Dysfunctional Illusions of Rigor

2006 Academic Affairs Faculty Symposium Unicoi State Park and Conference Center April 14-15, 2006
TASK: In preparation for the Academic Affairs Faculty Symposium, the organizers invite you to share with fellow participants some brief reflections on the concept of academic rigor. We would appreciate receiving by Friday, April 7th, your perception of academic rigor, your personal experience with academic rigor as a teacher or student, and/or your thoughts on what faculty and the University should do to promote rigor in our academic programs

Essay ID:283448

I, for one, dislike and distrust the word “rigor,” whose dominant association, as one can see by googling the word, is “rigor mortis.” Certainly the notion of achieving excellence through the word’s cognate, “rigidity,” would give one pause. As University of Indiana biologist Craig Nelson warns, we should be alert to “Dysfunctional Illusions of Rigor”. If we shift our institutional culture, as I believe we must, from a teaching-centred to a learning-centred approach, we will find that the rationale of assessment — and the basis of excellence – changes.

Our goal would be not to certify more rigorously, to pick more selectively for excellence, but rather through continuous assessment of our performance to improve the learning of all students. Our mission would not be to identify ability but to facilitate its development. We should understand more excellently the processes of cognitive development and incorporate with our teaching that understanding (captured in brief by the Chinese proverb, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand”).

As Ken Bain reminds us, “The modern system of grading — the idea of assigning a number or letter to someone’s learning — is a fairly recent invention in higher education” which “gained increasing popularity only in the twentieth century as the culture sought ways to certify competence in an increasingly complex and technical world” (What the Best College Teachers Do, Harvard UP, 2004, p. 58). So while the ± system, for example, serves excellently to enable more rigorous certification, it contributes little toward excellence in educating students.

An exception to the negativity of the word is in the phrase “rigorous self-examination” — which should be an urgent priority, and if we judge our efforts at teaching from a learning perspective, from the students’ perspective, that examination will not be short or easy.