Monday, December 5, 2022

The Redefinition of Rigor

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As colleges quickly moved classes online two years ago, professors went into emergency mode. To keep the ship of their course afloat, some were willing to jettison all kinds of cargo: traditional exams, hard deadlines, chunks of content. Some found it freeing to sail on with less baggage.

Others saw the situation quite differently. To them, the course policies, assignments, and assessments weren’t freight. They were integral components of the boat.

Professors in the first group said students needed flexibility and support. Their watchword was compassion. Professors in the second group said they needed structure and standards. Theirs was rigor.

Emotions ran high in an anxious and exhausted stretch of time. Social media amplified disagreement into outrage. And so a debate about teaching that predated the pandemic intensified into what one observer has memorably called the “rigor wars.”

The terms of the debate are now familiar, its patterns predictable. But take a big step back, and it doesn’t quite make sense. Don’t most professors care about both students and standards?

What does rigor mean in a college course, exactly? Why do some professors put so much stock in it? And are rigor and compassion really at odds?

Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh has given the matter some thought. These days, Sorensen-Unruh, a full-time chemistry instructor at Central New Mexico Community College, bristles when she hears professors invoke rigor. Like some similarly oriented instructors, she dislikes the word itself. At one point, she tweeted out the Merriam-Webster definition of “rigor,” which starts with “harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment” before mentioning acts of cruelty and, yes, rigor mortis.

Still, Sorensen-Unruh remembers seeing it differently. In 2009 she overhauled her teaching approach to fully embrace active learning. Sorensen-Unruh was convinced by the evidence that this approach was better for learning. Adopting it, however, meant she wouldn’t be able to cover as much content in her courses as she had before. And that, she worried, might make her courses less rigorous.

The shift to active learning led Sorensen-Unruh to wrestle with her understanding of rigor. Was covering all of the content the right goal? No, she decided. Some of what she’d built into her courses to uphold rigor really amounted to busywork.

Sorensen-Unruh has continued to think it over, and here’s where she’s landed: “I think rigor is a gatekeeping mechanism,” she says. “I don’t mind the word ‘standards.’” As a chemistry instructor, Sorensen-Unruh knows students must carry content and skills from one course to the next. But “rigor,” she thinks, gives professors permission to push students in ways that don’t really further that goal.

It’s probably safe to say that most professors don’t intend to invoke the stiffened limbs of a corpse when they use the term “rigor.” It’s meant more as a synonym for “challenging,” “difficult,” or “hard.”

Difficulty is sometimes seen as an end in itself in higher ed. Indeed, people who suggest doing anything to make college easier for students to navigate are bound to hear the objection that they’re dumbing it down.

But some forms of challenge support learning; others are arbitrary obstacles that may well hinder it.

Here’s how Kevin Gannon draws the distinction. Courses can be difficult intellectually; they can be difficult logistically. Professors sometimes conflate the two, imagining that content and policies move together. But they need not, says Gannon, who directs the teaching center at Grand View University, where he is also a professor of history.

An intellectually difficult course hits the notes that most people will nod along with: It challenges students’ assumptions, spurs their motivation, requires their effort, increases their skills. Intellectually difficult courses push students to learn.

A logistically difficult course has strict policies about when and how work is produced and evaluated. During the pandemic, many professors sought to decrease the logistical demands they put on students, relaxing their policies about how work was produced and when it was handed in. This was intended to make students’ lives easier, and probably it did. But that doesn’t necessarily mean students learned less or produced weaker work.

From this vantage point, flexible course policies might not be at odds with demanding rigor, as the terms of the debate are often delineated. But intellectual rigor turns out to be tricky to pin down.

Some forms of challenge support students’ learning; others are arbitrary obstacles that may well hinder it.

That’s something Jamiella Brooks (who coined the term “rigor wars”) and Julie McGurk described in a conference session at the POD Network Conference this past fall. Brooks, an associate director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Pennsylvania, and McGurk, director of faculty teaching initiatives at Yale University’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, don’t think rigor is a bad teaching goal. Indeed, they argue that having high standards for students communicates the professor’s belief in their abilities, which helps students succeed. This is especially important, they note, for students categorized as members of minority groups.

Instead, the faculty developers think that professors often rely on the wrong information as evidence they’ve achieved rigor. Grading on a bell curve, they argue, doesn’t prove a course is rigorous. It compares students with their classmates, but doesn’t demonstrate what they know or learned. Neither does assigning a lot of work: There’s no strong correlation between learning and the quantity of information taken in or repeated back. Yet much of the evidence of rigor comes down to either grades or time on task.

The presentation on rigor, Brooks reflected some months after the conference, provoked a larger reaction than any other session she’s participated in. Professors are clearly hungry to make sense of these questions. Brooks and McGurk are sometimes asked to define rigor, but they decline. Rigor, they think, is too context-specific. It’s something professors have to work out for themselves.

How do they go about that? The best evidence that students have been challenged in a meaningful way, some professors have found, comes from the students themselves.

Jessica Zeller, an associate professor of dance at Texas Christian University who teaches both studio and theory courses, says that students will tell you a course is rigorous through both words and behavior. If a course challenges students in the best sense of the word, she says, students will say so. They’ll come to class. They’ll be engaged. The class will gel, and work collaboratively.

Despite the many biases found in course evaluations, Sonal Khullar, an art historian who is an associate professor of South Asian studies at Penn, has found they can provide useful evidence that she’s hit the mark on rigor. Khullar was surprised to hear grades, assignments, and standards held up as key evidence of rigor. “I measure it by their own standards,” Khullar says. The goal isn’t for students to hit some benchmark she has set; it’s for them to improve.

Khullar thinks that flexibility and understanding can coexist with challenging students. To Khullar, that means pushing even novice art-history students to analyze works of art, not simply memorize slides, as has long been the norm in her discipline. In the comments section of the course evaluation, a student once wrote that Khullar had “handled a classroom with graduate students, art-history majors, and students from other intellectual backgrounds with care and rigor.”

It’s not just individual instructors who see students’ take on whether they were challenged as an important piece of evidence. Alexander C. McCormick, who recently retired as director of the National Survey of Student Engagement, describes adding a question about this to the survey, in part because other measures meant to get at academic challenge, like the quantity of work a course required, didn’t seem to capture it. In 2013, NSSE began asking students: “During the current school year, to what extent have your courses challenged you to do your best work?”

Earlier in his teaching career, John Warner, an author and consultant who’s taught writing for many years, associated rigor with rules. He used to tell students he’d dock them if they neglected to staple their pages. He never followed through on that threat, he says. But it illustrates that one purpose of course policies is to help professors manage their own — sometimes overwhelming — workloads.

Later, Warner found himself pondering what rigor meant in the context of writing. He’s a writer. He asked himself, “When do I work my hardest on something?” The answer: When he’s interested, or when “the stakes feel meaningful to me.”

Letting students pursue something they cared about, Warner figured, would lead to better work than anything he could cajole through grades “or even praise and feedback.”

That aligns with Warner’s project of teaching students the attitudes and habits of mind employed by writers, which he calls the writer’s practice (the title of one of his books). Those processes can be learned, but not imposed.

But that vision of rigor, Warner thinks, is out of step with many traditional classroom practices. A focus on grades, for example, can encourage students to avoid risk, pursuing a less-ambitious project they can polish up over something that stretches them.

Warner, for his part, has moved to ungrading: a natural fit for a writing course — and for an instructor who sees himself as a bit of a higher-education outsider, for all of his years of teaching.

It’s possible, then, that rigor is a bit of a red herring. Maybe the “rigor wars” are really about how much stock professors put in the status quo.

Most professors aim to both support and challenge their students. It’s just that some of them think the standard structures of higher ed work toward those goals— and others aren’t so sure.





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