Cumberland Times-News

Bob Doyle - Astronomy

March 17, 2012

What do students think about classes?

I’m sure that many teachers in college or in high school often wish they could learn how their students actually regard their classes. This could enable teachers to better structure their classes and modify their interactions with students so they might be better motivated and learn more.

Well, there is a new book that can provide such insights. Rebecca D. Cox, an assistant professor in Education at Seton Hall University has written “The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another” just published in paperback by the Harvard University Press. ISBN is 978-0-674-06016-6.

In the first chapter, Cox mentions that elite private colleges enroll only 3 percent of the nation’s college students. There would be a somewhat larger portion at the upper echelon flagship state universities (Michigan, Illinois, Maryland, etc.) .

But over half of the nation’s college students are enrolled in community colleges. These are the students and institutions that the author chose to examine. At two representative community colleges Cox attended selective classes all through the term.

She then interviewed students in these classes for their goals (both vocational and educational) and what they think of their classes and instruction. Cox spent much time attending freshman composition classes, a critical class for students seeking any associate degree (the main degree issued by community colleges).

This book is flush with candid statements from a number of students about their experiences, anxieties and hopes. Ms. Cox also had extensive conversations with the faculty of these courses.

From her readings of educational research over the past four decades, the most common faculty complaint deals with the gap between what college classes expect and what the students can actually do.

These comments are not just from community college faculty but also from faculty at well regarded State Universities.

Students entering community colleges have a wide array of outlooks. Some are planning to stay for a year or two and then transfer to a four-year school. Others are looking for an associate degree or a vocational certificate (taking courses to give one specific job skills).

Yet other students have been out of school for several years and from work experience realize the advantage of a degree towards a career or higher paying job.

In their first classes, some students exhibit much anxiety as they enter into environment where it is up to them to complete their assignments, attend classes — quite different from their sheltering high school setting.

Most students take placement tests in math and English; many have to take remedial classes, a blow to their confidence in passing college classes. When students are advised to talk to their instructors about their assignments, many don’t as they feel they will reveal their ignorance and lack of preparation to their teachers.

Anxiety runs particularly high in English composition classes. A few students don’t turn in their required drafts or papers, fearing negative comments on their efforts.

If this continues, these students end up dropping or failing the course. In some of the English composition classes attended by Ms. Cox, the dropout rate was 50 percent; this was common for a number of faculty.

Another aspect revealed by “The Fear Factor” is the utilitarian outlook towards their courses by some students. Many see any learning that is not connected with use on the job as being a waste of time.

Some students interviewed by the author just want to get through the required courses with as little time and effort, concentrating on just getting a passing grade. Failing a class often causes a student to reset their career plans.

Some students pursue a particular program (such as nursing or business) so they can always fall back on this field if their grander objective (like going to law school) doesn’t work out.

Students feel that college classes could pay off, but at the same time, restrict their immediate earnings. Would college with all its expenses actually benefit them in the long run?

The last surprising point made by the author is the widespread student expectation that teachers should lecture, “deliver the information,” rather than spend class time in student discussions.

A common reaction was ”Why should we listen to other students who don’t know? Let’s let the teacher tell us what should we learn, otherwise it’s a waste of our time!”

This outlook encourages passivity and contradicts the educational research on how students can benefit the most from their classes.

THIS WEEK’S SKY SIGHTS: This Tuesday is the first day of spring, with the sun rising due east and setting due west. On Thursday, the moon will swing from the morning side of the sun (to the west) to the evening side of the sun (to the east). By this Saturday, the moon will again be seen as a slender crescent low in the western dusk.

HOOFED ANIMAL PROGRAM: At 4 p.m. in Compton 224 (next to large pendulum), there will be a presentation “Hoofed Animals of the Northern Lands,” reviewing the current evening sky and the creatures with Hoofs that inhabit the same areas as Bears (February’s program).

We conclude this program with a visit to the Science Discovery Center where you can meet face to face a number of different deer, a Musk Ox, a Pronghorn Antelope and a Bighorn Sheep.

The program is held in Frostburg State’s Compton Science Center. Park near the Performing Arts Center and walk around to the right to reach the Compton Center. Entrance is though the second floor entrance that faces the older dorms and the large open quadrangle.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.

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Bob Doyle - Astronomy
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