Rigor: It’s Not About How Hard You Work

Rigor is a word I hear a lot these days in higher ed, but I’m not always sure it’s one that is well understood.  There tends to be a lot of talk about what makes curriculum rigorous and a lot of people say that they have built a “tough” course to take. Defining rigor is difficult though.  It’s also very common when I’m pushing faculty to develop more rigorous courses that they worry about drowning their students in work.  They are worried about making courses that are too tough for students to take.  On the other end, there are those who say that a lack of rigor is killing academia.

The thing is, from an education standpoint, rigor doesn’t mean “tough.”

Think of it this way.  If I drown a student in a hundred multiplication tables it’s tough, but it’s not rigorous.  If students are given a five page chapter summary where they are expected to outline the key points, the professor has issued a time intensive assignment to complete, but how hard is it to summarize? 

Rigor, as applied to education, is less about how hard students are working, and more about how hard students are thinking.  Check out this publication for a good overview (pages 1-5)  Think about Bloom’s taxonomy: For instance, if students are always working at the lower depths of knowledge (remembering information and demonstrating understanding of facts), how will they become critical thinkers?  If we spend all day asking students to describe how nurses should interact with patients and doctors, what will happen when we ask them to evaluate a nurse’s actions in a case study of hypothetical interactions in a hospital? 

Rigor is about dragging students out of their comfort zones, putting them in situations where they have to solve problems and challenging them to grow beyond the curriculum as they do it.

I bring this up because colleges are all different and, when employers are looking at a resume, the reputation of the institution that awarded the candidate’s degree matters.  Rigor is becoming a huge selling point for a lot of institutions, and online programs should be no different.  Frankly, successful students are the best marketing program any school can have, and it’s the variable we have the most control over because we decide the curriculum, design the learning environment, and influence how the knowledge and skills grow inside them.

With that in mind, I pulled together a few ideas for things that faculty can do to help drive rigor you could consider sharing as you see appropriate:

  • Ensure that there is a summative assignment that assesses learning objectives throughout the course, challenges students with higher-level cognitive skills, and design the activity to be practical and relevant to the real world so students can apply what they’ve learned to broader problems.
  • Make students take a stand on something and defend it in a discussion forum using relevant data – forcing them to evaluate and analyze multiple sources.  If you’re lucky, somebody’s going to change their minds on a topic too, always a win.
  • Have students plan out and manage broad projects, evaluate the actions of others in their field, provide feedback to their peers. They’ll be doing this in the workspace, why not get started now?
  • Instead of a final exam, give students a final case study where they’re asked to solve a problem with no right answer. By forcing students to find their own way (while communicating clear expectations) you’ll get them out of their comfort zone and you might get some interesting responses along the way.

I’m sure you’d agree that students can – and want to – do the work, as long as it is worthwhile.  What do you think are the biggest challenges to pushing for rigor in higher ed?  How do you coach your faculty towards more rigorous instruction?


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