An Academically Rigorous Course

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:285817

To me, an academically rigorous course is one in which students are continually challenged throughout the course to increase their previous level of knowledge and skills. The difficulty for instructors is to establish students’ initial abilities and continually determine if students are being challenged with new skills and knowledge. Courses without rigor often teach material that students have already mastered, teach the same material repetitively without recognizing that students have mastered those skills, or simply teach content as material to be memorized rather than applied and analyzed in new situations. On the other hand, courses that are too rigorous fail to respond to the student’s accomplishments: Instructors start or move to more material before students have demonstrated mastery of the content and skills they need. By these definitions, instructors of courses with just the right degree rigor are those that perform multiple assessments to determine if the students have mastered the material and respond by adding increasingly challenging material when they know students are ready.

This introduces the major problem I see facing instructors who wish to add rigor to their courses –how to create and respond to assessments when you have many students. For example, the best assessments allow you to test student mastery through authentic means, if you are teaching an engineering course, the students should be able to engineer something at the end. This type of assessment takes a great deal of time to evaluate and needs to be tiered so that it builds on initial introductory skills to greater detail and complexity. Instructors must provide feedback to help students master these skills in a progressive format, but providing feedback takes time and energy. The more students you have the greater the time required. Additionally, instructors who teach many students have to be able to account for differences in ability and speed at which students can master content and skills. Not every student can work at the same rate, and as I mentioned above, demanding students to move beyond their mastery creates courses that are too rigorous and students who are unsuccessful. Successful completion of a course should be contingent on mastery of the skills and knowledge through assessments such as tests, papers, and other presentations, and in a rigorous course, these are progressively paced and matched to student ability. Instructors must walk a fine line to ensure that their course continues to demand rigor while allowing students to be successful.