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

reviewed by Steven A. Meyers - July 22, 2010

coverTitle: The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another
Author(s): Rebecca D. Cox
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674035488, Pages: 216, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

How well do instructors know their students? There are many obstacles toward this end. Undergraduates often enroll in large classes along with scores or even hundreds of other students. Professors and students are challenged by generational divides that involve differences in cultural references, uses of technology, language, learning preferences, and even overarching values (Twenge, 2007). Moreover, instructors want to preserve appropriate boundaries with students to ensure role clarity and to maintain a professional environment focused on learning.

However, there are liabilities to this distance between faculty and undergraduates, especially when students fail classes, withdraw unexpectedly, do not submit assignments, or act inappropriately. Professors are often left wondering about what happened, or try to fill in the gaps using their own preconceptions and best guesses. Some faculty members attribute students’ poor academic or behavior problems to causes such as students’ limited preparation for college or intellectual abilities. Others ascribe such failure to undergraduates’ poor planning, lack of maturity, or having priorities elsewhere. In The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another, Rebecca Cox argues that there is a chasm between professors and their students. Both sides do not understand each other and often do not even know why.

Cox organizes this book into three main sections: students, classroom dynamics, and gatekeeping. Within this framework, her primary thesis is that students encounter persistent anxiety from numerous sources, all of which effectively undermine their college performance and lead to adverse outcomes including class failure and drop out. To make matters worse, professors are either unaware of students’ concerns and worries or unintentionally contribute to them. Cox’s primary focus is the experience of community college students. She weaves together data and conclusions from four different research projects that she conducted or co-led as a member of an investigative team. The two studies that form the heart of the book are qualitative, and draw upon Cox’s observations of seven writing or English composition classes taught at two unidentified community colleges (one in California, the other a multi-campus community college in the Southwestern United States). Her observations are complemented by in-depth interviews of 41 students, who are periodically profiled and whose comments are excerpted throughout the book.  Seven community college instructors are profiled as well, and are quoted to a lesser extent. Cox also bases her conclusions on a larger national field study of community colleges and an investigation of advanced technological education centers, but these data assume more of a background role.

Through her illustrations and narrative, readers learn that many college students question their academic abilities and are highly sensitized to potential confirmations of their self-doubts. Some students whom Cox portrays would prefer not to turn in a paper rather than receive critical feedback from their instructors that could reinforce their feelings of inadequacy. For those students who remain engaged, all assignments can become high-stakes testing in their own estimations. This stance naturally creates preoccupation about knowing “what will be on the test,” a limited tolerance for ambiguity in classes or on assignments, and a focus on impression management so as not to be perceived as ignorant by their professors. Cox highlights other sources of anxiety that are more developmental in nature, such as students contending with the increased independence that they experience upon the transition from high school to college, or the uncertainty involved in selecting a career and an appropriately tailored sequence of courses. All of these are compounded by practical worries that many students experience: How can I pay for college? Is going to college worth the expense? Will I get a better job to pay off my loans? How can I afford taking time off from work?

Ultimately, Cox contends, students approach college with a different agenda than ones assumed by professors. Stated succinctly, they seek to minimize their anxiety exposure. In the most cynical sense, this guiding principle can result in students’ strong preference for: acquiring “practical information” rather than developing higher-order thinking skills; learning a narrow set of facts for exams so as to decrease the need to determine what an instructor may consider important; and expending the least amount of effort to achieve the desired end. Such fears or an approach to education effectively negates instructors’ entreaties to visit them during office hours (which become another opportunity for invalidation), value of critical reasoning (which seems too removed from daily life or career preparation), or intent to inspire a love of learning (which students perceive as incongruent with college as a means-to-an-end experience to be endured).

Cox also presents readers with profiles of instructors who are successful in reducing students’ anxiety. These professors not only display subject mastery and convey a sense of authority, but they are exceptionally encouraging. They reduce ambiguity by providing students with detailed assignment instructions, sharing grading criteria to help students discern core material or skills, providing detailed performance feedback, and minimizing work that is important yet ungraded. Professors who cross the gap of misinterpretation seem attuned to their students’ emotional needs and convey empathy. They attend to working alliances in college classrooms by establishing rapport and developing a joint investment in the goals and tasks of the class (Buskist & Saville, 2004; Meyers, 2008).

In the end, Cox offers professors a compelling and adaptive way to reinterpret students’ poor academic performance and misbehavior. Instructors who view such outcomes as a function of anxiety are more likely to respond to students with care or concern in comparison to those faculty members who attribute these same behaviors to student apathy, indifference, or incompetence. This perspective is actually consistent with that of many psychologists, who believe that the emotion that clients display on the surface (e.g., anger) can belie other feelings that may hide underneath (e.g., shame). These therapists can assist their clients because they acknowledge and respond to both levels.

Many professors – unlike psychotherapists, I suspect – do not want to focus on students’ fears or other elements of their emotional lives. Doing so increases their scope of responsibilities and can feel like a digression from their primary work of content-based instruction. Cox does not provide guidance to those faculty members who struggle with the balance between providing students with high levels of encouragement and grading poor quality work. Moreover, I wonder whether anxiety and misunderstandings in fact capture the majority of the reasons why students withdraw from a class, do not submit assignments, fail courses, or drop out of college. Indeed, it would be helpful to have the ability to differentiate between students’ irrational fears that create unfounded self-recrimination in contrast with rational anxiety that reflects an accurate self-assessment of poor skills or comprehension. While I agree with the notion that students’ emotions and beliefs affect their performance and engagement, I am hesitant to minimize the role potentially played by variation in students’ impulsivity, goal commitment, or cognitive capabilities that operate independently from anxiety. Nevertheless, Cox ably highlights that college faculty are teaching more than their subject material. They are teaching people.


Buskist, W., & Saville, B. K. (2004). Rapport building: Creating positive emotional contexts for enhancing teaching and learning. In B. Perlman, L. I. McCann, & S. H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned: Practical advice for the teaching of psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 149-155). Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.

Meyers, S. A. (2008). Working alliances in college classrooms. Teaching of Psychology, 35, 29-32.

Twenge, J. M. (2007). Generation me: Why today’s young Americans are more assertive, confident, entitled – and more miserable than ever before. New York: Free Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 22, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16079, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 8:09:26 PM

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About the Author
  • Steven Meyers
    University in Chicago
    E-mail Author
    STEVEN A. MEYERS is a Professor of Psychology and the Mansfield Professor of Social Justice at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois. His research in the area of the scholarship of teaching and learning has addressed elements of effective college instruction. These publications focus on topics such as faculty and teaching assistant development, conflict management and productive relationships between professors and students, and incorporating social justice and civic engagement into psychology coursework. His research and writings in the area of clinical psychology have addressed understanding family relationships in their social context.
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