Best book ever on how to prepare students for college
We have had blue ribbon commissions, congressional committees, corporate roundtables, university consortiums and dozens of non-profit organizations struggle with the central question of American education: How do we prepare students for success in college? The written output of these groups numbers tens of thousands of pages, at least.
And yet I just got more useful information from a 198-page book written by an unknown assistant professor of education at Seton Hall University than I ever learned from those stacks of well-intentioned reports.
The author's name is Rebecca D. Cox. The title of her book is "The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another." She did something none of those glossy, brightly-illustrated demands for reform ever did, as far as I can recall. She spent five years talking to, and watching, community college students. She noted carefully the many ways they failed their classes. She listened closely to their reasons why.
She came to this conclusion. While 69 percent of 12th graders intend to earn a four-year college degree, only 28 percent of 25 to 34 years olds have done so. The reason is not so much that these students were not ready for college, but that college was not ready for them.
The culture of college professors, at both two-year and four-year institutions, was antithetical to good instruction. They had been trained to honor what they knew, not how they were teaching it, and that made all the difference.
The professors she watched in action rarely had a clue how much they were frightening their students with opening lectures on how broad and deep they were going to go, and on the sacrifices students had to be prepared to make to keep up. Their obvious pride in their grasp of the content--one of the qualities that made them feel entitled to be called a professor---was so intimidating to some students that they did not dare intrude on the great man's office hours, even though they desperately needed that extra help.
Some professors, she saw, understood those feelings and worked hard to ease them. "Virtually across the board, an instructor's efforts to assuage students's 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,'" Cox wrote.
The most promising approach to students accomplished three 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," she wrote.
Cox unlocked a puzzle for me. I have long wondered why otherwise intelligent college professors would sometimes insist to me, despite much evidence to the contrary, that the introductory college courses at state universities and community colleges had to be better than the same material taught in Advanced Placement courses in high school because the college teachers had more advanced degrees than the high school teachers. That, she said, is the way college professors are trained to think.
"The minimum criterion for employment as a faculty member, for instance, is a graduate-level credential in a relevant discipline, which serves as evidence that the teacher has a grasp of the disciplinary content. An instructor who has engaged in graduate-level study in an academic discipline has most likely been socialized in a research-oriented environment that values subject matter discipline and discounts the importance of pedagogy," she wrote.
What she saw at one unidentified southwestern campus she calls Lake Shore Community College suggests this disrespect for teaching is only getting worse. In the English department at the time of her study "over 60 percent of the full-time faculty held Ph.D.'s, primarily in the field of English literature (rather than composition or English education.)
"Moreover, several long-standing members of the department spoke to me about the increasing necessity for full-time job candidates to hold an earned doctorate. In effect, this trend meant that full-time positions that became available in the 1990s were less likely to be filled by adjunct instructors in the department, who had teaching experience but tended not to have Ph.D.'s."
One problem Cox noticed was professors' use of jargon. "Without explicit explanation (and translation), the academic conversation can easily remain unintelligible, irrelevant, and thoroughly unappealing," she wrote. "The difficulty for the uninitiated of joining the academic conversation is exacerbated when professors assume that students understand what is expected."
The heart of the book is the persistent confusion Cox detected in interviews with more than 120 students, conducted as part of four different research projects. She quoted Joy, a student struggling with a professor's assignments: "One thing I would like, though, would be, for the analysis paper--it's really tough for me because I've never done it before, and she sort of goes through it in class, but she doesn't really give examples of how to write it; like, she says, 'Discuss this, discuss this,' but she doesn't give an example on how to write it out--like, what's the format? How do you actually put those ideas into a format?--because I don't know. That's what I'm having a hard time with."
A key conceptual failing for professors was that although many of their students were clearly unprepared for more complex work, that did not mean they were not able to do it if given some explanations and examples.
Cox's topic is college, mostly community college, but it is clear that high schools share the blame for the students' misconceptions. Some practical, sustained experience with research and analysis--missing from most high school classes---would make the transition easier.
Some of those blue-ribbon studies have also made that point, but from the perspective of their nice offices on the 33rd floor of a downtown building. They miss what Cox provides, the flesh-and-blood fear, panic and confusion of real students in college classrooms where even the desks and chairs are set up in ways that hinder learning.
There are some very wealthy and concerned people funding a wide assortment of commissions and cooperatives that address the college readiness issue. They should buy Cox's book, many copies of it. It is not a best-seller, at least not yet. I could find no reviews of it, not even reader reviews on Amazon.com.
I bet those business magnates could negotiate a good discount on several thousand copies of "The College Fear Factor." Putting the book in the hands of educators and policy makers at all levels would cost relatively little for the reality it would bring to our so far clumsy attempts to get this right.
| November 6, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
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