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I never had to walk two miles through the snow to attend school, but when I was in graduate school at Yale in the early 1970s, I was expected to read seven books and write an essay each week in our reading classes.

I guess that’s a textbook example of a certain kind of rigor, a word that is conspicuously absent in the current discourse on educational innovation.

Rigor is a concept that goes in and out of fashion, peaking, most recently, in the 1990s and early 2000s, and then fading away.

Higher education is as susceptible to fads and fashions as any other sector of the economy. Much as hemlines rise and fall or beards and mustaches go in and out of fashion, so, too, do educational ideas wax and wane.

Over the past two decades, one catchphrase and buzzword after another dominated higher ed’s agenda. Think access, accountability, affordability and attainment. These words speak to real challenges. After all, we need to raise graduation rates, accelerate time to degree, eliminate achievement gaps, better prepare students for the workforce and reduce student debt.

The questions is how.

Two key words in the current discourse of educational innovation are striking, however, in their absence: quality and rigor. Their absence tells us a great deal about our current priorities, which emphasize access, retention and completion over and above depth of learning and high standards.

Rigor, in particular, is a loaded term, laden with disparate meanings. It can refer to workload, pacing, degree of instructor support or level of difficulty and cognitive demand. In common parlance, rigor is often a synonym for a harsh, inflexible approach to education that revels in its difficulty. It is associated with rigid, unyielding academic standards, fixed and rigid requirements, and grueling schoolwork, homework and examinations, relying heavily on rote memorization.

Calls for rigor offer a backhanded way to criticize and combat grade inflation, reduced reading and writing requirements, and trendy, overly entertaining or politicized courses of study. Not surprisingly, some respond by claiming that demands for increased rigor represents a form of bias, harming those students with complicated lives and whose level of preparation or academic skills are less than the “top” students’ or those who learn at a slower pace than their more agile counterparts.

However, there’s another way to think about rigor that I believe higher education should embrace enthusiastically. A rigorous higher education is one that promotes students’ cognitive development, their command of a field of study and the relevant skills and body of knowledge.

However, many of our current incentives cut against rigor: nurturing durable skills and broad command of content requires demanding coursework, extensive homework and lots of scaffolding and feedback from instructors. It can’t be done on the cheap nor accomplished rapidly or easily.

By now, we're all familiar with the studies such as the Social Science Research Council’s collaborative partnership with the Pathways for College Network using data from the Council for Aid to Education’s Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) Longitudinal Project , which found that many classes are anything but rigorous. This study tracked 2,300 students at 24 universities over the course of four years, starting in 2005, and reported that half of sophomores hadn’t taken a single course in the prior semester requiring more than 20 pages of writing, and a third had taken a course requiring more than 40 pages of reading a week.

There are certain realistic steps that we can take to raise the level of rigor in our courses, while providing the support to ensure that all students can meet higher standards.

Step 1: Ensure that students complete required reading through frequent quizzing.

The ability to read a work of literature or a scholarly book or article or a primary source closely and critically lies at the heart of a college education, and we need to do more to encourage the kind of reading that pays close attention to rhetoric, structure, argumentation, evidence and conclusions.

Frequent low-stakes quizzes can not only ensure that students take their reading assignments seriously, but also help them monitor their understanding of the texts and enhance their ability to understand and explicate difficult passages and arguments.

Step 2: Significantly increase your class’s writing requirement.

It’s a cliché but true: one learns to write by writing. Instructors need to make sure to familiarize their students with the attributes of successful academic writing within their discipline, including how to formulate a research question, craft a sophisticated thesis, situate or contextualize an argument within the existing literature, properly integrate, analyze, and cite evidence, structure an argument, and write an effective conclusion.

Peer feedback and a simple four-point proficiency evaluation scale (e.g., advanced, proficient, partially proficient and insufficient evidence) offer ways to incorporate more writing into your class without significantly increasing your workload.

Step 3: Require students to complete more skills-building and problem-solving activities inside and outside class.

Design activities that mimic professional practice and that require the use of higher-order thinking skills. The possibilities are too many to list but include researching a particular topic or problem, analyzing a case study, taking part in a debate, evaluating and interpreting data, an object, or a piece of evidence, and having students engage in authentic practice, for example, by writing a policy brief or an op-ed essay, creating and administering a survey, or drafting a proposal.

Step 4: Require students to complete large projects in a series of component parts, each of which must be submitted for inspection and comment.

Thus, a research paper would be broken into smaller requirements: an annotated bibliography, a thesis statement, an outline and an initial draft, followed by a final draft.

Step 5: Require faculty members to explain how the proposed course addresses five key dimensions of rigor.

We don’t need to use course grades or student evaluations or a course’s syllabus or title to assess a class’s rigor. A much more effective alternative is to ask faculty, as part of the institution’s course approval or course review process, to explain:

  • How the class encourages critical thinking and problem solving.
  • The specific ways that the course is intellectual and academically challenging.
  • The complex material or skills that the course requires students to master.
  • The outside-of-class-time commitment that students are expected to meet in order to study and complete the course readings and assignments.
  • The credible, quality work that students are expected to produce.

Step 6: Better align a course’s credit hours with the time commitments it demands.

We’re all familiar with the rule of thumb, that for every course credit hour a student should expect to spend two to three hours studying outside class. Might it not make sense to more realistically assess how much study time a particular course actually requires? And might it not make sense to consider awarding credit for the supplemental instruction that many students need to succeed in areas with especially high levels of cognitive complexity?

Rigor is not a four-letter word, nor is it an enemy of equity. In fact, a commitment to rigor rests on a belief that all students are capable of meeting high standards if given sufficient time and support.

Rather than equating rigor with harsher grading or lots of homework or the number of assignments or longer reading lists, it’s better, I think, to think of rigor in terms of the kinds of learning activities that students must undertake and the assessments used to verify and validate their learning. This approach shifts attention to time spent in inquiry, problem solving, close reading, research and writing.

The six simple steps listed above can, I think, raise rigor by helping faculty agree on the appropriate workload for particular classes and the standards of excellence and proficiency that students are expected to achieve.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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