Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

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

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.

By Jay Mathews  | November 6, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Jay's quick response to Valerie before he takes his afternoon nap
Next: Forget about rating teachers---rate schools instead.


Sounds like the book identifies a problem. Is there practical information on a solution for students entering college? I expected something much different based on the title of your article, Jay. So, kids are frightened, and that should be changed. Is that all?

Posted by: dccitizen1 | November 6, 2009 8:22 AM | Report abuse

I wonder if I should have worked harder to make that clear. I was trying to say in the piece that her solution is to have professors, at least in that first year, and particularly in community colleges, who know how to teach, and how to handle the fears that students bring with them. I also say toward the end that high schools should give students heading toward college, even community college, more sustained experience with research and analysis so they can get a sense of the terms and the practices that university professors use. The lengthly, footnoted research paper is a rare occurance in many high schools these days.

Posted by: jaymathews | November 6, 2009 8:33 AM | Report abuse

Yes, those points would have added to the article in a good way. Thanks for your response.

(I have to laugh at myself---I was expecting a little more practical advice on getting kids to learn how to handle laundry, money, pressures to drink/do drugs/other risky behaviors, time management, how to work with professors, eating well on campus, taking advantage of myriad opportunities for expanding horizons, etc etc! All things that maybe more common sense and not books can teach me.)

Posted by: dccitizen1 | November 6, 2009 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for bringing this book to our attention. It will surely add needed perspective on the discussion of how to prepare students to succeed in post-secondary education.

One thing I have noted seems to be a growing pedagogical gap between ed reformer expectations for K-12 teachers and none for post-secondary instructors. Increasingly the expectation for K-12 teachers is the idea that it is their responsibility for what or if their students learn. There seems to be no teacher responsibility for student learning at the college level.

Students who are nurtured or coddled in a very supportive early education environment are then thrust into a college culture where they are totally responsible for their own learning. Some college prep courses may help students learn the necessary study skills but I wonder if this is enough.

I am also curious how much teaching is actually done by professors at 4 year colleges and how much is done by teaching assistants who may not even have a degree?

Posted by: speakuplouder | November 6, 2009 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Jay - The point that being unprepared doesn't mean unable is key for me. This speaks to every student taking a college level class in high school. Whether or not they actually enter college directly from HS or wait until later, if they've had an AP or IB class - even just one - they are much better prepared for college work than is the superior student who has not. That's clear.
As you can see from my screen name - LoveIB - I wholeheartedly agree with you regarding the need for HS kids to do at least one lengthy, footnoted research paper. This is something that needs to be learned, and nothing teaches like experience.

Posted by: LoveIB | November 6, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

I did my best to prepare myself for college, I took seven AP courses. Despite this, I was completely unprepared and terrified when I started college (a well respected public four-year). My biggest frustration was that I didn’t know how to write the types of papers the professors thought a freshman college student should be able to write. When I worked up my courage to ask for guidance the professors would say something like, “Be original, use APA style, and don’t plagiarize”. That was not helpful. I didn’t know how to write or construct a paper beyond a very basic five paragraph essay. I wish I could say I learned how to write in college. Unfortunately I spent most of my time writing convoluted sentences in a misguided attempt to avoid accidently plagiarizing someone.

Posted by: learningasIgo | November 6, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

I would be grateful if learningasIgo could email me at I am going to be writing soon on the lack of research writing assignments in high school and want to find out more about yr experience.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 6, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Jay, while you're doing your research on the lack of research writing assignments, please check on what Michelle Rhee did at the School Without Walls. I remember a parent being upset when he told me that Rhee unilaterally decided that the seniors did not have to do the customary (customary at that school) senior research writing project at Walls.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | November 6, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse

I'd disagree with the initial premise that voluminous efforts have been made to assure success in college; in fact, most of the blue ribbon studies such as "A Nation At Risk," have focused on both high school and college curriculums and generally stressed more attention to math and science.

Many colleges and Universities do have graduation rates less than many high schools; this is so in spite of the fact that they select students and don't have to teach everyone.

I'd suggest that much of the business of higher education is just that: business. You now have major colleges competing for students with improvements in facilities like dining halls and medical services while some schools develop curriculums that take advantage of interests in, say, an MBA; and these students tend to generate more fees and tuition for those schools.

There remains too little competition among schools and students are mostly unprepared to evaluate the strengths and weakness of potential colleges. Generally, curriculums have been water-down to cater to those who think every high school graduate should attend college. The one dominant trend that exists in higher education is that the instruction budgets have declined relevant to other expenditures. Colleges and professors know why students don't graduate; they don't spend the money needed to actually educate the students. I'd argue that the book you have reviewed does little to address grave problems in higher education and only marked decline in our global economic competitiveness will be enough to motivate those in the know to do what they need to do.

Posted by: socks2 | November 6, 2009 7:05 PM | Report abuse

I teach second-year composition at a four-year public university that takes a wide range of students. I think I have a reputation for being "nice" and unthreatening. For the first essay that "counts" in my class, I give a provisional grade and then meet individually with every student to show them how to turn that assignment into a passing paper (or better). Yet yesterday, when I arrived in class, only 50% had done a reading assignment that they've known about from the schedule since the second week of the semester. (It's fiction, and not difficult fiction.) And at least half of the class had not brought their books with them. The entire class period was a waste for many of these students. I don't understand. I could understand that some might not finish the assignment, but not to do it at all? That's crazy--this is a required class, and space is tight--if they need to repeat it, they may not have chance to enroll again.

Posted by: nanprof | November 6, 2009 8:07 PM | Report abuse

San Jose's Downtown College Prep, a charter school designed for struggling students from Mexican immigrant families, sent all the kids in its first graduating class to college. The next year, the juniors and seniors visited the DCP grads at Chico State (and other schools). One first-year student at Chico State complained to the teachers on the trip that he'd been confused when the professor assigned a research paper, telling the class to use University of Chicago style for footnotes. "I didn't know what he was talking about! You didn't prepare us! I felt like a fool!"

On the bus on the way back to San Jose, the teachers agreed that Javier was right and came up with a plan to ensure that no student ever again graduated without writing a footnoted college-style research paper.

The story's not in my book, "Our School," because it happened after the book was written.

Posted by: joannejacobs | November 7, 2009 1:06 AM | Report abuse

A key issue here is that there is no consensus on what higher education is meant to be. A university is not meant to be a vocational school, the term "university" implies involvement in a broader academic community, not narrowly specified vocational training.

One view of a university education is that it demonstrates that a person has the persistence and self-discipline to stick with something for an extended period and deal with setbacks. On this view, college students should be given much less "scaffolding" (i.e. the assistance needed to bridge the gap between their potential and their current ability). This doesn't mean no scaffolding, but just that they should be expected to be much more independent than high-school students.

Professors are survivors of this sink-or-swim system, where persistence leads to graduate school, research publications, then employment in academia, so they have little sympathy with undergraduate students who don't understand the research driven agenda of university culture.

I'm not saying this is how universities should be, just that if college education is to be improved, a clear understanding of its objectives is needed before anything can be achieved. If weeding out students lacking in persistence and self-discipline is one of the aims of the college system, then the scaffolding needed to help struggling students might be better administered in non-credit remedial courses rather than expecting research driven professors to also develop expertise in education. Another approach is for colleges to hire curriculum and assessment specialists to work with professors to improve undergraduate courses.

Posted by: Trev1 | November 7, 2009 4:20 AM | Report abuse

How can someone take 7 AP classes in high school (see learningasIgo above) and NOT write a research paper? This is a big divide, people. If many, many college Freshmen are arriving w/o having written research papers, that should be a college Freshman course, for those who want a liberal arts education. Of course, many want a career prep education, and that's OK, but better still, let's have college-bound students write research papers in the junior and senior years -- with the extensive scaffolding that's more appropriate for high school students than for college students. Since that means pretty much all students these days, the requirement might be a reality check for some students whose personal goals might better be met through technical education (and I include some pretty high-level careers in that category, from systems engineer to nurse to landscape designer to accountant).

Posted by: jane100000 | November 7, 2009 8:30 AM | Report abuse

thanks for the great tip, dccitizen1. I will check it out.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 7, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Jay. I look forward to reading more about writing research papers in high schools. My son is a current junior at a local private school, and his English teacher is an old-school writing maniac. My son's writing has improved tremendously since the beginning of the school year. Now, if he will learn the basics of research papers before he graduates, I'll feel better about his chances at college.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | November 7, 2009 7:08 PM | Report abuse

The common theme on this thread is the requirement for high school seniors to do full-blown (i.e., 5,000+ words) reaserch paper with foot-notes et al. It really is a necessity for adequate college preparation. College freshman without this experience are well behind those who have been made to go through this ordeal in high school.

I recall my high school senior year and having to do such a research paper. I didn't like the idea at first, but we had the choise of topics and the one I picked really "sucked" me in.

The more I worked on that paper the more I wanted to work on it. I felt that some how I was becoming an expert on an important topic and that spurred me on to even greater efforts to gather as much information as I could and present it all in a coherent manner.

My Mother typed the paper for me and ever since recalled to me how determined I was to do well well on it. In retrospect, it may have been the academic turning point in my life - all to the good of course. I got all A's in my senior year - even in fouth year Latin (gag) - and in college was usually on the Dean's List most every semester from the very start.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | November 7, 2009 8:56 PM | Report abuse

Requiring high school students to write a research paper is all well and good...if they already know how to write coherent sentences. As a FCPS graduate in 1998 I can't say what today's high school students are learning in English class, but I can say that I learned more about English grammar in three years of Japanese classes than I learned in English classes from fourth grade through twelfth grade.

I remember spending part of one day, maybe part of a second day, diagramming sentences in elementary school. I can count on one hand the number of grammar lessons I had from grades eight through twelve. Writing assignments were focused on the traditional five paragraph essay or a two to three page paper. I wrote longer papers for history class than I did for English class. Unfortunately, the writing style which earned me A's in high school was useless when it came time to write a research paper in college. I didn't learn how to write a research paper until, while double majoring in history and business administration, I took a semester long history course specifically about writing a research paper.

As I mentioned earlier, I am unfamiliar with the current teaching of English in public schools. However, I recently finished a second Bachelor's degree and was not impressed with the quality of writing demonstrated by my fresh out of high school classmates. Whenever group projects were assigned I always found myself writing large portions of the report and editing all portions I did not write. My classmates often lacked basic knowledge such as the proscription on ending a sentence with a preposition. I was also constantly forced to remind people that netspeak and texting acronyms and abbreviations are not acceptable in a report or a presentation.

I am far from a professional writer or subject matter expert on grammar. To me, a pronoun is a noun that has lost its amateur status. I learned how to write through reading books and my parents' tireless aid in editing my essays and reports - editing, not writing. Unfortunately, many high school kids today (and, at 29, I hardly qualify as an old-timer) appear to hardly ever crack open a book beyond assigned readings and also appear to have parents who are not interested in, or unable to, teach them how to write properly.

This is a terrible loss for these kids. In my experience, the people who get recognized professionally are the ones who can communicate effectively. There are many jobs where this communication can be verbal - one hardly needs to be a proficient writer to be an effective salesman - but every professional office-type job I can think of (such as engineer, lawyer, doctor, marketing, business administration, etc.) requires written communication. Those who lack such skills will be at a disadvantage versus those who possess them.


Posted by: SeaTigr | November 8, 2009 12:03 AM | Report abuse

As an AP Englidsh Lit teacher, I have all of my students write a three-page research paper, which is long enough, using citations.I teach them how to write a percewption study or anything that they wwould like to compare.

I teach it in the form of a simple structure: background with thesis, methods, results, conclusion, references. I even show them a published three-page sample and have them more or less copy the format with a new problem. This even gets some interested in doing their own reserach that they enjoy.

I always tell them it cannot be longer than three pages. This gives them great confidence in writing any longer paper that they may come across later in school (so they tell me).

Posted by: ericpollock | November 8, 2009 6:23 AM | Report abuse

I want to echo what has already been stated. I went to a public school, took ten AP classes, and then was accepted to an elite four year university. I struggled a bit my first year. 1) I had never written a paper longer than 3 pages. 2) I had NO experience with footnoting or the various forms of citation. 3) I had never really had to study intensely for a high pressure exam. (Most grades were spread out over various assignments, not one all-or-nothing test. Plus tests in high school were easy, you didn't really need to study.) ...

None of this is insurmountable, in fact I ended up graduating with honors and going on to law school.

Yet despite my own experience, as a teacher in an inner city school I still failed to prepare my students for college. So much effort was focused on the middle--just getting the kids to pass and know enough to take the state exam. I neglected the kids I knew were going to college. I knew they should have been better prepared, knew they needed to be pushed more and taught how to write research papers and study for a high stakes exam. Unfortunately this was just one more thing that got pushed to the side while I focused on the kids who could barely handle high school. This came back to haunt me later as my best students later floundered in college and sent me desperate sounding emails about how difficult college was and how ill prepared they felt.

Posted by: MelissaJV1 | November 8, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

I don't know why we keep focusing on research papers. I went to a Top-20 National University and wrote exactly 0 research papers. (I studied engineering).

Now if I hadn't taken calculus in high school...

Posted by: someguy100 | November 8, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

The best preparation for college is being able to write well. And I might add to write well quickly. If you write well, you'll likely have a large vocabulary and can easily tackle long assignments in whatever courses that such papers are assigned.

If you don't write well, you'll struggle. You'll spend far more time composing sentences and paragraphs and asking others for help. Perhaps you'll be more prone to plagiarize the works of others because you'll run out of time.

The single event (maybe it should be called the rite of passage) in high school that can lift mediocre writers to the higher level of writing performance needed in college is the senior year research paper of considerable length (I would argue for 5,000+ words), It requires a very disciplined approach over several months and cannot but help the student make a quantum jump in writing performance.

If your post-college work involves the investigation of complex subjects and the logical presentation of facts, conclusions, and recommendations in written form, then the high school senior year research paper is actually the very best preparation.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | November 8, 2009 5:33 PM | Report abuse

Add my voice to the people wondering what the big deal is about research papers. I never did one in high school or college. I wrote English essays, which were original analysis, in both. My son had exactly two long papers in high school, both of which were a monumental waste of his time, and he's doing fine in college.

Honestly, Jay, I think the reason you push research papers is because it ties into your IB ROCKS! theme.

"The reason is not so much that these students were not ready for college, but that college was not ready for them. "

Oh, please. PLEASE. Yes, it is ABSOLUTELY that the students are not ready for college, and your article boils down to "We need to dumb down college even more than we already have."

As for the people who "took" all those AP courses, do tell how many of the tests you passed. The courses are an indicator of nothing in and of themselves, as they could signify a tough class or a school willing to commit fraud.

Find me a student who got a 4 or 5 on any two of the following AP tests who had trouble in college: Calculus, Physics, Statistics, US History, European History, Biology, Chemistry, and English (either one).

In contrast, there are hundreds of thousands of high school grads who were run through phony AP classes so their school could qualify for Jay's Challenge Index and don't know enough to pass an eighth grade competency test.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 8, 2009 6:46 PM | Report abuse

I don't know why there seems to be such a backlash against research papers on this board! Many engineers at my husband's workplace are terrible at expressing their thoughts clearly in professional conversations and are even worse when attempting to make sense in writing. Maybe a research paper would have helped to prepare them for AFTER college. Getting into a college and graduating are not the end goals.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | November 8, 2009 6:51 PM | Report abuse

Critical thinking and effective communication skills would seem to be the goal. Writing a 5000 word research paper is simply a formatting skill. Different professions will require different styles and formats.

My son got 4s and 5s in his AP Calculus, World History, and English Comp courses. I proofread his papers and I don’t recall any long ones. He communicated wonderfully though his spelling and sometimes grammar were not the best. He’s about to graduate in engineering from a public university. He breezed through Freshman English and also did well in the required Technical Writing course. I continued to proofread his papers and learned about the differences in style and format required in a scientific paper versus the usual English Lit paper.

I don’t believe teaching to the high stakes tests teaches students critical thinking. There is much to be gained from the current research on the importance of background knowledge for reading comprehension. I believe critical thinking begins with comprehension and that takes more time than we’re willing to give students and teachers these days.

Posted by: speakuplouder | November 8, 2009 8:04 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the idea that effective writing is extremely important, but specifically writing a reasearch paper is not a be all end all goal.

The bigger problem is that when something like "University of Chicago footnotes" comes up, the student can't look it up in a book and figure out what he needs to do, or go to the professor and say "I don't understand what you are talking about"

It's the independence that is really lacking in our educational system.

Posted by: someguy100 | November 9, 2009 8:46 AM | Report abuse

Writing a substantial research paper in high school may not be the "end all, be all" at the undergraduate college level, but just wait until graduate school and/or the real world comes along. In these more demanding environments being able to write 50,000 word research projects could be the difference between hanging in grad school or holding a high paying job.

I didn't have to write any significant research paper as an undergraduate engineering student. The focus there - at least in engineering and science courses - was doing problem sets and perhaps showing your solutions to the class.

But when I went to engineering graduate school and then later to the US Naval Test Pilot School, the writing buzz saw hit full force. The dinky 5,000 research paper that I wrote in high school paled in comparison to the writing that I was required to do. But at least the high school effort was a model for what had to be accomplished on a much larger scale.

If you are to hold positions in the work-a-day world that involve the investigation of complex subjects and the logical presentation of facts, conclusions, and recommendations in written form, sooner or later you have to learn to write at great length and in the greatest detail and even have your writing stand up in a court of law. You can't just kick this can down the street and think that you'll be able to do it when the time comes. Wishful thinking indeed.

The time will come and if you haven't done it at least once for small stakes, then you may not be able to do it for high stakes.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | November 9, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

An earlier posted stated,"Find me a student who got a 4 or 5 on any two of the following AP tests who had trouble in college". I have two children who have received scores of 4 or 5 on 3-4 of the tests that you indicated. That said, my oldest has really struggled in college and it seems that is largely due to poor writing and studying skills. High school was more or less a breeze. Since they found success with little effort,they didn't really learn to work/study. My second oldest has also received scores of 4 and 5 on multiple AP tests. He will head off to college next year and I am worried about his level of preparation as well. High school for them did not involve any long research papers but I wish it had.

Posted by: My3sons1 | November 10, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Some thoughts on this article and its comments:
Good writing skills are based on years of exposure to good literature and the experience with good writing it brings. By this, I mean a regular diet of good literature from K onwards, even if it is read to the class in the early years.

Good writing skills take years to develop, starting with the basics and increasing in complexity and length through the years. Teacher input regarding grammar, structure,content, logic etc. is invaluable and computers make revisions much easier.

I think a junior-senior research paper is a very valuable experience for all college-bound students. Whatever the field, good writing skills are always an advantage. However, research papers need to be preceeded by shorter papers, both in-class and out-of-class, in earlier years.

Good writing, ( and good math skills) require a solid foundation, just as a house does.

Posted by: momof4md | November 11, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company