Thursday, March 06, 2014


I've been surrounded by discussions of rigor lately. In academia, rigor seems always to go hand in hand with quality. Degree programs, departments, courses, and assignments which are deemed more "rigorous" are also seen as better. Aside from an often glaring lack of rigor in the definition of "rigor" itself, I suspect that using rigor as a proxy for quality is often misguided.

A post from Dean Dad raises many of these issues. He writes,

Which is more rigorous: a program with all required and prescribed classes, or a program with a host of electives? 
The correct answer is that the question doesn’t make sense.  It’s like asking whether red cars are faster than blue cars.  Academic rigor and freedom of choice are unrelated.  One can choose very easy classes, very difficult classes, or a mix.  A program can require very easy classes, very hard classes, or a mix.  And that’s before getting into non-objective definitions of rigor. 
That should be common sense.  But nearly every year I find myself arguing with people who believe that rigor is about control.  It’s frustrating, because the underlying assumptions -- and therefore definitions -- are different, so we wind up talking past each other.
The idea of a longer required sequence of courses, a longer list of required readings, a longer required essay, etc. strikes many academics as obviously more rigorous and, therefore, better. I have failed many times in discussions with colleagues to shift them from this way of thinking. Quality and quantity are rarely so easily linked.

The real effect of these sorts of mechanical methods of increasing rigor may simply be to make the work load less possible and/or less palatable for many students. Students who are struggling academically, students with less natural talent for reading and writing, students who have to spend more time working for a wage, or students with other compelling intellectual interests, all may fail when rigor is increased in this way. This looks like what has been achieved is making your program/class/assignment more selective since fewer successfully complete it. True enough. But finding the breaking point beyond which only the most academically gifted and well supported students can succeed is very different from fostering excellence in education. In fact, it may be a sign of just the opposite. If the only students who succeed are the most talented ones, that's not very compelling evidence for the quality of our instruction. If one gave voice lessons, but the only students who passed your course were already Grammy winners, it's not clear you're doing much good for your students. They would all sing wonderfully no matter what you were teaching. That we can teach things to wonderful students does not really say much about our teaching skills.

Instead, the goal of rigor starts to feel a bit like a form of academic hazing. We add more required readings, more and longer writing assignments, more and more difficult exams, and the result of this increased work load is called "rigor." We weed out the students unable or unwilling to suffer enough. Making something difficult and making something good are different goals. Strangely enough, making something difficult is easy, and we tend to do that well in academia. Making something good is much harder, and creating an environment where learning is facilitated is much more difficult than creating an environment where learning is hard. A fallacy of composition no doubt lurks somewhere behind many of our discussions of academic rigor.

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