The Problem with Rigor

David Trend

“It’s Time to Cancel the Word Rigor,” read a recent headline in the respected Chronicle of Higher Education.[1]  The article detailed growing concerns about hidden bias within what many see as conventional teaching practices. Here, “rigor” was taken to task for throwing roadblocks up for some students more than others, even as its exact meaning remains vague. Webster’s Dictionary defines rigor as “severity, strictness or austerity,” which educators often translate into difficult courses and large amounts of work, rationalized in the interest of excellence and high standards.[2]

While there is nothing wrong with challenging coursework, per se, this interpretation of rigor often becomes a recipe for failure for otherwise intelligent and hardworking students.  Such failures can result when rigor is used to incentivize or stratify students, as in gateway or “weed out” courses with prescribed grading targets, or situations where faculty overuse tests as motivation. Rigor discussions I have witnessed rarely consider instructional quality, teaching effectiveness, or principles of learning. Instead faculty complain about poor student attention, comprehension, or commitment. As the Chronicle explains, “all credit or blame falls on individual students, when often it is the academic system that creates the constructs, and it’s the system we should be questioning when it erects barriers for students to surmount or make them feel that they don’t belong.”[3]

Rigor advantages already privileged students, much in the same way admissions do. Students with high academic literacy, or skills in navigating rules and routines do better. Students with money, strong social support, and families with advanced degrees have advantages as well. The absence of any of these can turn rigor into discrimination, as can challenges like working while in school, caring for family members, or negotiating multilingual learning.  This also occurs among students with disabilities and first generation students.

The inequities of rigor can be tempered with added guidance and support for student learning. Well conveyed lessons, expressed in a step-by-step manner, with clear expectations and grading criteria provide what educators term “scaffolding.” Potentially inequitable practices like high values exams and harsh deadlines can be replaced by skill building assignments and flexible due dates. My own experience has shown that students quickly respond when this type of “asset-based” encouragement is used instead of “deficit-based” coercion. Underlying asset-based instruction is the conviction that all students are capable of success –– a view supported by decades of academic research.[4]

Admittedly, not everyone agrees with this. Many professors still see college as a proving ground, with grade pressure an important tool. Unfortunately this kind of thinking has backfired in many fields, making students more concerned about test scores than knowledge itself. This also explains why so many students and their families now see higher education as overpriced, unfair, and out of touch. According to the Harvard Business Review, “Instead of boosting meritocracy, universities reinforce inequality” through internal structures of advantage and disadvantage.[5]

As a public university, UC Irvine takes a different approach. Like other selective schools, the campus recognizes the hard work and competence of students it admits, and expects them excel without the threat of failure. For that reason most large undergraduate courses set no limits on high grades, with student success seen as a indicator of good teaching. True rigor is accomplished when students willingly and enthusiastically engage the courses they have chosen, the acquisition of  knowledge its own reward. While gateway classes have a role in certain fields, I believe that courses with high failure rates contradict institutional commitments of providing a comprehensive education to all students.

Now more than ever, it’s time to concentrate on student equity and wellbeing. With levels of student anxiety and depression at all time highs, educators need to recognize the role of teaching in student mental health. Currently, one in three students report difficulties in studying due to anxiety or depression –– a number so high that student health services can’t keep up.[6]   While socioeconomic factors and  COVID 19  partly may be to blame, nearly all students cite academic pressures and stress leading “to feelings of isolation, low accomplishment, and depression,” according to the World Economic Forum.[7]   Add to this that one in four college students now report suicidal thoughts.[8]  With stakes like this, its time for higher education to put the brakes on grade pressure and competition. It’s time to cancel the word rigor.

[1] “It’s Time to Cancel the Word Rigor,” Chronicle of Higher Education (Sep. 24, 2021) https://www.chronicle.com/article/its-time-to-cancel-the-word-rigor (Mar. 21, 2022)

[2] “Rigor,” Miriam Webster (2022) https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/rigor (accessed Mar. 22, 2022).

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Why Do It? Research on Inclusive Teaching,” University of Michigan (2022) https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/inclusive-teaching/home/research-on-inclusive-teaching/ (accessed Mar. 23, 2022)

[5] Tomas Chamorro-Premuzik and Becky Frankiewicz, “6 Reasons Why Higher Education Needs to be Disrupted,” Harvard Business Review (Nov. 19, 2019) https://hbr.org/2019/11/6-reasons-why-higher-education-needs-to-be-disrupted (accessed Mar. 22, 2022).

[6] Eliza Abdu-Glass, “The College Mental Health Crisis: A Call for Cultural Change,” Clay Center for Young Health Minds (2022) https://www.mghclaycenter.org/parenting-concerns/college-mental-health-crisis-call-cultural-change-part-2/ (accessed Mar. 22, 2022).

[7]  Jamaal Abdul Alin and Alvin Buyinza, “Stressed out at college? Here are five essential reads on how to take better care of your mental health,” World Economic Forum (Jan. 26, 2022) https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/01/mental-health-college-university-stress-wellbeing/ (accessed Mar. 22, 2022).

[8] Aneri Pattani, “Colleges are turning to science to limit suicide contagion and help heal campuses,” NPR (Nov. 16, 2021) https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/11/16/1055970305/college-suicide-prevention-science (accessed Mar. 22, 2022).

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