What we are talking about when we talk about rigor

The much-discussed study of college learning Academically Adrift, authored by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, calls attention to a problem concerning the rigor of college courses and curricula. In the longitudinal study of more than 2,000 students on 19 different campuses, large percentages of students showed no statistically significant improvement in their scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a test of critical thinking, problem solving, and writing abilities. Perhaps not surprisingly, students who reported spending more time studying in college showed greater gains in their CLA scores.

Overall, college students do not study as much as their professors would like them to study. The old standard, two hours of study for each hour in the classroom, is off by a factor greater than two. The relatively high grades students earn (such as the 3.2 average GPA of students in the Academically Adrift study) indicate that on the whole, faculty are willing to accept this level of effort.

If you are reading this, then you are probably committed to improving student learning. And if faculty at large are going to renew their commitment to student learning, then they will also need to recommit themselves to rigorous courses and curricula.

Some good news in Academically Adrift is the evidence that student perception that professors had high standards was by itself correlated with better improvement on the CLA after two years of college. If you want students to learn more, then you need to expect more of them.

Academically Adrift arbitrarily set 40 pages of reading per course per week and 20 pages of writing per course as the benchmarks for rigor, showing that many students had not taken a course that expected this much work and that having taken courses that expected this much was correlated with greater CLA score improvement.

Forty and 20 are not magic numbers, but they can perhaps be considered starting-points for conversations within departments and colleges for establishing expectations. As was discussed at Faculty Development Day earlier this month, what kind of reading and writing faculty expect matters. Better writing – and better writing training – does not solely entail more writing, but it certainly entails more attention to writing.

The flip side of high expectations, of course, is helping students to meet those expectations. Rigor is not the same as “grading hard.” Michael E. Gordon and Oded Palmon, writing in Academe, see rigor as involving “conscientious grading,” holding students accountable for attendance, and being willing to take time with students and even put up with complaints from them.

But it seems to be worth it, as studies cited by Gordon and Palmon indicate. In the words of Academically Adrift, high expectations entail getting students to work “harder than students thought they could to meet the standards.” This wording gets at the transformational effect that education is supposed to have on students. If students not working hard is part of the problem, then getting them to raise expectations of themselves seems like it ought to be part of the solution.

All of this is hard work not only for students but for faculty, too. It goes against the “disengagement compact” that the Academically Adrift authors claim exists between students and their professors. It also may put faculty at risk of having lower student evaluations of their teaching (though the literature on this is highly mixed). As Gordon and Palmon claim, “data … abound that students, once enrolled in a class, do not necessarily rate it harshly if it contains a justifiable degree of rigor.” Thus increasing rigor will also demand justifying that rigor to students, a practice that goes along well with justifying to students why they have to do any of the assignments in a course.

In the end, rigor is about long-term consequences. Gordon and Palmon sum up by saying this:

Instead of focusing on the short-term annoyance of students who have earned a low grade, consider the disappointment of graduates who face limited intellectual and economic opportunities because their instructors found it too difficult to say, “Your work is inadequate. Please repeat the assignment until you understand why you have finally prepared an acceptable answer. I will help you in any way that I can short of giving you that answer.”

It is difficult to say what Gordon and Palmon think we should say. (But the statement does have a nice metacognitive kick to it: “understand why” the answer is acceptable.) I am not sure that these should always be our exact words, but if we never say anything like them, then we can be sure we’ve given up on rigor.

What are you doing this semester to enhance the rigor of your courses, both in terms of expectations of students and expectations of yourself? Are there better ways to say what Gordon and Palmon want us to say to students?


7 responses to “What we are talking about when we talk about rigor

  1. I would like to think that my courses are rigorous and challenging but manageable at the same time. I think the greatest challenge facing individuals who choose to make their courses more rigorous is the faculty member across campus who doesn’t make a similar choice. Even if my class is justifiably rigorous, the majority of the students will likely choose the professor who is perceived as easy. The issue of rigor is one that an entire faculty needs to take on. Without a curriculum-wide adoption of increased goals, objectives, and standards, individual professors might be left to fend for themselves against declining enrollment and student evaluations.

    • I don’t doubt that rigor becomes an easier sell if there is a measure of consistency across curricula. Varying degrees of rigor will always be with us, however, to some extent. The Academe authors mentioned in the post are saying, though, that Prof. Rigor need not worry about low evals forever. Over time — probably not even a long time — the students who recognize the value of rigor will gravitate to rigorous teachers and will show their appreciation in evals. I’ve often thought that each of us gets exactly the students we want, simply because wittingly or unwittingly we set up our courses in a way that attracts one type of student or another.

      That said, here’s an article on a college that recently reformed its gen ed curricula with an eye toward standardizing rigor: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/02/02/florida_college_boosts_learning_by_returning_to_core_liberal_arts_curriculum

  2. I like to think of myself as a fairly rigorous professor, and while it is definitely true that some semesters I have low course enrollment, there are also semesters where I have students begging to be signed into my classes. I think the good students can see the value of a rigorous course and that they are willing to put in the work if they know the professor is willing to help them succeed. This might only be true for the classes that I teach which students need for their majors and so hopefully they can see the benefit of actually learning the material. I have a feeling that it would be much harder to convince most of our student population that doing well in the core classes will have just as much, if not more, benefit to them in the long run as their major and minor classes. I think this is where we as a community need to make the most progress; convincing our students that all of their classes are important and that they should have to work just as hard, if not harder, in their core classes as they do in their major and minor classes.

    I understand the concern of having low course evaluations and I have plenty of students who complain that I’m too hard and that I expect too much; but I also routinely receive comments like this: “Although this class was challenging, I feel that it greatly improved my lab-writing abilities. I feel confident that I am able to write a thoughtful and detailed lab report in future advanced classes. The long reports had to be detailed, but allowed me to think critically about what had occurred during the experiments.” Comments like that make me hope that I’m on the right track.

    • Comments like that one definitely go a long way! As is mentioned in Academically Adrift, it’s about helping students to work harder and learn more than they ever thought possible. You sort of hope that students like the one you mention are making the same comment to their peers!

  3. I agree with you that rigor is worth it, for us and for the students. And the good ones certainly appreciate that our classes are designed with their success in mind. I think your point about the Core is well made–and since most of my teaching happens in the Core, it helped me think about the challenge of introducing rigor more carefully.
    So, where do we begin? In the master syllabi?

  4. Jon, I don’t think the 20 pages of writing Arum/Roska surveyed students about was an arbitrary number. It sounds about right to me. As Berube said at the faculty development day, it doesn’t have to all be formal writing. For instance, in core classes I assign about 10 pages of formal papers (two 5-page papers or three 3-4 page papers, usually with rough drafts and peer review days included to encourage recursive writing skills) and then ten pages of additional writing in the form of journals, in-class free writing assignments, or weekly questions to turn in, and on top of that they write essay exams. Actually, I realize that this adds up to more than 20 pages usually. Is this very different from others teaching in the core, or is that about standard? Arum/Roska also think students should do a capstone project of at least 20 pages of formal researched writing. Am I right in thinking that most of our programs have capstones like this?

    • What matters for the study must be what “20 pages of writing” means to students taking the survey. I wonder if what you see as 30+ pages of writing seems like 30 pages to students. And I mean, I genuinely don’t know (i.e., this isn’t the academese “I don’t know,” in which case you really think you do know). This works the other way, too: I and maybe a lot of other faculty think that two five-page papers equals ten pages of “writing” in the course, even though students are also writing shorter quizzes or online assignments, handwritten essay exams, etc. Two things, for what they’re worth: (1) it sounds like your course is “writing intensive,” both in terms of amount of writing and in amount of attention given to writing, and (2) at U.Va., where Roska now teaches, 20 pages of writing was a magic number, as it was the amount of formal writing a course required to count for the “second writing requirement” each student had to fulfill. The way that requirement was actually administered did not remotely mean that each student progressed as a writer by taking a course fulfilling that requirement.