On the Question of "Rigor" in Higher Education

Sent: September 21, 2023

From: Vincent J. Del Casino, Jr., Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs

Dear Colleagues,

As we move further into the semester, I wanted to reach out and offer some thoughts on the topic of “academic rigor.” The definition of academic rigor is elusive, even as many of us use it with a fair amount of regularity. For some, rigor rests as a core principle of our project as academics and educators. After all, why would we not want students to be challenged by high expectations that demand a certain amount of discipline and focus. On the flip side, academic rigor can be used as an informal (or sometimes formal) “assessment metric” that helps faculty maintain a spread of course grades amongst students or differentiate between students who, to the eyes of the educator, appear more committed to their education. My concern comes to how concepts, such as academic rigor, can reinforce equity gaps, as many students need to learn not only the core concepts in their courses but the hidden curriculum and culture of higher education. 

Of course, I am not the first person to think about this question. Jordynn Jack and Viji Sathy, for example, recently wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Far too many faculty members still think a challenging course should be like an obstacle race: You, as the instructor, set up the tasks and each student has to finish them (or not) to a certain standard and within a set time. If only a few students can do it, that means the course is rigorous.” They go on to argue that such practices lay the responsibility of success solely in the hands of the individual student and not in the collective organization that admitted and, therefore, committed to their students. William Duffy has also written recently on this topic in Inside Higher Education, stating, 

“I have no doubt that most educators who are thoughtful about what they perceive as a lack of rigor in the classroom ultimately have their students’ best interests in mind. But the problem is that their perceptions of students’ best interests are their perceptions, not necessarily the students’. Our expertise as educators certainly gives us a level of authority that students can and should benefit from, but when we use that authority to police students instead of giving them the resources to learn and experiment and take risks, we are locked in a performance -- one that unfortunately forces our students to play along.”

I am not suggesting this is how faculty see and deploy the concept of academic rigor here at SJSU. But I do know that as we continue to strive to close our equity gaps and address the systemic challenges associated with student success, we have to be open to evaluating our own practices as educators. We have to avoid language that argues, for example, that we are “dumbing down” our curriculum when we talk about alternative assessment strategies or that we are “admitting students who are not prepared” when we expand access to a greater number of qualified CSU students. We have to determine if what we are doing in the classroom is really supporting student learning. We have to ask: are there pedagogical approaches that help students see themselves in their education that also allow us, as educators, to determine if students have met the core learning outcomes of our courses and programs? In asking this question, we might begin to realize that there are ways to assess student learning that empower students to take control of their own learning and invest in their education in deeper ways. This is not how many of us were trained as graduate students ourselves, so it takes additional effort and professional development to adjust our classroom practices, something I am very committed to supporting. 

Fortunately, we have many examples of this sort of work on our campus and in the broader academy. Here are just a few:

Ungrading and Gameful Learning
Backward Design
Changes in Course Structure to Address Equity Gaps
Student Voice and Choice; and 
Faculty-Student Collaborative Learning

There are even simpler tools we can deploy that challenge a narrow reading of academic rigor. We can provide space for our students to fail well and learn from those failures. We can provide some latitude on assignments when students have life experiences that get in the way. This is not, in any way, asking faculty to not hold students accountable. It is actually just the opposite: it is treating students like the adults they are, asking them to take responsibility while also acknowledging that open communication—from student to faculty member and vice versa—creates a healthy learning and living environment in support of our mission as a campus designed to serve the diverse students of the State of California and beyond.

I am sure folks will have lots to say about this topic. I encourage these ongoing conversations amongst your peers. As always, please reach out  if you have any direct thoughts to share.