Defining rigor in a college course

A discussion continues of what makes for a “rigorous” college course:

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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…

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…

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…

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…

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.

I am consistently surprised as a college instructor about how much could be in each class I teach. Regardless of the subject, there is always more we could get to or worth through. As noted in this article, a question about rigor can be expressed as the difference between covering content and applying that content or developing depth with that content. There can often be much knowledge to share and work with but applying and utilizing the knowledge is key. Thinking about Bloom’s Taxonomy can help guide classroom efforts.

I clearly remember how I experienced this as a K-12 and college student: the instructors who had high expectations but also provided the encouragement and the resources necessary to reach for those expectations.

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