Facing Their Fears: Helping Students Overcome the “College Fear Factor”

Written by
Karen Costa

Oct 3, 2018

Oct 3, 2018 • by Karen Costa

There is a popular belief in higher education that goes something like this: If students are not succeeding in college, it is due to their own lack of motivation. It's not an outrageous claim: Imagine the scenarios of students failing to turn in major assignments or dropping out after the first class. “These students today,” a professor might think, “just lack the motivation they need to succeed in college.”

Dr. Rebecca D. Cox, author of The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another (2009), spent years studying community college students and faculty. In the voices of these students, who are now the new‐traditional students on many campuses (first generation, working, parents, etc.), Cox found an alternative explanation: fear. A fear that they won't succeed, that they don't belong and that they just aren't smart enough to attend college leads students to make protective decisions that often appear mind‐boggling to the accomplished educators who lead classrooms and campuses.

By reinterpreting a student's lack of progress (or at the more dramatic end of the spectrum, attrition from a class or college) through the lens of fear, higher education can better help all students to learn, persist and succeed. Read on for four key strategies that you can apply on your campus today to help students overcome their fears.

Recognizing the Challenge

One of Cox's first observations, born of five years of interviews, is that for new‐traditional students, “enrolling in college courses proved to be an immensely stressful transition.” Her interviewees described tremendous anxiety about starting college, in part based on past problematic educational experiences. While the transition to college is often portrayed as an exciting opportunity to begin a new phase of life, for many students, that excitement is a distant second to overwhelming fear.

What does your campus do to address these fears during the admissions and enrollment process? In marketing your orientation activities, do you ignore the complexity of students' feelings? Do you create a space for them to talk about their fears in the weeks and months leading up to the first day of class? Consider looking at your enrollment pipeline through the lens of fear, ensuring that there are ample support systems in place to help students name their anxieties and to receive encouragement. Involve peer leaders who can speak to their own fears and serve as role models for the transition.

Reveal the Secrets

When speaking with faculty, Cox heard a common refrain that students were unprepared or unwilling to engage in activities like analysis of readings, classroom discussions or peer review of writing. When Cox questioned students, they expressed frustration with any work in class that they deemed irrelevant or disconnected from their grades. Cox quantified this disconnect between teaching and learning as a challenge with, “adjusting to the culture of academia … particular habits of thinking, acting, speaking, and writing that are often incomprehensible and alienating to people outside of academia.” In other words, academia speaks a language. We expect our students to be ready to speak it too, often without first giving them the opportunity to learn it.

This secret language is often referred to as “the hidden curriculum” that underlies the academic curriculum within higher education. It is the unspoken set of rules that is obvious to many students who come from generations of college‐goers and completely abstruse to first‐generation students. The solution? Reveal it. Teach students the rules, expectations and language of academia. First‐year experience (FYE) courses are a great opportunity to help students understand this new culture. Do you require an FYE course on your campus? If so, do you explicitly incorporate teaching and learning opportunities that help all students to gradually develop what Cox calls “academic literacies”?

Rethink Assessment

One of the most frightening experiences for new college students involves formal assessments, particularly the first in a course. Cox stated that “the prospect of submitting the first graded assignment for each course was the most terrifying part of the semester.” For some students, the only way to mitigate this fear was to avoid the assignment completely by not turning it in or dropping the class. Sadly, for some students, “quitting is the ultimate fear management strategy.”

High‐stakes, graded assignments are examples of summative assessment. If the first assessment in a course is summative, there's a strong chance fearful students will avoid the risk of being exposed as unworthy of being a college student. Instead, faculty can consider using low‐stakes, formative assessments in the early weeks of class, giving students ungraded feedback, providing ample opportunity for revision and coaching them toward improvement. Does your course or college assessment strategy rely too heavily (or too soon) on summative assessments? If so, an infusion of formative assessment opportunities can help fearful students to transition and succeed.

What the Best Professors Do

Cox identified three key factors that the best professors have in common. First, their students perceive them as experts in their field. Where teachers were once admonished for being “sages on the stage,” Cox's research revealed that students learn best when their professors maintain their expert status. Second, great professors “epitomized a form of authority based on interpersonal relations, which students perceived as more confidence‐inspiring than traditional professing.” Some professors inform; the best also inspire. Finally, high expectations for all students were communicated and maintained by the most effective professors Cox studied.

Does your campus have a vision for what great teaching looks like? Do you invest resources in supporting faculty to analyze and develop their teaching? Do faculty have both formal and informal opportunities to discuss their work, their successes and their challenges? If professional development on your campus is confined to a day or two of workshops, it might be time to renew your commitment to great teaching.

This semester and next, consider how you can apply one or more of these fear‐busting strategies to help all students learn, succeed and persist.


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