Tips on Teaching

Thinking About Rigor

by Robert Cole, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Over the last few months as we continue to work through this pandemic, we are confronted with the question of how we can be responsive to the needs of our students while also thinking about the rigor in our courses. Both students and faculty have been under a lot of pressure throughout this time. Both are seeking rigorous coursework that will allow for the creation of deep meaning for students. But the difficulty in doing that has been more evident over the last two years.

Defining rigor is very contextual at the course, department, or even program or college and school level. Draeger, et al (2013) did a study through which the institution defined rigor for itself. The attributes they identified include evaluating and analyzing information and positions and applying theory to practical problems, among others. Campbell, Dortch & Burt (2018) expanded these ideas a little by identifying deep inquiry-based learning that was challenging and encouraging, addressing both academic and personal growth.

Nelson, (2010) on the other hand has identified several things that are sometimes attributed to rigor, but are actually illusions in that regard. Things like hard and fast due dates that are often punitive, covering mountains of material at a rapid pace, and expecting all students to know how to read and answer conceptual multiple choice questions or to write essays summarizing arguments are identified as illusions of rigor according to Nelson (2010). Often these things have little to do with the ability of a student to understand concepts, make meaning, and apply knowledge and more to do with rules and policies or false expectations. For example, an argument for including a punitive deadline policy is to teach students to meet deadlines, because if they don’t or are not able to meet them in an undergraduate course, they will not be able to do so in their future profession. I have been unable to find any research that supports a correlation between job performance and turning in assignments on time. Moreover, who among us has not missed a deadline for a report, or a proposal, or not gotten a paper back to a student as quickly as was expected? On the other hand, as professionals, we are all able to identify instances in which we must do things in a timely manner or even by a strict deadline. In the Dreager (2013) and Campbell, Dortch and Burt (2018) articles, rigor centers on the learning and the learning objectives rather than the policies and procedures of a course.

So, how can we be responsive to the needs of our students and still have a rigorous course? There are several things we can explore to help with that. First, being explicit in your expectations, your instructions and your assessment criteria can support rigorous work. The more clearly we can communicate these things, the more time students have to concentrate on the task at hand rather than trying to figure out what we want and how we want it. Providing students with details around assessment allows them to work with a purpose thinking of the end point, because they know what it is. In addition to being explicit about expectations, prioritizing learning outcomes can support rigor. What are the desired outcomes for the activity and how do they relate to the course? Explaining these things to students will also give students purpose and allow them to work within the context of a specific outcome. This kind of activity allows students to make connections to other outcomes and begin to piece together the larger purpose of a course.

How do we address student needs in the non-rigorous parts of our courses, like deadlines? There are several ways we can do this. Consider providing a due date window. Another strategy is to establish due dates to keep on track. These dates are not dates that students have to meet to the day, but they do provide information that indicates missing them may put them behind or further behind in the course. Or, that they may not be ready for things that are coming up because one thing builds on another. You could also employ tokens that allow for a missed due date or automatic extension. In some instances, it’s even OK to say no, we can’t do that. For example, if a student wants to take an exam early or miss a particular class, you can say that is not acceptable, but there needs to be a specific reason. We can explain to our students that in that particular class there will be concepts introduced that will be foundational to the next class and without it they may be lost. It’s important that, whether we are able to accommodate students or if it would be unwise to do so for their own sake, to communicate early and often about the rules and policies that may have an impact on their experience in your course.

Thinking about rigor is innately contextual and complex. It depends on faculty, learning outcomes, and how content is being experienced among other things. Sorting out what is rigor and what is policy may help clarify the thinking about rigor in our courses. If you would like to think through rigor as it exists in your course, the team at the Reinert Center is available for consultations.