Writing Critical Thinking & Academic Rigor

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:286557

Personal reflections on academic rigor

For a few semesters, in a quick survey designed to function as an engagement device, I’ve been asking groups of 300 or so students coming into our majors to tell me what a course or program needs to do in order “to challenge them.” Overwhelmingly, the most striking theme is that courses and experiences should teach them to think in new and demanding ways: in students’ words, to “force me to think,” “make me think out of the box,” “give me assignments I haven’t done before,” “make me stay involved,” “push me beyond and make me do it”; “let me practice for the real world I have to compete in when I graduate,” “stretch me past my comfort zone.”

Writing, critical thinking and academic rigor

Because of my background and academic work, I’ve seen writing in its many forms and uses accomplish many of these things for students, as well as faculty who attend to undergraduate writing. Attention to writing increases “time on task,” it involves and invests students in their courses and their ideas, it forces students to keep up and to do productive reading, it engages students at a level that makes deeper engagement possible. It gets students and teachers talking together outside of class. It helps students see and analyze their ideas. Related to these benefits — and maybe even more important than writing’s capacity to teach students to communicate in the context of learning for a course, writing teaches students to think critically. It entails and enacts a particular kind of mental discipline, which states one of its relations to conversations about academic rigor.


While these comments make a nutshell case for writing’s role in academic rigor, the ideal of rigor overarches and encompasses more.

Two concepts that inhere in the ideal of rigor are “expectation” and “challenge,” “as a test of ability or resources,” hence a definition of academic rigor used by one institution: “the consistent expectation of excellence and the aspiration to significant achievement.” As a goal and feature of our programs at UGA, academic rigor implies an attitude toward intellectual tasks and the intellectual enterprise itself, including a belief in its intrinsic value. Academic rigor is a distinctive approach to learning as serious challenge, a set of standards that train one in the values and behaviors of an intellectual discipline by enacting – or exacting a discipline of its own.

Considerations for next steps

As a disciplined approach to learning in the disciplines (put another way, to learning ways of thinking and communicating critically and creatively about finding, framing and solving problems productively), the ideal of academic rigor requires the “systems approach” that we are giving it here. It applies to faculty, students, administration and other constituents, as well to the culture of Bulldog Nation. It will require effective communication to key groups, and the way we choose to communicate the goal will go a long way toward making heightened rigor a banner for us.

For students, this will mean explaining and reinforcing the idea of rigor as an expectation and standard from admissions messages to orientation to syllabi to commencement and beyond. It will mean unpacking some engaging and motivating specifics, such as making expectations clear, telling students why they are doing what we ask of them, encouraging student responsibility, and attending to models of task engagement from theories of insight and from the attention sciences.

It may fruitfully involve articulating a common definition and a set of criteria that mark “academic rigor” at UGA as an outgrowth of the Symposium. As with the Task Force report, this could centre on analyzing what we are doing and what we can do to create a culture of challenge across the spectrum and finding ways to package that, to make it visible, sharable, and driving. It will involve assessing the cognitive landscape and exigencies of major players (students and faculty), and it may test institutional resources.

Threshold concerns

Though it is tempting to think this way, a lack of challenge is not the fault of high schools or our students. For one thing, students have never come to campus as freshmen, as Derek Bok observes in Our Underachieving Colleges, knowing how to write effectively or to engage in the discipline of various applications of “critical thinking” as a response to a problem. In general, they do not come with minds “equipped to think.” But they are not “lazy,” except to the degree that they are allowed to be. The idea that they should have learned a subject or a skill earlier – and learned study habits and behaviours as well — is wishful, not real. Entertaining this puts the responsibility for a challenge on us as leaders, and it entails a sophisticated analysis of our audience in terms of our goals.

Students may boast of how “tough” a course is on one hand, bragging about how much work they have to do, and, on the other hand, concerned with the grade, major and other pressures, they may avoid courses and experiences that ask them to write or to think in new ways. They drop courses that are “too much work,” that require “papers,” that “may ruin my GPA.” They may be disposed to avoid taking the intellectual risks that a more rigorous approach to their learning requires.

How do we make salient the rewards those risks might bring?

More basically, if we are to challenge them, how do we first engage them? How do we get their attention, focus it and sustain it long enough and deep enough for the satisfaction of intellectual discipline to emerge for them, as they do for us, and for disciplined approaches to thinking to become habitual?

One part of this is a consideration of what contemporary and popular culture and emerging media do to the ideal of rigor as a challenge here. How do the media habits of our students affect their capacity for attention and engagement? How can they be recognized, managed and harnessed? I so welcome our discussions¼

Postscript: while I started these comments before viewing the film, I’ll note two concerning perceptions dramatized in Declining by Degrees, as well as one of the most hopeful and one that remains complicating. Illustrating the “sleepwalking” and lack of engagement theme, one student reported that she had “no reason to come to class.” Another said she “wished more had been asked” of her, but that she was “having fun,” as other activities filled the challenge void. I encounter these students, as well as those who have never been taught or initiated into the how-tos of class discussion or behaviour. I also encounter those for whom financial pressures threaten to put sustained intellectual or college aspirations out of reach, students who work so much that they can’t approach our courses as a professional commitment. This usually entails discussions about priorities¼

On the hopeful side, we saw the creative investment of the astronomy researcher, never trained as a teacher, who could have allowed the class of non-majors to snore. Instead, he found a way to involve them and himself and appeared to have found a non-tenure reward track. “Students respond to challenge,” his and other examples in the film suggested. To speak to a complication, market dynamics as competitive pressures were critiqued as a problematic force of the higher ed landscape. The conclusion of the film addressed this again, adding a cautionary note about the growth and gains of other intellectual markets in comparison to our own, these competitors presumably abroad. We encounter students from these other markets in our classrooms here, and in anthropologist Rebekah Nathan’s recent ethnography (My Freshman Year, in which Nathan went undercover with students), international students found U.S. classes “undemanding.” This take on “rigor” is educative. Students from other cultures add to our intellectual and experiential diversity, and they often model a work ethic, a rigorous approach to learning, that distinguishes them from other students. They often testify to the power of an expectation about the nature of academic work as an enterprise that requires discipline, respect and self-direction.