The fall semester has begun here in Chicago and for the first time in many years, I am a student again. I’m taking two online courses that are part of an Assessment in Higher Education graduate certificate program. I’m just finishing up my second week of classes and it has been an interesting experience being on this side of the syllabus. Like many students that I teach, I am choosing these classes for career reasons – after I complete the program I will be eligible to apply for advancement to an Associate Professor position. I also happen to think assessment of student learning is quite interesting, which is why I chose this specific program. As a student, I’ve already made a few mistakes mainly with logistical, technology-related issues and I’ve had a few moments when I wondered why I chose to do this at all! I had a couple of questions about my first assignment and, of course, I e-mailed my professors. When I did not hear back from one of them for 48 hours I assumed something was wrong and that maybe I wasn’t even on the roster! I should know better, right? I know that I have the resources, skills, experience, and motivation to be successful in this program of study; to learn new things and to earn a high grade, and yet I still felt anxious. How would I feel if I’d never set foot in a college classroom before? How would I feel or behave if none of my relatives or friends had ever set foot in a college classroom? What if I hadn’t been an “A” student before? What if I had to reduce my work hours and consequently my income in order to take the time I need to complete this coursework? What if I thought I might lose my job if I was not successful in this course? What if I thought my professor might judge me unfairly based on my class or race or gender? According to Rebecca D. Cox in her book, The College Fear Factor: How students and professors misunderstand one another (2009) from Harvard University Press, “regardless of the path that led each student to college, enrolling in college courses proved to be an immensely stressful transition” (p.21). This book has been a fascinating read. For one reason, it is about community college students and professors. This seems to be a rare occurrence in the scholarship of teaching/learning literature and I appreciate the study Cox did to come to her conclusions. Her methodology for the first study included observing every class session for a developmental English course and a Composition course for a semester. Three additional studies included surveys, focus groups, and interviews with students and professors as well as reading student work and examining instructor feedback. I found the chapter “How is that Helping Us?” to be of particular interest to me as an instructor, but also in my newly refreshed role as a student. All students interviewed in the initial study reported that they “sincerely hoped to learn something important and meaningful in college” but Cox’s observation was that the students had very different concepts of meaningful learning experiences as compared to their professors (p.67). I have had many experiences as an instructor when I’ve designed what I think of as an innovative learning experience in the classroom and my students, especially at the beginning of the semester, want to know when they will get to the real part of the class. They get frustrated at ongoing class discussions. They say that they don’t want to hear from their classmates they want to hear from me. They expect a lecture in which I will give them exactly what they need to know to get an “A” in the course and they want to get this all over with as quickly and as painlessly as possible. In fact in her research, Cox found that “many students, for instance, defined instruction that was not delivered in the form of a lecture as no instruction whatsoever” (160). I’ve definitely faced this issue as an instructor and I’ve tried to work through it with my students because I want them to develop their own thinking about the course material over time with lots of exposure to the big ideas of my field. But, as a student…I kind of get it! I want my professors to be as clear as possible and I want them to demonstrate their authority on the subject I am studying. Yes, I believe I can benefit from interacting with my classmates, but I do really value hearing from the professor and I want to feel secure in my understanding of what is expected. In these first couple of weeks as a student, I have found that what stresses me out the most is when I feel like I might be missing something – maybe I don’t have the due date down correctly, maybe I’m supposed to be doing something each week and somehow missed that assignment on the syllabus, maybe I missed something that was communicated in the lectures or online discussions and now I don’t have all the information needed to complete the assignments. If I struggle with anxiety when faced with, for example, unclear assignment descriptions how might students fair who have had very little prior knowledge of the college experience? This book has helped me to think about not only my expectations of what college level work is supposed to look like, but to consider how my studentsview the college experience and what their expectations of their own learning might be. I need to think about their “academic literacy”. As Cox suggests,
First and foremost, the preconceptions students have about college and college instruction, as well as their underlying fear of failure, shape the college experience in fundamental ways, at times preventing learners from the kind of active engagement in their coursework that would be needed for them to succeed (p.158)
How many times have I interpreted disengaged behavior in my students as a disinterest in the course or a demonstration of a lack of skills necessary to be successful in my course? How many times have I been wrong about that?Perhaps this behavior, which I interpret to be disinterest might actually be more about the student’s fear of failure. Have you ever been afraid of failing and simply pulled back, and stopped trying? I have. This book has made me think about the behaviors I observe in my students, particularly early on in the semester, as more about their own anxiety and less about me, my course, my assignments, my field, etc. In her chapter “Reimagining college from the inside out” Cox states that,
Virtually across the board, an instructor’s efforts to assuage students’ fears functioned as an active invitation to take part in the class and marked the first step toward fostering the perception on the part of students that the coursework they were being asked to accomplish was challenging but ‘doable’. 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 (163).
Becoming a student again has been a humbling experience and it has been educational on many different levels. I plan to review my own syllabus and assignment descriptions and think about how students perceive my course. I want to remember this feeling of anxiety that I feel as a student and work hard to support my own students as they work through their own anxieties. As much of the stress literature indicates, learning is negatively impacted when the learner is experiencing a stress response. If I know that fear is a very real experience for most community college students, at least at the beginning of their studies, then I feel obligated as an instructor to try to buffer that stress as much as possible, or at least try to avoid adding to the stress levels students experience.