10 Questionable Ways to Uphold Academic Rigor

Overwhelmedrigour | rigor / rig·or
I. Rigidity of action, interpretation, etc.
* Severity, harshness, and related senses.
a. Harsh inflexibility (in dealing with a person or group of people); severity, sternness; cruelty.
b. An act or instance of harsh inflexibility, severity, or cruelty; a severe or injurious action or proceeding.
2. Hardness of heart; obduracy.
a. Hostility, harshness, or severity (of weather, climate, etc.); extremity of cold; (also) hardship or suffering caused by this.
b. Great hardship or distress.
c. In pl. The requirements, demands, or challenges of a task, activity, etc.

Oxford English Dictionary Online

Wander the halls of academia…at least the faculty halls, and you may well come across the phrase “academic rigor.” It is used to talk about the importance of maintaining high academic standards, and as a defense against changes or practices that a faculty member does not perceive as accomplishing this goal. If we look in the dictionary, we see a different but potentially enlightening series of definitions. Rigor is about being harsh, inflexible, severe, cruel, stern, hostile, and producing hardship or distress. Out of all the phrases we could use to talk about high academic standards, I find it intriguing that we use “academic rigor.” Nonetheless, one way or another, it has become the phrase of choice in many secondary and higher education institutions.

Interestingly, when I listen to some statements about how to maintain academic rigor in classrooms and schools, many of them strike me as aligning more closely to the definitions provided in the OED. In that spirit, following are ten practices that I’ve heard affirmed as ways to maintain academic rigor. As you read through them, do they seem to be more about high academic standards or being harsh, inflexible, severe, cruel, stern, hostile, or producing hardship and distress? You decide. As you read through this list, consider whether these practices are the most effective ways to get as many students as possible to perform at the highest possible level, which I tended is a more humane and ultimately beneficial definition for academic rigor. Also consider whether each of these are really about high academic standards instead of shaping courses around an educator’s comfort, preferences, time, and pre-existing beliefs about education.

1. Celebrate Bell Curves and Tests or Assignments When Not All Students Excel

This is often seen as a good sign. It shows that the test is challenging. Yet, I can easily write a test about simple facts that still achieves such goals. What about an alternative of not settling for failing grades?

2. Provide Less Help to Students

The further up the academic ladder, the more this seems to emerge as a positive practice. Plenty reject it, but I still see teachers who equate helping students as codling them. We want students to become self-directed and independent, but that doesn’t have to happen with a survival of the fittest mentality. What if we instead define academic rigor and working hard to get as many students as possible as fit as possible? As a advocate for self-directed learning, I see plenty of value in stepping back and giving students room to try things on their own, and if this is a fundamental part of the school philosophy (like at a democratic school), I support it. Yet, this is not the spirit of most schooling settings. We can both empower students to be self-directed learnings and be available to help when they ask for it.

3. Be Less Personal and More Professional

Don’t let them see your human side. Don’t try to build rapport or show interest in their lives. That is left for friends and family. Yet, what does that actually have to do with academic rigor? Is seriousness more rigorous than hospitality?

4. Give Feedback When You Give the Grade

In other words, all rich feedback only comes after it is too late to learn from it and improve your performance in the class. This is a sure way to make the grades or assessments in the class about student’s pre-existing knowledge and abilities, and not as much about what knowledge and skill teachers can help each student develop during the course.

5. Don’t Be Flexible

Fail them or drastically decrease grades whether they are a minute, hour, or week late. Don’t entertain student requests for alternate approaches to an assignment. Don’t adjust the lessons according to how students are progressing. Keep it strict and uniform. Yet, if we look more closely at this practice, it may well detract from every student reaching the highest possible level of performance.

6. Test on What You Don’t Cover

Give lectures, lead class activities, and assign readings  from the textbook(s). Then, when it comes time for the test,  don’t just test on the important ideas. Tell students that anything in the text(s) and class activities is fair game. What if the tests instead focused on the stated course objectives in the syllabus and the knowledge and skill most important for the students? Shouldn’t the most important concepts be weighted the highest and emphasized the most?

7. Give graded quizzes to make sure students read in advance of coming to class.

This sounds good, but it really just gives a letter grade advantage to the students who have the best reading comprehension and can learn the content without the teacher’s help or guidance in class. If one insists on quizzes, why not give them after the class, once the students have a chance to read, learn from the teacher’s instruction and mentor, and review? This seems to promise greater academic performance, and it protects the letter grade from becoming a measure of something other than student learning as a result of the course.

Give the Lecture and Content First, but Save All Questions for the End (if there is time for them).

Give the big lectures and present all the content. If there is time, leave room for Q & A at the end. The problem is that the student didn’t get a chance to ask clarifying questions as the lecture progressed. So, the confusion and misunderstandings increased as the content distribution continued.

9. Give Surprise and Trick Questions on the Exams

This is supposed to keep students “on their toes”, but how does it help students learn as much as possible?

10. Do Not Give 2nd Chances 

There are no second drafts or retakes. This ensures that students work as hard as possible the first time. It may well do that, but it also deprives students from the chance to improve their work. In other words, it prevents them from leaving the class with greater levels of knowledge and skill than if they had to keep working, rewriting, and re-taking until they reached a higher standard. Would you rather have future doctors who passed medical school on “B” level knowledge and skill or doctors who were required to keep working at it until they reached an “A” level of understanding and skill?

I realize that there is room for differences of opinion on these matters, but I also contend that these ten practices are not the best or most certain ways to support academic rigor…at least not the good kind.

One Reply to “10 Questionable Ways to Uphold Academic Rigor”

  1. DrEvel1

    Very well described! I’ve heard so many of these prescribed over the years by otherwise caring and concerned colleagues. And I have objected vigorously to all of them at one time or another.

    The worst, I believe, is the bell curve grading, since it’s based on faulty mathematics. It constitutes a basic “ecological fallacy” – namely, the idea that the distribution of a variable in a small sample parallels the distribution of that variable in the population. “Grade on the curve” was one of the first instructions given to me when I started teaching back in the mid 70s. It only took me about 30 seconds to recognize the absurdity of this; I asked my dean “What if I have a class where everybody learns successfully?” His response was that I should then change the content, making it progressively more difficult and/or tricky until a curve distribution of success was achieved.

    This seemed patently absurd, and I proceeded to ignore the curve. I was never penalized, presumably because I could always count on there being a couple of students who willfully ignored almost everything I said and all my attempts to reach out to them, missed numerous classes, and then managed a D or F on the exam. Never underestimate the power of the will to fail!

    In my online teaching, almost all the assessments have been in the form of papers, not tests, and with the aid of clear learning objectives and criteria of success. Using the “Backward Design” method of course construction helps a lot. Under this approach, there is no reason why complete success couldn’t be achieved by everyone. The key is having a good sense of what you’d like the student to have, at a minimum at least, coming out of the course. Hopefully they might come out with more, even a desire for further exploration of the topic; it’s possible!

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