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suffering of students (1)

Once again, or rarely these days, I'll pick up a journal issue from the American Research Education Association. My life-partner is a member and receives their regular journal called Review of Educational Research. In the April 2017 issue [1], I scanned through Fong et al.'s paper "Psychosocial Factors and Community College Studies" a meta-analysis of data/studies. Okay, I am attracted to how they define psychosocial development, but it is typically pretty shallow and trapped almost completely within the framework of an individualistic "psychological" model/paradigm. The research they summarize is virtually about teaching and learning strategies and mostly about the individual learners characteristics and what they can do to worsen their learning outcomes and what they can do to improve them. Fair enough, this is important. But it all depends on what you are going to pull out of their psychosocial development that will really make a big difference, even a transformative difference, that's where I get critical of this research I see over and over again.

Let's look at the five broad areas these researchers take as likely most important in psychosocial development--and, remember they are focusing on how these relate to learning outcomes (i.e., primarily cognitive-behavioral psychology). So, they list the five, of which I am glad they list Fear (i.e., Anxiety): (1) motivation, self-perceptions, attributions, self-regulation, and anxiety. They discuss each one briefly before they do their huge meta-analysis of all the studies that involve these categories in some way, again, with focus on college student success. There's no big questioning about "success" in any sociological, cultural, historical or political context. Anyways, here is what they say about Anxiety:

Anxiety - "As the most widely studied academic emotion in the educational literature (Zeidner, 1998) [2], anxiety is not only conceptually distinct as a psychological factor but also highly prevalent in today's college campus culture and student population. Although some degree of stress [i.e., fear and anxiety] can indicate a healthy interest in the task and a response to appropriate task difficult, many students experience overwhelming amounts of anxiety that ultimately [negatively] affect their performance." (p. 395).

What is great about this is the up-front acknowledgement of the powerful negative role of anxiety/fear [3] in learning and successful performance, and that it has been obviously recognized by enough researchers and others in the field of Education to be "the most widely studied" of psychoemotional variables. Wow. Great. But then, after this great introductory sentence, and surely one could generalize that this finding on the major negative affective impact of fear for college students could easily be applied to K-12 schooling as well. I'm not up on the latest research, but I know as a professional educator for 40 years this is no surprise to education researchers and teachers. They know fear is crucial in educational learning successes and a whole lot of other things that go on in schooling environments/cultures, never mind society at large. But, I can tell you there is very little about this psychoemotional factor brought out into the common Education discourses, policies, practices. That aside, once I look a little deeper into this statement on anxiety, in the study, there is a disturbing finding of this large meta-analysis by Fong et al. (and, yes, it is related to statistical meta-analysis studies in general), these researchers admit in their Results section:

"We observed some differences as well between our review and Richardson et al.'s. Anxiety and stress were found to be consistently negatively associated with college achievement by Richardson et al. [4]; however, in the present meta-analysis, there were no significant [i.e., statistical] relationships between anxiety and achievement." (p. 414).

So, because their statistical meta-analysis did not pick-up any significant correlation of anxiety/fear to learning, guess what? They don't say another thing of any substance about this psychosocial domain--I would call Fear. Nope. They talk only about significant correlations issues, all the while I am asking yeah, but, what about the claim you made when you folks described "Anxiety" earlier in the article? If you re-read their statement (p. 395), again, so positive to me in admitting this is likely the most studied because it is the most powerful "academic emotion" recognized [5]. Yet, Fong et al., leave it behind and no new educative knowledge or ideas are shared about how to deal with this worst problem. It is astounding how 'blind' researchers can be. We spend our time on the less important, less worst problems in contemporary literature on education. That's the basic reality of Fong et al.'s study. Once more, Fear is side-lined to the shadows, and education as a whole does not progress, in my view. It regresses, and gets distracted. Okay, there are more problems in this study.

Besides both systematic reviews (meta-analyses), Fong et al., and Richardson, et al. being totally enwrapped in the limited world of Psychology discourse, and besides the problem of limiting (reducing) Fear to an "academic emotion" as if that can be restricted to academic concerns only, or even accurately--then, we see that this entire study does not study the "culture of fear" as an over-structure (meta-context) today in education but society in general. They ignore that, as likely is the case with most of the "success" interested studies in Education. Sure, they'll mention anxiety, but that's only a "variable" or "factor" not a context for these educational psychology folks. Big mistake. And, when I looked up in the references of Fong et al.'s article to who actually said that "anxiety is so important (i.e., the most widely studied academic emotion in the educational literature (Zeidner, 1998)) it turns out so problematic in that the Zeidner reference is a text on "test anxiety." All the focus is on cognitive achievement, behavioral outcomes and all within the context of "testing" achievement success. This is so disturbing because the Fong et al. study is on psychoemotional development, a notion they repeat in the article, and I agree it is so important. But "testing" is where the researchers go to find out how important anxiety/fear is. Wow, that is a big mistake. No wonder, they end up dissing Fear in their article, especially once it is not shown to be "statistically important"--etc. Also, it is disturbing to see their reference for the quote on the importance of anxiety/fear is now two decades old. What? They couldn't find a more up-to-date reference on Fear and learning? This is really not good scholarship, and it also shows how little they cared about this variable, they name "Anxiety" in psychosocial development. Typically, I have found educational psychology researchers to be very 'heady' people who love statistics and rational arguments--trying their best to get funding and credit for their "scientific" studies. And what gets lost in the mean-time beneath their own agendas, and their own fear of fear (to be frank)... very, disturbing for me as a fearologist to see this kind of research still filling major journals in education to this day. There has been such a major shift in American (Western) cultures in two decades, and anxiety/fear have to be looked at seriously in contextual ways of framing what is happening to our students in all schooling settings.

Oh, and I ought to finish this initial critique with how uneducational this education research continues to be. Let me quote Fong et al. again, with what they say about anxiety/fear management now [bold added for emphasis]:

"... many students experience overwhelming amounts of anxiety that ultimately [negatively] affect their performance.... To reduce the deleterious effects of anxiety on performance, anxiety requires management through a process of awareness, reflection, and control for students to analyze how their affective reactions to learning are manifesting and hindering their performance." (p. 395)

Added to this quote they note studies showing the negative associations overall between "anxiety and academic performance." Again, all psychological-individual based discussion here, including management strategies. Oh, to be fair, Fong et al., do say near the end of their article one of the limitations of this study is that it doesn't assess structural aspects of student learning (e.g., schools themselves, "college climate" and relationships,  organizations, structures, politics; see p. 416). However, that is tucked away as a caveat way to deep into and at the end of the article. Sorry, it doesn't cut it. The reality, is very clear what is being ignored virtually by Fong et al., and nearly every other researcher on student learning success. I want to know why the larger structural context(s) are ignored, not just acknowledged that it is ignored. We will never be able to address "many students experience overwhelming amounts of anxiety" as the real problem at the root of (most) all learning problems. We have known this intuitively as human beings since near the beginning of history. Tell me (tell us) something new would you please! Tell us something new about the nature and role of anxiety/fear, which you as researchers actually point out "anxiety [fear] is not only conceptually distinct as a psychological factor" --I agree, it is. But the article says nothing about why it is conceptually distinct. That is so disappointing. Again, we are not learning anything much new about this "most widely studied" (obviously, most important) factor. Again, your statistical analysis left it behind to be not seen, not conceptually distinct (aka important). This is so unacceptable research because we have the ethical imperative to actually help our students who are, as you admit, and research shows consistently, suffering "overwhelming amounts of anxiety." The construct "culture of fear" has to be taken into account, because "fear" is not an isolated phenomenon in education, learning, teaching. The current immigration (DACA) situation with so many students in the USA right now under the Trump administration being one driver of overwhelming fear of the vulnerable and yet it is bigger than that. I have documented this "culture of fear" and "education" literature some years ago (Fisher, 2011) [6]. If we are going to take the "social" seriously in "psychosocial" then we are obliged to always include a cultural/social context to any research on fear and learning/teaching.

I guess, I trust you all (including Fong et al.) will apply "self-regulated learning" to your own research and this article, and perhaps correct some things in future writing. Yes, I'd like you to "reflect" on what it is you are saying, think about what is important ethically--that is, in what is causing the major suffering (i.e., mental health issues)--and, especially, as you say in the article, anxiety/fear levels most negatively impact already susceptible ("primed") students--already "fearful" (p. 395). 

I hope you get lots of good feedback on this article: Dr. Carlton J. Fong, carlton.fong@utexas.edu

I also am glad to assist, if you wish re-thinking educational research that is actually truly educational for the real problems of student suffering (and, thus, their success as well. Feel free to contact me: Dr. R. Michael Fisher, r.michaelfisher52@gmail.com

Notes

1. Fong, C. J., Davis, C. W., Kim, Y., Kim, Y. W., Marriott, L., and Kim, S. Y. (2017). Psychosocial factors and community college student success: A meta-analytic investigation. Review of Educational Research, 87(2), 388-424.

2. Zeidner, M. (1998). Test anxiety: The state of the art. New York, NY: Plenum.

3. My 28 years of research on anxiety/fear shows there is overall no distinguishing "actual" or "important" difference between these two constructs, even if many researchers will disagree, and give me the simple (operational) definition they use in psychological research. And, by the way, this also applies to existential thinking, although, I would have to go into far too complex of a discussion about this to nuance special attention to existentialism. For a review of my own thought on this you can go to any of my publications, and precisely, see Fisher and Subba (2016), look up "anxiety" in the Subject Index for several references, and note the issue of definition (contra fear) on p. 20. Fisher, R. M., and Subba, D. (2016). Philosophy of fearism: A first East-West dialogue. Australia: Xlibris.

4. Richardson, M., Abraham, C., and Bond, R. (2012). Psychological correlates of university students' academic performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 138, 353-87.

5. Calling anxiety/fear only an "academic emotion" is also highly problematic, as my work continually has argued that we have to see "fear" as much more than an individual and psychological construct or "emotion." That emotion discourse is way to restricted, and insufficient to diagnose the Fear Problem on this planet (see Fisher and Subba, 2016).

6. Fisher, R. M. (2011). "Culture of fear" and education: An annotated bibliography, 1990-2011. Technical Paper No. 28 (2nd ed.). Carbondale, IL: In Search of Fearlessness Research Institute.

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