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
How does one improve academic rigor when faced with students who lack the basic skills necessary for academic survival? When a college president, speaking in PBS’s documentary “Declining by Degrees” excuses students by saying that “not every youngster is so disciplined that they can sit in an auditorium and really listen to even a brilliant speech”? When a student interviewed in the same documentary finds a test on 2 chapters of an introductory textbook so challenging that he bemoans the fact that the professor did not tell him exactly what would be on the test? Can we really expect so little of 18-year olds who have completed 12 years of schooling?
Which skills (if any) ought colleges not to allow students to matriculate without, and which (if any) ought they not allow students graduate without? In today’s society, where the consumer is always right, it sadly seems that the answer to both questions too often is ‘none’. At some point over the past few decades, the notion seems to have taken root that the university’s task is not to make sure students learn, but rather to facilitate their emergence after a number of years with a degree in hand, regardless of whether learning took place or even whether initial standards were met. Western Kentucky’s president Gary Ransdell says in “Declining by Degrees”, “I want a degree in their hand so that they’re credentialed so they can get a better job.” Where is the learning in this?
In order to introduce rigor into the classroom, we have little choice but to teach students along two parallel tracks: our material, of course, but also how to learn. Doing so is not easy, but not impossible either. I spend a lot of time explaining to my students how to read scholarly articles, what kinds of things to focus on when studying for exams, how to write persuasively, how to do research, and so on. By and large, I enjoy doing this, because it is very rewarding to see how much improvement students can make in these areas over the course of one semester. (Nevertheless, I feel strongly that high schools ought to make sure students acquire these skills before they enter college. If they did, I would be able to present more, and more challenging, material in my classes.)
Two factors make this parallel teaching task particularly challenging. The first is the signals students receive from their parents. Too many parents feel that they are paying for a degree, rather than for skills and knowledge. It might not be a bad idea to make parents of prospective students read some books about what learning is all about. Earlier this semester, my department chair received a complaint from a student’s parent about my teaching. Specifically, I had told the student he was likely to get a low participation grade because he almost never showed up in class. In addition, on the first midterm, I had given the student a B for the essay component of the test and wrote two paragraphs explaining the reasons for the grade. This was hurtful and insensitive, according to the student’s parent — I should have just given the B and left it at that. In other words, I was deemed at fault for 1) placing a value on classroom discussion and learning, and 2) providing constructive criticism as a way (hopefully) to help the student improve. If parents give their children these types of messages, how can we as faculty hope to make headway?
The second obstacle to teaching students how to learn is that often we need to teach them how to think first. The passive consumerist attitude present in many students often makes it strikingly difficult to encourage them to think for themselves. Their entire experience until college appears to have trained them not to do so, making it all the more important — but also more difficult — for us to untrain them. After all, one cannot really begin to learn (as opposed to absorbing, store, and regurgitate without understanding) until one first learns how to think.
On the whole, I suspect we have to accept that we need to teach students not just our material, but also how to think and learn. Although I think it ought not be necessary to do so, I also think it is reasonable to expect universities to make sure their students acquire these skills before graduating.
At the same time, however, I think we need to establish clearer limits on things we will not accept from the very start, and that therefore ought to be remedied before students enrol (even if it may be difficult to convince the politicians that provide a lot of our funding). If we allow universities to turn into simply four more years of high school, we do students, parents, and our broader society a disservice. Among others, we should be far less tolerant than we often are (because it is the path of least resistance) of students who treat classes and assignments as optional, spelling and grammar as unimportant, and use the work of others without attribution (i.e. plagiarism) as research. Students who are not ready to construct a coherent sentence of their own when called upon to do so (either expressed in class or written on an assignment) are not ready to be in college.
Challenging students to think and learn, not just absorb and regurgitate, adds rigor to a college education, but also value since it is something too many high schools fail to do. Setting — and not deviating from — minimum standards may not add rigor in and of itself, but without it, adding rigor may prove to be near impossible.