Dr. Rebecca Cox visited our campus last week and talked to us about her research and book The college fear factor: How students and professors misunderstand one another. Because she structured her workshop like a discussion, I noticed that it was hard for faculty to take away from it good pieces of advice. Here is what I learned from the discussion:
Students come to college with the best intentions, but for a variety of reasons, students become fearful of college, the classroom, their instructors, and of failure. This fear causes students to engage in counter-productive behaviors like not attending class, not turning in assignments, dropping classes, changing to “easier” programs, or dropping out of college altogether.
Through her research, Dr. Cox discovered that much of this fear was a result of students’ misconceptions about college. Many of the students she interviewed believed that all college classes followed a lecture format and that students were simply required to attend a lecture, take notes, and take a test. This misconception is the source of a great amount of stress because students then feel that they don’t know what their teachers’ expectations are for them and how to meet those expectations.
Another source of fear for students has much to do with their personal life situations: balancing work and school, getting through school quickly, paying for school, etc. Because of these stresses, students don’t place a lot of value in general education courses and seem to express a great deal of dissatisfaction with those courses.
What can instructors do?
So then, the question becomes what can instructors do to help reduce these fears and, therefore, reduce some of these counterproductive behaviors that our students engage in. I think the first thing to do is analyze what’s within our realm of control.=, and when it comes to misconceptions about a class, there’s actually a lot that’s within our control. Here is a list of ideas that you can use. Some of these ideas came from the workshop, some I added.
- Communicate to students your philosophy of learning and teaching. How do you expect students to learn in your class? How will they demonstrate that learning to you?
- Communicate how students will be assessed on a given task before they complete the task. Rubrics are a great way to do that.
- Allow room for failure and/or time for practice. This is especially important if you are asking students to do something they’ve never done before. Allow them a first go around of a task with you as the evaluator before any formal grading.
- Feedback should be corrective but also very encouraging. Remember they’re afraid of failure or not meeting your expectations, so some extra encouragement goes a long way.
- Learn something about each student and use it. Students feel connected to instructors and classes where they feel like an important member of that class. They are also more likely to attend.
- Give students a chance to air out their fears about your class and take a moment to address those fears for them.
You might find that you already do some of these things. And there is so more we can do, so I would like to keep the discussion going. If anyone would like to give a presentation or write an article on what kinds of things they do to reduce student fear and increase class participation, I would love to talk to you about it.