Student fear and mistrust

What is the cognitive challenge of student fear and mistrust?

Students come to a course with a certain level of fear of taking it. Students may interpret the teacher’s behavior as being unfair or unsupportive of their learning, resulting in a certain degree of mistrust. Negative emotional reactions such as fear, or lack of trust in the teacher, can undermine motivation and interfere with learning.

by Stephen L. Chew, Samford University

This video focuses on student fear and mistrust and will enhance the text below.

Student Example

A student is the first in her family to attend college. She is taking macroeconomics and the instructor warns the class that the course will be hard and many of them will struggle. When the student does poorly on the first exam, she assumes the professor is simply trying to “weed out” weak students like her. She does not seek help from the instructor and stops going to class.

Description of the Challenge

Fear is a negative emotional response to a specific, observable situation. Whether the situation poses a real or perceived threat does not matter. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a more diffuse negative emotional response to some possible future event. Students may have math anxiety, but they fear taking a required calculus course. Cox (2011) showed that student fear can cause students and teachers to misunderstand each other’s actions and motives to the detriment of student success. Students do not see the point of some required general education or introductory courses other than to make them feel unwelcome or weed them out. Student mistrust can cause students to see critical feedback as evidence of the teacher’s bias, hostility, or indifference, and the students may simply ignore the feedback (Yeager, et al., 2013). One remedy for student fear is student trust in the teacher.

Student trust in the teacher is defined as students’ willingness to take risks based on their judgment that the teacher is committed to student success (Chew, et al., 2018). Trust can be broken down into three components: competence, integrity, and beneficence.  All three components have to be present. Competence means that the teacher is knowledgeable and sufficiently skilled to teach effectively. Integrity means that the teacher acts truthfully, reliably, and responsibly. The teacher sets fair policies and deadlines and sticks to them. The teacher treats students with respect. Finally, beneficence is when the teacher’s actions, such as course assignments and grading policies, have the students’ best interests in mind. That doesn’t mean that the assignments will be easy, but that they will be worthwhile in terms of student growth and learning. Students trust that the teacher will provide the help and resources they need.

Research by Cavanagh, Chen, Bathgat, Frederick, Hanauer, and Graham (2018) found that student trust predicted students’ willingness to engage in more difficult active learning activities. Similarly, Chew et al. (2018) found that trust in the teacher improves students’ willingness to give their best effort and take on more challenging assignments. Fryberg, Covarrubias, and Burack (2013) found that trust in the teacher is especially important for students from more interdependent cultures, such as Native American students, compared to European American students.

Fear will be more prevalent and trust will be more important in any situation in which students feel vulnerable. Trust in the teacher will be more important for at-risk students, for first generation students, for marginalized students, and for students who are taking courses they see as having a high risk for failure. Yeager, et al. (2013) found that trust significantly improved motivation and perseverance among minority students. Yeager, et al. (2013) improved trust in the teacher among minority students through a wise feedback intervention. Wise feedback is when students are given feedback on an assignment, but the nature of the feedback conveys three messages to the student. The feedback is a reflection of the teacher’s high standards and not bias, the teacher believes the student is capable of accomplishing those standards, and the teacher is willing to provide the resources the student needs to achieve those standards. Students completed an essay writing assignment for a class, and the teachers provided critical feedback. Students were randomly assigned to receive either a note with wise feedback or a neutral control note. All students were given the opportunity to revise and resubmit their essays if they chose to do so. African American students who received the wise feedback intervention were significantly more likely to revise and resubmit their essays compared to the control group. The effect was larger for African American students than White students who showed a non-significant increase in the rate of revision and resubmission.

Two other factors can also reduce student fear and mistrust. Belongingness refers to the sense that a person has social connections with a social group. A sense of belongingness within a class is a major determinant of achievement motivation and perseverance (e.g. Walton, Cohen, Cwir, & Spencer, 2012). Rapport refers to a student-teacher relationship in which the student finds the teacher warm, approachable, and supportive of students. The teacher listens to students and is open to their points of view. Rapport is related to positive student attitudes towards an instructor and class as well as desirable student outcomes (e.g. Wilson, Ryan, & Pugh, 2010).


Teachers should promote student trust, rapport and a sense of belongingness to reduce fear and mistrust. By doing so, teachers are also improving student motivation, effort, and perseverance. Student trust in the teacher is gained by the teacher demonstrating competence, integrity, and a commitment to helping students learn and succeed in the course. The teacher should exhibit these properties in the course syllabus, course policies, lessons and assignments, grading, and interactions with students. The rationale of course policies should be fully explained and equitably enforced. Teachers should not be seen to play favorites or enforce policies capriciously. On the other hand, teachers should respect student opinion and take them seriously. They should elicit student feedback about the course and show how they are acting on it. When teachers have to make changes to a course policy, they should explain how the change is grounded in fairness, integrity, and the best interest of the whole class. The benefit of assignments to the students should be made clear. Teachers can hold high standards for students, but these standards should be attainable and teachers should make resources available to students to help them succeed.

Teachers should establish rapport with students. They should be available a few minutes before or after class to meet with students. They should encourage students to come see them in office hours. The course syllabus should reflect the teacher’s desire for students to succeed.

For building trust, especially among minority groups, teachers should practice wise feedback in their interactions and feedback to students. For reducing student anxiety, cognitive reappraisal interventions show promise in reducing anxiety, especially among first year students (Brady, Hard, & Gross, 2018).

Recommended Readings

For an extensive case study in how fear and mistrust can undermine student performance, we recommend The College Fear Factor (Cox, 2011). Both the student and teacher may enter a class with good intentions, but fear can cause misunderstanding and miscommunication, leading to poor experiences for both teacher and student. For interventions that build trust and reduce anxiety, see Yeager et al., (2013) and Brady, et al. (2018), respectively.


Brady, S. T., Hard, B. M., & Gross, J. J. (2018). Reappraising test anxiety increases academic performance of first-year college students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110, 395–406. doi: (Supplemental)

Cavanagh, A. J., Chen, X., Bathgate, M., Frederick, J., Hanauer, D. I., & Graham, M. J. (2018). Trust, Growth Mindset, and Student Commitment to Active Learning in a College Science Course. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 17(1). Retrieved from

Chew, S. L., Beck, H. B., Houk, E. K., McLung, E. M., Wertenberger, A. N., Haine, E. A., Hardin, M. G., & Schneider, E. C. (October, 2018). Trust in and rapport with the teacher as separate components of a successful student mindset. Paper presented at the Annual Conference on Teaching, Phoenix, AZ.

Cox R. D. (2011).  The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another. Harvard University Press.

Walton, G. M., Cohen, G. L., Cwir, D., & Spencer, S. J. (2012). Mere belonging: The power of social connections. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 513–532. doi:

Wilson, J. H., Ryan, R. G., & Pugh, J. L. (2010). Professor-student rapport scale predicts student outcomes. Teaching of Psychology, 37, 246–251. doi:

Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., Hessert, W. T., Williams, M. E., & Cohen, G. L. (2013). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. doi: 10.1037/a0033906