Academic Rigor Requires a Multi-level Approach

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. 

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:286397

I am not overly fond of the term academic rigor, which implies a process rather than an outcome. The goal that we seek in teaching at all levels is high quality and meaningful academic work carried out with integrity. In my twenty-plus years at UGA, I have seen movement toward this goal, but significant challenges remain. In my department, I have seen stronger gains in academic rigor at the graduate rather than the undergraduate level.

Undergraduate students are better prepared for college-level work than they were 20 years ago, and the proportion of students who do outstanding work in the classroom and beyond has increased. It has been exciting and gratifying to see undergraduate students present research in on and off-campus forums, author or co-author published papers, and, in larger numbers than ever before, win prestigious awards and graduate-school fellowships. It is also gratifying to see many of my colleagues teaching challenging undergraduate courses with significant demands for writing and original research. I have always taught using essay-style examinations and originally written assignments. Twenty years ago that was unusual for undergraduate courses in my department, but nowadays it is the norm for most courses beyond the introductory level.

Nevertheless, as a faculty member teaching undergraduates one often has to encounter what I call “the climate of hustle” in which a few students resist undertaking the challenging work they are capable of doing. Instead, they attempt to negotiate less challenging assignments, request unwarranted deadline extensions, turn in recycled work that is off-target for the assignment, or, in the worst of cases, engage in academic dishonesty. Many claim their ability to carry out assignments is limited by heavy employment schedules, which is puzzling in light of relatively affordable costs at UGA and the high proportion of students who receive HOPE scholarship assistance. Although the “hustlers” are not a large group of students, dealing with them can be very draining. The frequency with which these practices occur suggests that they must be successful in some classes and with some instructors. My sense is that the “climate of hustle” is stronger, or at least more overt, at UGA than at many of the undergraduate institutions we would like to emulate.

Institutional support for faculty who insist on high-quality academic work has been variable. On the positive side, we have seen a step-up in rhetoric from top administrators supporting academic rigor, and greater public recognition of students who do truly outstanding work. On the negative side, we have experienced institutional practices that seemingly undermine this goal, among them ill-timed holidays fitting football schedules rather than academic needs, third-party monitoring of student-athletes in classrooms, undue interference by administrators on behalf of students in classroom situations, publication of grade breakdowns by the instructor (with no clear explanation of why UGA prepares such tabulations at all), and a variable, often quite lax, system for dealing with academic dishonesty.

Thus, I concur with task force members that the achievement of academic rigor requires a multi-level approach and significant institutional change.