Defining rigor in a college course

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

Photo by ICSA on

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.

Learning to see sociological patterns in Intro to Sociology

An Introduction to Sociology course could be renamed “Introduction to Seeing Structural Patterns in Society.” For those not used to looking at the world with this particular lens, such a class can be an education. I recall being in this position as an undergraduate and feeling the challenge; how can you see and understand the world from a structural perspective?

Photo by Pixabay on

After concluding another semester teaching Intro to Soc, I realize I approach structural patterns in this class in at least three ways:

  1. Read and discuss sociological research deploying this perspective. The readings we do in this class range from early work to recent monographs that examine particular social forces. The readings tackle big issues in society that are far beyond the influence or experience of a single individual. The methods the sociologists employ, including surveys, interviews, ethnographic observations, and historical analysis, examine broader patterns and not just individual cases or single case studies. From DuBois highlighting “the veil” and “double consciousness” in his own life and in American society to Rendón discussing the difficulty of young Mexican men in Los Angeles obtaining the American Dream,
  2. Continually contrast structural perspective to a more individualistic view. As we discuss different topics, I often compare the ways we might individually experience life and particular social phenomena and the collective experience. Additionally, a common American individualistic approach – my decisions explain my circumstances – provides a foil to a sociological perspective. Even as we enact our own agency, we do so within conditions not entirely of our own making (as Marx suggested).
  3. Provide multiple opportunities for students to practice deploying structural perspectives. Some of the assignments I have throughout the semester ask students to connect their own experiences to sociological analysis. To do this, they need to step outside of themselves to see the bigger picture. Is their experience typical, different, and how might a sociological theory or concept explain it? As Mills suggested, history and biography come together in “the sociological imagination.”

By the end of all of this, I hope students will be able to use this sociological lens in different situations. Even as many will not be sociology majors, their work in different disciplines and a variety of careers could be enhanced by thinking sociologically with an emphasis on large-scale patterns and forces.

Why I am excited to teach in Fall 2020

Starting up college classes in Fall 2020 is a difficult and uncertain task. Many decisions and much planning has gone into schools starting up or getting close to starting again. Here is why I am excited to be back in the classroom to start classes this next week:

Image capture from “Why Study Sociology and Anthropology at Wheaton?
  1. I am always excited for learning to begin. There is much for all of us to learn; the well-worn phrase “the more you learn, the less you know” (or some variation) is true. The start of a new class marks the beginning of a process by which an instructor and students learn together. There are a lot of other things that colleges and universities are now about but learning is at the heart of the mission. Teaching many classes at the undergraduate level means that the courses are just the start of what could become life-long conversations or projects yet there is potential to spark new interests or paths or epiphanies. Even though I have taught each of my two classes this fall semester more than ten times each, I am excited to share the material, ways of thinking, and skills with new sets of students. We have minds and bodies and we are called to put them to use in learning and then applying or living out that knowledge.
  2. Learning together. Learning is not only a solitary task; it comes to full fruition when done in community. Over sixteen weeks of classes, we will get to know each other a little better, hear alternative perspectives, and consider what it all means. Since my institution is smaller, I can know every student’s name, run into people on campus, and find opportunities to link broader or structural concepts to individual experiences. Even with masks this semester or going virtual for the second half of the Spring 2020 semester, we can build relationships during class discussions, through assignments, and outside of class. By the end of the semester, it is hard to let go of a class as an instructor prepares to start the process all over again the next term.
  3. This is a critical time to address issues in society and in our world. One of the reasons I enjoy sociology is that is always applies to current circumstances and now is no different with COVID-19, a presidential election cycle, conversation and action about race, changing economies and cultures, and more. Classrooms provide spaces to explore what is happening from a particular disciplinary lens and since sociology examines all aspects of human behavior, there is much to consider (much more than we can do in any 16 week semester!). There is much for us to apply the sociological imagination to. And with a shared faith commitment on our campus, we can connect sociology’s (or other disciplines) approach to the world to our religious beliefs, belonging, and behavior.
  4. Getting back to some sort of routine. COVID-19 has disrupted a lot of daily patterns. As my campus gets back to on-campus classes, we hopefully we be able to settle into a rhythm and structure that helps us nudge us in positive directions. Living in chaotic or uncertain times is difficult for humans; we need routines and patterns. The academic calendar is one such pattern that does much to structure my own life through my own educational experiences plus now teaching. By the time August starts, I am ready for the school year to start up even as I am grateful for the change that summer brings with a more flexible schedule and time for research.

The Common Core and college instruction

Here is a nice overview of how the new national Common Core standards for K-12 might intersect with college instruction and learning. Here are a brief overview:

Those adjustments, if the Common Core vision is realized, could transform dual enrollment programs, placement tests, and remediation. They could force colleges within state systems, and even across states, to agree on what it means to be “college ready,” and to work alongside K-12 to help students who are unprepared for college before they graduate from high school. In the long run, it could force changes in credit-bearing courses too, to better align with what students are supposed to have mastered by high school graduation. While the effects will be most obvious at public institutions of higher education, private colleges, particularly those with broad access missions, will feel the effects as well.

Still, although a few states have seized the standards to develop “P-20” systems — stretching from pre-kindergarten through graduate school — progress has been slow in many others. In 2010, as the standards were being developed, policy makers touted the effect they could have in bringing together K-12 and higher education. And they pointed out that the ultimate success of the standards, particularly beyond K-12, will depend on whether colleges are willing to change placement and remediation criteria and work together to determine what “readiness” really means.

In some cases, that’s coming to pass. Three years later, proponents for the standards are arguing that they have already changed the way K-12 and postsecondary education interact — at least by putting the leaders of each system in the same room together and forcing states to collaborate.

And there is a little bit of a disconnect between what high school teachers say they are doing and what college educators perceive:

ACT’s most recent survey, released last week, looked at the gap between high school and college expectations for students. It found that only 26 percent of college faculty thought that students entered their classrooms prepared for college-level work. High school teachers gave themselves much higher marks. Nearly all — 89 percent — said they had prepared their students well for college.

There is going to be a lot more discussion about this in the years ahead.

Teaching sociology online influenced by reading student’s online comments

Sociologist Mitchell Duneier writes about how his online teaching was enriched and influenced by the comments students posted online:

My opening discussion of C. Wright Mills’s classic 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination, was a close reading of the text, in which I reviewed a key chapter line by line. I asked students to follow along in their own copies, as I do in the lecture hall. When I give this lecture on the Princeton campus, I usually receive a few penetrating questions. In this case, however, within a few hours of posting the online version, the course forums came alive with hundreds of comments and questions. Several days later there were thousands.

Although it was impossible for me to read even a fraction of the pages of students’ comments as they engaged with one another, the software allowed me to take note of those that generated the most discussion. I was quickly able to see the issues that were most meaningful to my students…

With so much volume, my audience became as visible to me as the students in a traditional lecture hall. This happened as I got to know them by sampling their comments on the forums and in the live, seminar-style discussions. As I developed a sense for them as people, I could imagine their nods and, increasingly, their critical questions. Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars…

Nor had I imagined the virtual and real-time continuous interaction among the students. There were spontaneous and continuing in-person study groups in coffee shops in Katmandu and in pubs in London. Many people developed dialogues after following one another’s posts on various subjects, while others got to know those with a common particular interest, such as racial differences in IQ, the prisoner abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib, or ethnocentrism—all topics covered in the lectures.

A few thoughts about Duneier’s discussion of online comments about his lectures:

1. It is good to hear that some online comments can be rewarding and constructive. It is hard to be positive about such interactions when so many online discussions involve yelling past each other. I imagine there might have been some negative or less constructive comments but perhaps people were more restrained knowing they were part of an online class. In other words, the commentators had more of a stake in the conversations.

2. I am intrigued by the idea that Duneier got more feedback from this than in “a career of teaching.” I don’t know if this says more about the potential of online feedback or the lack of feedback and interaction in a traditional classroom.

3. Could there be a way to efficiently sort through such comments? Duneier suggests he was able to see what students cared about most by looking at which threads generated more discussion. But does simply having more responses indicate a more substantive discussion?

4. I wonder at the end of this: does Duneier think teaching online is a superior or equal experience to teaching at Princeton? It certainly is different…but how does it compare?

In response to criticism, sociologist argues academics need to explain better what they do

A recent Washington Post op-ed suggested college faculty do not work hard enough:

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.

If the higher education community were to adjust its schedules and semester structure so that teaching faculty clocked a 40-hour week (roughly 20 hours of class time and equal time spent on grading, preparation and related duties) for 11 months, the enhanced efficiency could be the equivalent of a dramatic budget increase. Many colleges would not need tuition raises or adjustments to public budget priorities in the near future. The vacancies created by attrition would be filled by the existing faculty’s expanded teaching loads — from 12 to 15 hours a week to 20, and from 30 weeks to 48; increasing teachers’ overall classroom impact by 113 percent to 167 percent.

Critics may argue that teaching faculty members require long hours for preparation, grading and advising. Therefore they would have us believe that despite teaching only 12 to 15 hours a week, their workloads do approximate those of other upper-middle-class professionals. While time outside of class can vary substantially by discipline and by the academic cycle (for instance, more papers and tests to grade at the end of a semester), the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth. And whatever the weekly hours may be, there is still the 30-week academic year, which leaves almost 22 weeks for vacation or additional employment.

One article about the subsequent conversation regarding the op-ed quotes sociologist Jerry Jacobs talking about how academics do not explain their jobs to the public well:

Faculty-baiting might exist because people have certain perceptions of how college professors operate, some experts said. “I do not think we do a good job of explaining what we do,” said Jerry Jacobs, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Jacobs, who has researched faculty life, said that students often graduate from research universities without a clear understanding of what a professor’s job entails. “Meanwhile people see that the costs of college are going up and to them, faculty at colleges don’t seem to work 40 hours a week like high school teachers do,” he said.

In a 2004 article in the Sociological Forum, Jacobs found that full-time faculty members spend an average of just above 50 hours a week working. The data for his analysis came from the 1998 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty by the U.S. Department of Education and the faculty sample included 819 colleges and universities. “As a point of comparison, the average work week for men in the U. S. labor force is 43 hours per week and 37 for women. About one-quarter of men work in the labor force work over 50 hours per week (26.5 percent), along with one in ten women (11.3 percent),” Jacobs said. Many academics, of course, report working far more than 50 hours a week — and for adjuncts, the pay is a fraction of the figures cited by Levy, and many work without health or retirement benefits, or any job security.

It may be a job with some more flexibility than other jobs but there is certainly plenty of work for academics invested in their classrooms, research, and schools.

So what would Jacobs say academics should do? How can we explain to the public what academic life is like?

One option is to tie our roles to helping prepare students for jobs. However, this downplays aspects that aren’t as clearly vocational.

Another option: be more clear with students about what we do and how we do it. Instead of making our jobs like “black boxes” that are mysterious and capricious, explain what we are doing as we go along. Why should our students learn about a particular topic? Why do we grade the way we do? What do we do when we put together a research paper? I’ve tried some of these strategies and while students don’t seem overjoyed, some do appear to appreciate hearing the process behind it.

A third option would be to more clearly relate our teaching and research to everyday life, whether this is in the classroom or the community. While public sociology might be a sort of trendy term, it could help show people why what we do matters. We don’t just sit around and write for ten other academics; in our research we are hoping to draw attention to particular issues, influence public policy, help people who care about the topics, and interact with others who are also interested.

Fourth, we could defend the classroom experience. It is not easy to effectively impart knowledge and wisdom to other and to lead discussions. These days, it might be cheaper to do more online learning but something is missing, the community and atmosphere that can come from being in a classroom where both the instructor and students are engaged. This sort of criticism also is often leveled at teachers: “anyone could teach these lessons.” I don’t think everyone could.

The effect of motivation on IQ scores, standardized tests

A study suggests that IQ tests are not just testing intelligence but are also indicators of the test taker’s motivation:

The link between our IQs and our fates becomes muddier when we consider motivation – an aspect of test-taking that is often ignored. Simply put, some people try harder in IQ tests than others. If you take this into account, the association between your IQ and your success in life becomes considerably weaker. The tests are not measuring intelligence alone, but also the desire to prove it.

Many standardized tests assume that the people who take them are alert and motivated. As such, their scores reflect the height of their abilities. IQ tests are no different. The questions are ordered by difficulty to keep people’s morale up. Edward Thorndike, a pioneer of intelligence testing, wrote that “all our measurements assume that the individual in question tries as hard as he can to make as high a score as possible”, although he admitted that no one knew if that was the case…

Duckworth herself recognizes that people who actually administer the tests will be well aware of the issue of motivation. She says, “Where the problem lies, in our view, is in the interpretation of IQ scores by economists, sociologists, and research psychologists who have not witnessed variation in test motivation firsthand. [They] might erringly assume that a low IQ score invariably indicates low intelligence.”

Is this view common? Sternberg thinks so, pointing to the fact that Duckworth’s study was newsworthy enough to be published in PNAS, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals. “[This shows] how off-track our society has gone in its acceptance of commercial persuasive appeals to buy into standardized tests as some kind of panacea for predicting almost any outcome in life that we value.

I would be interested in hearing more about what helps determine a test-taker’s motivation. This report hints at this: “motivation is itself affected by a person’s background, and their beliefs in their future options and their chances of success.” This sounds like it is tied to social class and might fit with Annette Lareau’s work regarding the “concerted cultivation” of middle- and upper-class parenting versus the “natural growth” approach taken by lower-class parents.

The last two paragraphs of the quoted section above gets at two broader issues: academics (including sociologists?) who might take IQ tests as signs of intelligence and the public’s faith in standardized testing. I can’t imagine too many sociologists would say that IQ tests are a great measure of intelligence but the larger issue regarding standardized testing is an important one. But if standardized tests are also picking up the effect of motivation, is this necessarily bad – wouldn’t higher levels of motivation be seen as a good thing for most uses of standardized tests?

Additionally, I think I have heard of elementary school teachers trying to boost the motivation levels of students for standardized tests. But does the same thing happen at higher levels, like high school or college? Is this something that college professors should pay more attention to?

Students suffer withdrawal in a one day media blackout

Professors and teachers can often provide anecdotal evidence of how students react when told that smartphones (and other devices like laptops) are not to be used in the classroom. A new study suggests that the problem isn’t really the classroom: simply not having these devices at all could the issue.

Researchers found that 79 per cent of students subjected to a complete media blackout for just one day reported adverse reactions ranging from distress to confusion and isolation.

In vivid accounts, they told of overwhelming cravings, with one saying they were ‘itching like a crackhead [crack cocaine addict]’.

The study focused on people aged between 17 and 23 in ten countries, including the UK, where about 150 students at Bournemouth University spent 24 hours banned from using phones, social networking sites, the internet and TV.

They were allowed to use landline phones or read books and were asked to keep a diary.

One in five reported feelings of withdrawal akin to an addiction while 11 per cent said they were confused or felt like a failure.

Nearly one in five (19 per cent) reported feelings of distress and 11 per cent felt isolated. Just 21 per cent said they could feel the benefits of being unplugged.

Some students took their mobile phone with them just to touch them.

While some of these symptoms don’t seem as bad as others, it is interesting that only 21% “could feel the benefits” of being “unplugged.” These devices and SNS tools really have become necessities in a short amount of time.

In reactions to this study, it would be interesting to see whether people advocate a complete move away from such technology because of these possible dangerous side effects or if people suggest more moderate usage. But if usage is really is an addiction, then moderate usage could still be an issue. I would like to see a follow-up to this study that examines a longer-term media blackout – how long does it take for students to readjust to life without all this media and then what would be their thoughts about what they might be missing (or gaining)?

22 possible ways of assessing a course

Assessment is an important issue in schools of all levels today. On the college level, there is a growing emphasis on collecting data about particular courses and programs and then assessing whether these courses and programs met critical goals and then using that data to improve what is being offered.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has put together 22 different assessment measurements for a hypothetical college course. Broken into three categories, the instructor, during the course, and after the course, this table quickly suggests how easy or difficult it is to collect the data and then the limitations of each measure.

Just looking at this chart, here is what one could take away from it:

1. It is relatively easy to assess the qualifications of the instructor.

2. Measurement during the course appears easier than after the course.

3. A key issue with the after the course data is that it is difficult to determine exactly what impact one particular course had when students take other courses as well and get educational input outside of courses.

4. It appears that a variety of data would be useful to help avoid the limitations of individual measures.

5. Assessment can be a time-consuming and complex task.

Teach from the newspapers

A physics professor at Iowa State suggests that schools should move beyond textbooks and instead teach material based on current news stories:

I have a suggestion for Iowa schools: Don’t buy those [Texas-influenced] textbooks. Instead, buy local and state newspapers as reading material in sociology, history and literature courses. Buy paperback books from bookstores. Let our students read real news, in real time, and let them confront opinion pages and conflicting viewpoints.

An interesting argument. There is certainly plenty of material in newspapers and news magazines that could be used in the classroom. I am particularly intrigued by the suggestion he makes that students should be asked to fill in the “missing information” in a news story – this could work in a number of subject as journalists often leave out much of the relevant backstory.

Another added benefit of this technique (even in limited use): students see that the specific discipline is relevant in the real world. I think a lot of them ask this basic question and linking discipline-specific content to real stories suggests the course can be or is valuable to them rather than just a requirement to fulfill.