The Rigor Dilemma

Dear faculty,

I attend monthly meetings with all the faculty development directors in the CSU, and during our last meeting one of them shared a newsletter from the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “Teaching: A Different Way of Thinking About Rigor” (Supiano, 2021).

The author mentions the rigor wars that have originated among faculty as a consequence of the pandemic and how different camps seem to have reached irreconcilable differences in this debate: should we still thrive for rigor or should we abandon it completely?

In her attempt to reframe the debate in a more nuanced fashion, Supiano shares three important principles discussed by Jamiella Brooks (associate director at the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Pennsylvania) and Julie McGurk, (director of faculty teaching initiatives at Yale University’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning):

  • “Rigor, when defined apart from a deficit ideology, is necessary to teach more inclusively.
  • Inadequate definitions of rigor produce poorer learning outcomes, particularly for underrepresented and/or underserved students.
  • Rigor is not hard for the sake of being hard; it is purposeful and transparent.” (Supiano, 2021)

The principle that mostly resonated with me is the last one: rigor for the sake of rigor – harshness for the sake of harshness – is meaningless. I was educated in a similar environment, in European high schools and Colleges where old male professors lectured for hours. I confess: that approach worked well for me. I always loved learning and reading, and I loved the academic and intellectual conversations.

But the question is: should we really measure what successful and equitable learning is based on what worked for us – a bunch of scholars who love spending time reading and doing research and never or rarely struggled in class? If we are designing our courses based on what worked for us, we are probably missing the mark, and by a long shot, I must say.

So, I hope this Tuesday Tip invites us all to reconsider what purposeful rigor can look like and how we can create high expectations for our students without alienating them.

Comment on our blog and share your experience in creating high expectations for students that still promote an inclusive learning environment!