Academic Rigor, According to Students

Academic rigor is the gold standard for college courses. Faculty want their courses to be intellectually rich and challenging experiences for students. The content they teach is important, and learning it in deep, lasting, and meaningful ways is not accomplished without effort.

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Academic rigor is the gold standard for college courses. Faculty want their courses to be intellectually rich and challenging experiences for students. The content they teach is important, and learning it in deep, lasting, and meaningful ways is not accomplished without effort. In research done at an institution attempting to enhance its academic rigor, faculty “perceived learning to be most rigorous when students were actively learning meaningful content with higher-order thinking at the appropriate level of expectation within a given context.” (p. 216) This conception of academic rigor emerged out of data collected from faculty focus groups, a campuswide faculty survey, and faculty workshops. It was an understanding shared by those who teach at the institution. However, when the research team started speaking about academic rigor with students, their understanding of it appeared to differ significantly from that of faculty. The researchers decided that merited further exploration, so they designed a study with the goal of understanding “how students at our institution understood the term and what, if any, value they attached to it.” (p. 216) They collected data from student focus groups, a student survey, and student interviews. Students in the focus groups were asked what they thought academic rigor meant, whether they thought it was important, how the institution might become more rigorous, and whether certain kinds of assignments, teaching styles, or environments were more rigorous than others. The 18-item online survey drew 13 items from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which assesses academic challenge as one of the indicators of student engagement. It asks, for example, whether the number of books assigned in a course is an indicator of rigor. A self-selected cohort of 440 students (out of 10,000 at the institution) completed the survey. In the interviews, students were given a list of features of academic rigor that other students had identified in focus groups. Students given the list were asked to graphically illustrate the importance and relationship of these various features. The focus group interviewees identified the following as indicators of academic rigor: grades, workload, level of difficulty, interest in the material, and to a lesser degree, their interactions with teachers and classmates and being pushed outside their comfort zone. “Analysis of the transcripts revealed that the students did not point to a single defining feature of academic rigor. Rather, they talked about a cluster of related issues.” (p. 219) From survey results, the researchers learned, not surprisingly, that 75 percent of the students considered the number of 20-page papers assigned in the course an indication of a very rigorous course. If they had to work hard to meet instructor standards, 57 percent agreed it was a very rigorous course, and 47 percent said the amount of assigned reading could also be an indicator of course rigor. On the other hand, if the instructor expected students to analyze basic elements of an idea, experience, or theory, only 11 percent thought that was a feature of very rigorous courses. Further analysis showed that “there was relative consistency across class levels with regard to the value of academic rigor in major compared to non-major classes.” (p. 221) As might be expected, rigor was valued more in major courses. The student interviews yielded findings consistent with those uncovered in the focus groups and the survey data. In working to build a student model of academic rigor, the researchers note that some students “did not have a clear conception of academic rigor.” (p. 223) “At some level, this might simply be a matter of terminology. Even though the interview protocol used a variety of words and techniques to define ‘rigor,' these are not terms that typically roll off of student tongues.” (p. 226) Other students did have a clearer sense of academic rigor, and they thought that some features of it were more important than others. Both quantitative analysis of survey results and qualitative analysis of the focus groups and interviews confirmed that when asked to define academic rigor, “higher-order thinking elements were conspicuously absent.” (p. 222) In sum, the results confirm what the researchers suspected. Faculty's and students' understanding of academic rigor were not the same. Faculty understanding was more or less shared; students identified a different set of elements, and they didn't all agree on those elements. The researchers recommend conversations between teachers and students regarding what academic rigor is, why it matters, and the challenges associated with it.  Reference: Draeger, J., Hill, P. P., and Mahler, R., (2015). Developing a student conception of academic rigor. Innovative Higher Education, 40 (3), 215-228.