Raising Rigor in the Classroom: October 2021 Bulletin

Resources to Enhance Teaching and Learning at Clark University

The term “academic rigor” has been circulating its way through academia for at least a decade, yet many faculty grapple with what the term means for their own practice. A nuanced understanding of rigor can help us rethink our expectations of students and reconsider what we consider academic achievement. In an authentically rigorous learning environment, students are supported and challenged to think, perform, and grow in new and interesting ways. Rigor should not lead to student frustration caused by overwhelming workloads. In many ways, this thin line between challenge and frustration is the very definition of rigor. This bulletin explores academic rigor, outlines its benefits and the different ways in which an authentic culture of academic rigor can be cultivated in the classroom.

What is Rigor?

Academic rigor describes scaffolded learning experiences that are increasingly academically, intellectually, and personally challenging. Rigorous learning experiences help students acquire knowledge and master concepts that are complex, ambiguous, or contentious, and they help students gain skills that can be applied in a variety of educational, career, and civic context throughout their lives (EdGlossary, 2014). In a classroom setting, a curriculum is considered rigorous not when it rigidly adheres to a textbook but when it entails high levels of student engagement and learning.

Rigor also is related to the degree of transformation students undergo between their first exposure to new concepts through to their production of a final course product. Less rigorous courses don’t produce much transformation. In less rigorous courses, the mental work students do tends to be about…

  • Capturing information
  • Storing the information in their mental warehouse
  • Reorganizing the information to make it more stable
  • Developing ways to retrieve the information

(Retrieved from: Dysfunctional Illusions of Rigor)

Most students can accomplish this with limited time and effort. However, a rigorous course will require students to apply information to new contexts and infer new interpretations of the learned information. In addition to the steps above, they will need to marshal other skills such as abstraction, analyzing, evaluating, etc. This type of  complex and advanced cognitive work is what is meant by academic rigor.

Freeman et al.’s (2014) meta-analysis of 225 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods is frequently referenced at conferences and seminars related to teaching and learning. It concluded that teaching approaches that turned students into active participants rather than passive listeners reduced failure rates and boosted scores on exams by almost one-half a standard deviation.

Barbara R. Blackburn’s 3 Phases of Academic Rigor

Faculty show academic rigor when they:

  • maintain and support high expectations for student learning (Freeman, et. al. 2014; Tinto, 2017);
  • require students to use higher level thinking, rather than lower-level thinking (Braxton & Francis, 2018);
  • ensure the curriculum is meaningfully aligned with the values of the institution (Braxton & Francis, 2018);
  • employ instructional strategies, such as active learning, that support the students in achieving those high expectations (Freeman, et. al 2014; Weiman, 2014);
  • foster a sense of self-efficacy, motivation and belonging (Tinto, 2017)

Cultivating a Culture of Rigor in the Classroom

  Provide Choice and Relevant Assignments

Students are more willing to challenge themselves when they engage in meaningful work. They want their education to be something they can relate to, something that stimulates their passions, and something they find relevant. To increase rigor, it is recommended to assess the levels of relevance. Incorporating many layers of choice allows students to gravitate toward their own most inspired path and challenges them to engage differently.

   Maintain High Expectations

Students in a rigorous class environment will know that it is not just about “getting it done,” but about seeing how far they can go and how much they can improve. Success is measured not by submitting an assignment, but by showing a deep understanding of the concepts, by challenging the notions, and demonstrating engagement and learning with class materials and beyond.

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