Holding Students Accountable on 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:287272

Perhaps “rigor” isn’t the best word for what we are trying to achieve. Dictionary definitions of rigor include such things as “something hard to endure” and “strictness or severity.” Perhaps the most familiar form of the word is “rigor mortis,” which means “a state of rigidity that prevents response to stimuli.” Surely this is not our goal. In fact, I think what we are after is exactly the opposite: We want students to be intrinsically motivated to go the extra mile and inquire into the nature of what they are studying.

I propose that we want to avoid a form of rigor that is externally mandated by things such as a priori grade distributions, punitive tactics in grading and attendance, and making things “harder” by assigning more writing and more reading. Rather, I think our goal is for students to appreciate the wonderful opportunity they have at the University of Georgia to do nothing but think, discuss, debate, and develop their ideas and opinions. What a luxury! (In fact, if it paid better, I’d still be a student!)

In working with young children, I have seen the influence a teacher can have by setting expectations from the outset. Teachers who expect children to make sense of what they are learning and who expect students to explain their thinking (as opposed to giving “sound bytes” for answers) have classrooms full of little people eager to explain and defend their thinking. Children in these classrooms say, “blah, blah, blah BECAUSE of blah, blah, blah.” In classrooms where these expectations do not exist, children’s answers sound more like, “blah.”

I recall taking a doctoral course with a professor who used the Socratic Method. After the first day in his class it was clear that a simple, straightforward answer would get you nowhere fast. He pushed, pulled, and picked apart your ideas–all in a kind and gentle way. Students knew that no one would escape his penetrating questions, and so we all worked a little harder outside of class–thoughtfully reading the assigned material, making reflective notes, looking for other sources of information on the topic, trying to draw connections between seemingly disconnected ideas–so that we would be prepared for class.

From my experiences working with children and my experience as a student in the class described above, I take away the message that we as teachers must not let students off the hook by accepting what they say at face value. Rather, we need to hold students accountable for what they say by asking questions such as:

How can you connect that to our assigned reading?

Can you say more about that?

What do you mean by ____?

Can someone else who agrees with this offer another explanation?

Can someone who disagrees with this offer a counterargument?

Can someone who is undecided articulate what is unclear about this position?

If we push students to inspect their own thinking and the thinking of others, it will raise the level of discourse in our classes. If we ask these same kinds of questions about what students write, it will raise the level of writing, too (and, by implication, the thinking that goes into that writing). The ultimate goal, I think, is to get students to ask these questions of one another–in small group discussions, in-class dialogue, and in critiquing one another’s writing.