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?