Academic Rigor in Campus Reflective Essay

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.”

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:286559

Reflections on Academic Rigor and Relevance

Academic Affairs Faculty Symposium ~ Unicoi Lodge ~ April 2006

I. Perceptions of Academic Rigor on Campus

I asked my undergraduate students about rigor on campus. The consensus of the discussion: in many classes the bar is not set high enough. Students are not going to ask for it to be set higher, but they want to be challenged. In the short run they may grouse when faced with higher standards, yet many secretly want UGA to be as prestigious as UVA or Chapel Hill and they are willing to work toward that goal.

II. Experience with Academic Rigor

The bottom line is that grading under more rigorous standards tends to result in more students wanting to meet outside of class to “discuss” grades and to get help. Given the fact that there are only 24 hours in the day and P&T (at least in my college) is grounded in research productivity, this is a disincentive for many faculty to set higher standards. (Also, there’s the added kicker that teaching evaluations may be adversely affected.) I’ve just finished reading Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat and Hersh & Merrow’s edited collection Declining By Degrees. As I think about UGA and academic rigor, here are some questions that come to mind:

– What is our “value-add” (Friedman 14) in the classroom? What do we add to our students’ education that they could not find out in seconds by Googling or by checking Wikipedia?

– Do we push our students beyond their “comfort zones” (Friedman 305) to explore the world and to do things right? Are we role models for learning? Do we work into classroom lectures/discussions what we are learning in our research?

– How can we stimulate “positive imaginative thinking” that cannot be commoditized (Friedman 443)?

– In his Foreword to Declining By Degrees, the ever-dapper Tom Wolfe provides an elaborate description of Harvard seniors “dressed like nine-year-olds” (ix). Do we dismiss our students as base-ball-hat-wearing Dawg fans or do we treat them like young scholars?

– How much do we structure our courses to minimize time spent grading undergraduate work (Sperber in Declining 134)?

– Does the current system of rewarding research over teaching “institutionalize” neglect of undergraduate teaching (Sperber in Declining 138)?

– Is it possible for UGA to be a “student-centered research university” (Kirp, in Declining 119)?

– What’s happened to “liberal education,” the kind that “enriches the life of the mind and prepares students for the responsibilities of citizenship, at home and abroad” (Schneider in Declining 64-65)?

III. Recommendations

As U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove said when she was at UGA giving a Charter Lecture, we are capable of anything, even eating an elephant, “if we take small bites.” A few considerations:

– Evaluating current course content to determine ways to raise the bar appropriate for the class.

– Instituting peer review of teaching and make it an important part of faculty evaluations/promotion/merit pay.

– Keeping the +/- grading system.

– Approving “UGA 1101,” the course currently proposed by the SGA to set the “expectations” tone.

– Creating more writing centers on campus, including a “grading support” component for faculty.

– Finding ways to connect with students so that they do not feel like they are anonymous in classes. E.g. taking advantage of the Student Enrichment Fund, e-mailing students who do not perform well on exams, increasing office hours around exams, promoting active learning in class, etc.

– Being a role model as a “life-long learner.”