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 on Academic Rigor: Personal Reflections
I have given some thought to the notion of academic rigor and often find myself at odds with the notion to some extent – primarily its more negative aspects. Most definitions of rigor suggest hardship, severity or strictness and I generally do not make my classroom a place of severity or hardship (unless I have a student who is unwilling to work). Yet at the same time, I would never call my course easy- rather I think it is challenging but fun and interesting. Some parts of it are difficult but that is where I see good teaching playing a role. Good teachers convey the material in a way that makes it approachable. Thus, I attempt to challenge students, but at the same time I challenge myself, in that I try very hard to make what might seem confusing without explication clear as day once it is unveiled.
In my view, almost anything can be difficult. Driving a car is difficult if no one ever shows you how to drive. Just because something, in this instance, a class, is really hard (as evidenced by low grades), does that make it an academically rigorous class? I have been in classes as an undergraduate where the teacher has instructed students that no one would make anything above a C. Is that academically rigorous? Does that challenge a student to work harder? What is the outcome? Who has learned in this environment? Who has been challenged? Who has been inspired?
My view is that there is an objective level of difficulty for most areas. Is organic chemistry difficult for most students, yes, if they have not had good teachers in their prior chemistry or other science courses, if they are not interested in the topic, if they do not have good tools to help them learn, and if their teacher makes it more difficult than it already is. But even organic chemistry can be made more accessible and kept to a high level of academic standards. And basically, that is what we mean by rigor. Do we apply an objective standard to success or failure in terms of the material taught? Is the standard high– reflecting expectations of excellence in terms of a student’s knowledge and application? Do we present students with the newest ideas, the most challenging aspects, and the most complex models in our classes? To me that is academic rigor.
Rigor comes in the evaluation of their work and the types of material presented. We should keep our standards high. But in terms of the process itself, we should make the material accessible and the evaluations fair. For example, much to the disdain of some of my peers, I always post my notes from lectures. This allows students to listen during lectures rather than trying to write down everything I say. It has never really had an impact on attendance.
In the end, the point that I am trying to make is that academic rigor should have real, positive (not a negative) meaning applying to what we teach, our expectations of students, our evaluations of students and to how we teach. But it should not mean that we are fixed to a certain grade distribution; that we seek unfair means to bring about such distributions; or that we should not try our best to make the material as comprehensible as possible. When someone tells me I have too many As or Bs in my class and I must not be very rigorous, it offends me terribly. They did not sit in. They did not take the exams. So when we approach the goal of increasing academic rigor, I want to make sure it not simply reflected in grades. I do think there is a problem of grade inflation generally, but a cookie cutter solution will be more harmful to academic rigor, and likely be unfair to students and teachers alike.