I felt it a good idea to let the reader know that Rebecca and I are in no way related and have actually only met once so there is no conflict of interest or familial pride involved in the writing of this review.—EMC]

Hardly a day goes by that an article reporting the dire state of retention and persistence in community colleges does not appear in the news or on higher education websites. In the current economic climate, much of the attention and blame tends to focus on the lack of funding for various student services or financial aid. But what about what happens in our classrooms and the exchanges between faculty and students? This book is a step toward answering that question.

The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another is a comingling of four separate studies—two that the author conducted individually and two on which she was a member of the research team—focused on instructional dynamics at the classroom level in community colleges. The book also deals with broader organizational issues and challenges such as those found in collaborations between community college and four-year institutions.

Cox outlined three goals for her work: (a) illuminate college students' understanding of their collegiate path, (b) illustrate the mismatch between student and faculty expectations, and (c) examine how some typical structures and widely followed norms in higher education obstruct student educational attainment. To achieve these goals, Cox used an inside-the-classroom lens to construct the book's three sections: "Students," "Classroom Dynamics," and "Gatekeeping." Throughout the work, she skillfully uses the voices of faculty and students to dynamically tell the stories of how disconnects between faculty expectations and student performance impact outcomes for both groups.

Part 1, "Students," examines community college students' goals, expectations, and orientation to college. It lays the foundation for the book by illustrating student expectations for college and the college student role by first exploring strategies that students use to manage their fears of being seen as incompetent as well as their perceptions of the delivery and relevance of course material in an aptly titled chapter, "How Is This Helping Us?" [End Page 179]

By using students' words, Cox clearly demonstrates that today's students view factual, concrete information as valuable and worth learning. If a course includes too many abstract concepts or methods, students become disgruntled. Since students do not want to be exposed as unworthy of being in college, instead of seeking help from professors to gain understanding of course materials they adopt a "Getting It Over" stance to merely secure a passing grade.

Part 2, "Classroom Dynamics," looks at the interactions between faculty and students in the classroom. The chapters "College Teaching" and "Professors Who 'Come Down to Our Level'" document how students typically expect faculty to act in the mode of "Teaching as Telling." Thus, they often meet attempts by instructors to incorporate alternative methods for teaching that will enhance critical thinking skills with criticism and resistance, in which other faculty may join.

In the next chapter, Cox illustrates the importance of community college faculty not behaving as "four-year wannabes" (e.g., using excessive educational jargon) and instead sincerely working to ease students' fears and inviting them into the college environment. Here Cox illustrates her point with two composition instructors who used students' perceptions to enhance their understanding of the material and comfort in the classroom. Examples include the instructors' firm grasp of the subject, the skill to explain it clearly to students, the exercise of authority based on interpersonal relationships with students, and their expectations of rigorous student work (with the inclusion of clear instructions for completing assignments). All of these features help faculty act as validating agents for students, which is a key contributor to student success, especially for...


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pp. 179-180
Launched on MUSE
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