Reflections on Academic Rigor

The term “academic rigor” has been perambulating its way through educational circuits, but many teachers are not familiar with the concept or how to support rigor within their classrooms. Understanding rigor is essential for understanding how to approach and measure student learning. It questions the standards we demand from our students and reconsiders exactly what we consider as a true achievement.

“Rigor,” in the academic sense, is referring to that fine line between challenging and frustrating a student. It means that students are challenged to think, perform, and grow to a level that they were not at previously. It means that students must work, like an athlete at a team practice, to build their skills, understanding, and thinking power so that they can achieve at higher and higher levels. It means that the standards of the course are calibrated so that students are compelled to grow but are not frustrated and overwhelmed in the process.

Academic rigor is commonly thought of in three different phases of the educational process. The first is setting the standard for students; the second is equipping students through instructional and supportive methods; the third is student demonstration of achievement. These three phases were popularized by Barbara Blackburn’s 2008 book “Rigorous Schools and Classrooms: Leading the Way.”

Setting the Standard

We all know that there is a certain standard of excellence that we implicitly expect of our students. Sometimes these standards are made clear to students via examples, rubrics, directions, and instruction. Sometimes these standards are less defined. What is essential for establishing the appropriate degree of rigor in your classroom is making sure that you overtly demonstrate to students what the expected outcome is. Here are a few key characteristics of a classroom that communicates the standards.

  • The total classroom environment endorses a high degree of performance from each student.
  • The teacher believes in the potential for each student’s success and communicates this belief.
  • Lessons and tasks are designed to lead students to expected outcomes.
  • Examples of desired outcomes and undesired outcomes are overtly shared with students.
  • Students have the opportunity to revise their academic attempts.
  • Higher-level, thought-provoking questions are asked by the teacher.
  • High-level, thought-provoking answers are shared by students.
  • The teacher does not accept lower-level thinking or answers in discussion or academic tasks.
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:285105

Reflections on Academic Rigor

Having a learning environment in which challenge is an integral part of the classroom experience requires commitment from the students and the instructor. If only one party is committed to the endeavour, then the other party will inevitably adjust expectations in order to arrive at some middle ground in the students and the instructor can tolerate. In almost every case, expectations are adjusted down.

I believe that the groundwork for challenges should be established when students enter the University. First-year, first semester required classes should set the bar for the student so that the student will know what to anticipate in the coming semesters. Having to fulfil requirements to write and conduct research should be commonplace in these classes, albeit at the introductory level. Students have a wealth of resources provided by the University (e.g., library, computer, facility resources) to ensure their success. However, if students are not expected to utilize these resources during their first semester at the university, then the learning curve for them gets steeper, and expectations are in need of adjustment.

I believe that it should be commonplace to find students in the library or study locations for the majority of the day on Saturday and Sunday. As I observe the academic environment around campus, I haven’t observed this as the norm. How do we get to a point when it is commonplace? Of course, it will be over time. But the initial change must be evident in the requirements we place on each first-year student during their first semester at the University.