Academic Rigor as Three Separate Concepts

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 a true 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:288369

I find it useful to think about academic rigor as three separate concepts. The first relates to quantity – the amount of work we expect our students to do. The second relates to quality – the extent to which we expect the students to be brilliant, creative, insightful, and the like. The third relates to consistency: should we demand excellence every day in our classrooms, or should we accept that there will many be days when the students won’t be at their best? As a relatively new teacher, I have struggled with each of these issues.

As to the first, relating to quantity: when I was in law school, my professors generally assigned much more reading than they could possibly discuss with us during class meetings. The message to the students was clear: it was up to us to learn the material on our own. I am skeptical about this approach generally, and particularly as applied to my students today. I have found that most of my colleagues use class time to go through the reading assignments, page by page, and even sentence by sentence. And the students appear to expect the same; they seem concerned when a particular issue is not discussed in class. So my general approach has been to move slowly through the materials, sacrificing coverage in favor of what is, in my view, greater comprehension. I don’t believe that my class is necessarily less rigorous as a result. Indeed, an approach that requires students to focus on fewer materials, but to know them well, may be even more demanding that an approach under which the students read more but, perhaps, understand less.

Perhaps I am saying that what I think of as the second dimension of academic rigor – the expectation of high-quality work – is more critical than the quantity of work the students are assigned. These expectations of high-quality work, however, can be problematic at law schools. First-year students are, almost without exception, dedicated and hardworking. But for the most part, they have arrived at the school with almost no understanding of how the study of law works. As a result, I sometimes find it difficult to discern whether certain student responses reflect shoddy thinking (which I need to discourage) or simple unfamiliarity with the law (which I merely need to correct). If it is the former, I want to challenge my students to think harder, and better; but if it is the latter, I think I have a duty to the students to clear up some of the fog.

The upperclassmen present a different dilemma. Many of them are engaged and bright. But they are also very busy and may not have much time to focus on classes. (The name of the game in law school is to load up, if one has the opportunity, on extracurricular activities – law review, moot court, and the like – and the better students are the ones who get those opportunities.) Meanwhile, the other students, the ones who don’t get those same opportunities, may be discouraged, disengaged, and generally just ready to get out of school. As professors, we may exacerbate these problems by limiting our review of our students’ work in most classes to a single final exam. When the students know that they will be evaluated based solely on that exam, what incentives do they have to master materials at the early stages of the semester? If they put off this process until immediately before the exam, won’t that dramatically reduce their opportunities to come up with those moments of clarity, insight, and brilliance? This is not to say that the students don’t learn the material eventually: they generally seem to understand the materials quite well by the time they take the final. Should I be happy with that result? Or is it realistic to expect more?

It seems to me that in a truly rigorous learning environment, the students’ mastery of the materials by the end of the semester should not be enough. We should expect not just quality from our students, but consistent quality, on a daily basis. I wonder, though, whether this is possible in a law-school setting, where the students are busy with outside work, and where they have come to expect that, other than the one or two times they will be “called on” each semester via the Socratic method, their participation in class will be minimal. I have tried to address some of these issues by using a different grading system in one of my classes this spring. I told the students that I expected the class to be discussion-oriented, and that I expected voluntary participation from them. I told them that their in-class participation would count for a substantial portion of their grade, and I have required them to turn in three short graded papers during the semester. My preliminary judgment is that the system hasn’t worked very well. Maybe the class is just too big (it has more than 80 students), or maybe the students are simply too accustomed to the traditional Socratic method (under which they are not expected to make voluntary contributions to class discussion), but I have found it very difficult to get students to talk freely in class.

One way of encouraging consistent excellence, I suppose, is to be “tough” on students – to chide them when they are not adequately prepared, to express disappointment with them in a very dramatic and public way, and the like. I find myself torn over whether this is the right approach for me. It has clearly worked well for many professors, and as far as I can tell, some students actually prefer it when their professors take this approach. One of my colleagues recently said to me, “Students want us to be the equivalent of their personal-fitness trainers. Just as you want your personal-fitness trainer to be tough on you, to get you into physical shape, the students want us to be tough on them, to get them into mental shape.” I am sure he is right about some of the students, but I am also quite sure that there are many others who don’t feel this way. And being “tough” on the students just doesn’t come naturally to me. I hope it is possible to teach rigorously without being “tough” on the students – but perhaps a few more years of teaching will change my mind on that score.

At any rate, whether or not I am “tough” on the students, I do want my students to think of my class as “tough” – because it challenged them to work hard, to think through problems with clarity and thoroughness, and to think in new and different ways.