My View 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.

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:286562

The organizers of the symposium clearly intend for us to consider academic “rigor” in its broadest and most positive sense, i.e., adherence to meticulous but reasonable standards in curriculum, and particularly in our evaluation of students’ work. On the other hand, students are less receptive to the term, which they tend to interpret in its etymological sense, suspecting that faculty and administrators are conspiring to inflict harsh, rigid, and inflexible measures that will inevitably undermine hard-won grade point averages. (I am reminded of the use of the word “rigueurs” in French classical theatre, where it is a cliché for the heartless rejection of a suitor.)

The recent haggle over “The Key” and the panic over the plus/minus grading system both illustrate the gap between faculty and student perceptions. Based on my own conversations with students, I believe that the resistance to such institutional measures is temporary. Trial periods such as the one accompanying the change to the grading system are reassuring, and will certainly be illuminating. I wonder, however, to what extent we can foster a culture of academic “rigor” without the support and creative input of student leaders.