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Yesterday’s post asked folks how they define academic rigor.

I asked the right people the right question! The answers were thoughtful, wide-ranging, plentiful and sometimes even impassioned. Best. Readers. Ever.

Some samples:

One reader sent this, from the Glossary of Education Reform:

“The term rigor is widely used by educators to describe instruction, schoolwork, learning experiences, and educational expectations that are academically, intellectually, and personally challenging.

Rigorous learning experiences, for example, help students understand knowledge and concepts that are complex, ambiguous, or contentious, and they help students acquire skills that can be applied in a variety of educational, career, and civic contexts throughout their lives.

In education, rigor is commonly applied to lessons that encourage students to question their assumptions and think deeply, rather than to lessons that merely demand memorization and information recall. For example, a fill-in-the-blank worksheet or multiple-choice test would not be considered rigorous by many educators.”

Another reader drew deliberately on Bloom’s taxonomy:

“For example, I could make a very hard biology test (for BIO101) that only utilized the first level of Bloom’s. (What is the H+ concentration on the inside of the inner membrane of mitochondria?) Such questions are really pointless and are only making a test hard simply to make it hard. They aren’t asking students for higher level thinking.

Instead, I could ask students to predict what would happen by the application of a chemical that disrupts the H+ gradient across the membrane. A much better use of my and their time and biological bandwidth.

This, I know takes time and it assumes A LOT. It assumes that the professor knows how to construct such an evaluation. It assumes that the students have had some foundational preparation (in H+ gradients, etc.) to go to higher level analysis. It assumes the professor has time to 1) write these kind of questions and 2) grade them. Finally, it assumes that the professor is a discerning grader, taking the time to really look for what the question(s) pose. That said, use of Bloom’s higher level can occur in any class, at any level.”

A contrarian reading:

“Academic rigor is the mechanism for training students to be irresponsibly dependent on the orders of managers, leaders, bosses in general. It installs in students the presupposition that they are lumps of inertia only exercised by the benevolent manipulations and prodding of rewards, benefits, nudges. Like standards, the other refuge of scoundrels, it denudes knowledge and learning of anything resembling autonomous judgment and transforms it into a reliable authority hunt (i.e., learning becomes little more than a quest for the most trustworthy pronouncement, as opposed to the transcendence of taking things on trust).”

Another drew on sociological factors:

“A course is rigorous to the extent that an instructor can verify (a) learning demonstrated by students reflects instruction (i.e., not external factors such as prior knowledge, social capital, or preferential practices), and (b) gaps in learning are not a reflection of gaps in instruction.

In this light, if students breeze through a course that doesn’t stretch them in any way, it’s worth asking if they could have done just as well in the course without the benefit of instruction. On the other hand, if students demonstrate significant gaps in learning, it’s worth asking whether instructor’s evaluation practices might be requiring something more than what the students were able to gain from the instruction they experienced.”

One reader kept it simple, even while acknowledging that it isn’t, really:

“Rigor is demonstrable mastery of content. Now you have the age old problem of defining mastery and how it can be demonstrated. Not to mention agreement on the content that is or should be included in general studies …”

Responses on Twitter were mostly pithy, as one would expect, but often quite good:

“Words I find myself using around the concept are ‘concrete, specific, intentional, reflective, precise, transparent, ethical, generous, transferrable, sophisticated, fruitfully-ambiguous, kind’ …”

“I heard an incredible definition of rigor by Dr. Toby S. Jenkins. She defines rigor as (I’m paraphrasing) the ability to receive and give critique on your own & others’ work; to demonstrate growth past what you already know. It’s Ts’ job to scaffold that process so Ss can get there.”

“I would say that in a class that has rigor, students are required to spend time and effort on the course material, are prepared to advance to the next step in their learning, and even the most able student learns something new.”

“There are many challenges to defining rigor but the starting challenge is, as in your example, rigor is often used as a shield to criticism (our success rates are lower because we’re more rigorous) or a totem to ward off change involving work to improve outcomes of students … Long story short, that’s not what we found. We found slightly the opposite. Students who took courses w/the self-identified rigorous instructors (w/lower success rates) not only were not more likely to be successful but were slightly less likely to succeed in subsequent courses …”

“A rigorous course supports all students to achieve necessary learning outcomes and provides opportunities for exceptional students to demonstrate mastery; Assessments that require application and extension of knowledge are more rigorous than simple rote memorization.”

While allowing for the contrarian take, the majority of the suggestions revolved less around course content than around student performance. The key, in most cases, was sustained student engagement.

I like that a lot. Sustained engagement requires interest, among other things. It’s a mistake to think of rigor as a sort of punishment; instead, it’s what happens when substantial material meets serious interest. I’m especially taken with the example from biology of making a test hard just to make it hard. We’ve all had a teacher like that at one time or another and remember how demoralizing that approach was. Actual rigor, as opposed to arbitrary nitpicking, requires thoughtful attention to course design. It’s not just about the content.

From an institutional perspective, of course, that’s a tall order. But it’s work worth doing. Thank you to all of the wise and worldly readers who stepped up!

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