by Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center
For some time now, I’ve been reflecting on the idea of academic rigor – what it is, where it comes from in our courses, what kinds of practices promote it. And in light of the Reinert Center’s theme this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own evolving conceptions of academic rigor, and how these intersect with a commitment to inclusive teaching.
What is Academic Rigor and Where Does It Come from?
Virtually all of us are committed to this thing called “rigor.” We believe in it. We broadcast our commitment to it. We assume that we design courses that have it.
We just can’t always define it.
When you ask someone what academic rigor means, you often hear answers like “challenging students” and “holding high standards.”
But “challenging” them how? High standards for what, exactly? And “high” in what ways?
In “The Anatomy of Academic Rigor: The Story of One Institutional Journey,” Draeger et al. (2013) explore some of the different ways “academic challenge” or “academic rigor” has been defined. They start with a consideration of questions from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) that aim to capture “academic challenge,” questions that ask college students to report on the number of books or pages of reading students have been assigned, the number of pages they’ve been asked to write, and the extent to which the courses they have taken foreground higher-order thinking skills (e.g., analysis, evaluation, application). Draeger and colleagues offer a nice summary of the literature on what academic rigor is (see p. 269), and they lay out the methodology by which they studied faculty conceptions of academic rigor at their own institution. Their conclusion offers a “multidimensional model of academic rigor,” which includes that includes “at least four primary dimensions of academic rigor: active learning, meaningful content, higher-order thinking, and appropriate expectations” (p. 272).
Ultimately, the authors conclude – and I suspect many of us would agree – that the amount of reading or pages written or time spent on a course cannot tell us much about rigor. Those things may be signifiers of how “challenging” the workload is, but not the intellectual stakes of that work. The consensus arrived at on Draeger’s campus is more likely to resonate with us: “learning is most rigorous when students are actively learning meaningful content with higher-order thinking at the appropriate level of expectations within a given context” (267, emphasis added).
Personally, I am much more interested in this way of thinking about rigor and challenge, in particular because it highlights the importance of context. Our conceptions of academic rigor are always situated: in a first-year undergraduate course, “rigor” looks different than it does in a culminating graduate-level course, even when both contexts involve “actively learning meaningful content with higher-order thinking.” For me, this is where considerations of inclusive teaching come into play.
How Does Inclusive Teaching Promote Academic Rigor?
Before I address this question, I’d like to tackle one common misunderstanding about inclusive teaching — that it undermines academic rigor. I have noticed that people sometimes worry that inclusive teaching involves a reduction of rigor, a kind of watering-down of high academic standards to the lowest level of performance in a course.
For example, if an instructor de-emphasizes grammatical correctness (choosing instead to privilege critical thinking) when providing feedback on essays written by English language learners, his colleagues may see this as proof that he isn’t holding international or multilingual students to the “same high standards” as he is her American or native English speaking students. Or, if a STEM instructor decides to move from traditional exam-based assessments to alternative forms of assessment as a way of addressing achievement gaps for underrepresented students, her colleagues may see this as a kind of “coddling” that only delays the “reckoning” these students will experience when they discover they aren’t “suited” to STEM fields.
But holding high standards for grammar isn’t the same thing as promoting academic rigor. And neither is assuming there’s only one way to demonstrate success in a course. Indeed, often, what feels like academic rigor may actually be code for a different kind of academic challenge: that of identifying the sometimes-hidden habits of critical thinking or studying that can best help students to meet our high academic standards.
Looking back, I now see that when I was a less experienced, less confident teacher, some of the “rigor” in my courses probably came from expecting students to read my mind. Those who could intuit – by instinct or by educational training – what I “was looking for” were more likely to succeed. Those who – by virtue of different educational or cultural backgrounds and experiences – had not yet been trained to decipher what college instructors “were looking for” were less likely to succeed.
Once I learned to be more explicit and transparent in my teaching — by articulating the high standards I was aiming for, by naming the specific kinds of higher-order thinking I wanted to see, by sharing observable criteria for success, and by explaining the processes for achieving success — my students could rely less on intuition and mind-reading. And this meant they all had a fairer shot at meeting the high standards I set. Even more importantly, it meant that my students were learning transferable skills and that I was assessing all my students on high standards of learning.
At its best, inclusive teaching allows us to articulate what academic rigor looks like and to empower our students to achieve the high standards we are establishing for them. Inclusive teaching demands that we set high standards, prepare all students to be able to achieve those standards, provide honest feedback to help students understand where they are falling short, and help students identify where they may have knowledge/skill gaps and how to work toward filling those gaps.
There will always be students in our courses who are in over their heads or whose past educational experiences have not prepared them well for our courses (perhaps because those experiences were not as rigorous or as inclusive as they could have been). But some students fail to meet our high standards because we don’t expect them to, or because we haven’t yet made it clear what those high standards really are, or because the students have not come from backgrounds that offered them a common understanding of the very elements that constitute academic rigor.
The aspects of academic rigor that Draeger et al. advocate for — meaningful content, appropriately high expectations, active learning, and higher-order thinking — are, after all, situated concepts. What they mean may differ according to cultural or disciplinary norms. What constitutes analysis and evaluation and application looks different even across different courses within the same discipline, taught by different instructors. Helping students to understand what these activities look like in your course is an aspect of inclusive teaching. It’s also a way to promote the kind of rigor you are hoping students will achieve.
Draeger, J., P. del Prado Hill, L.R. Hunter, and R. Mahler. (2013). “The Anatomy of Academic Rigor: The Story of One Institutional Journey.” Innovative Higher Education, vol. 38: pp. 267-279.
This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at firstname.lastname@example.org.