By Melissa Wehler, PhD, Dean of Humanities and Sciences
When faculty members discuss academic rigor with their students, these conversations usually revolve around quantities of work that the student will perform: page requirements, number of exams, homework sets, and the like. Taking the faculty’s lead, students often place their emphasis on their output rather than on their input. The result is an ineffective essay that meets the seven-page requirement is better than an effective one that doesn’t. This “because I said so” nature of quantity-driven projects belies the reality of academic rigor. Academic rigor is not interested the quantity produced but rather is propelled by the quality of materials resulting from a thoughtful process.
To help students to understand the nature of academic rigor in our courses means demystifying the processes that go into creating the learning environment. Here are some best practices to help you talk to students about the role of academic rigor in your classroom:
Establish standards on the first day. In addition to relating policies on attendance or late work, the syllabus should also function as a guidebook for the course, including your standards and expectations for work. Give students a general sense of the quantity and quality of the work you expect during the term. Discuss the specific nature of the course (skills, content, level, type) and what it means for their work. Provide them with the information on support services and resources that will help them throughout the term.
Discuss the workload. Faculty members often quote the 2:1 ratio (two hours outside of class preparing, working, and studying for every hour in the class) when it comes to their expectations. While this general rule acts as a helpful yardstick, it does not necessarily capture the realities of academic work. Instead, discuss the course schedule and assignments with your students, noting specific times throughout the academic term where workloads will be light, moderate, and heavy. Explain what they can do to prepare for the workload differences throughout the term, how they can plan their other commitments around these times, and what they can do during them.
Explain the reasons for the requirements. Talk to students about the thinking process that went into creating the requirements for the assignment. Link the requirements to course learning outcomes and skills sets. Discuss how these requirements further their skill and knowledge sets. Demonstrate how they build on previous work and act as bridges to future work. These conversations help the students to move beyond the work “requirement” to see the value in those standards.
Emphasize the process. When faculty show interest in the learning process, students do, too. Build regular check-in points throughout the term, especially for larger assignments. Give an informal survey (such as the “start, stop, and stay”) to help gauge their progress. Provide resources at critical points in the term or project that will help them with difficult steps. Break up larger assignments with some formative assessments of their progress. Ask them to reflect on their process and progress thus far.
Support student work. Having rigorous standards in your classroom is important, but those standards can quickly become impossible expectations without your support. On the first day, review the support systems that students can use throughout the course to help them meet your standards. Provide additional resources that are specific to the unit, skill, or content being discussed. Introduce or invite support staff to the classroom to help with content or skills. Provide student models or other examples if appropriate.
Such conversations obviously benefit your students, but they also benefit your growth and development as a faculty member. Obviously, you will see the positive results in your classroom when students not only understand what they are do but also why they are being asked to do it in this way. Perhaps less obvious, however, is that by elucidating the definition and role of academic rigor for your students, you are also able to do so for yourself. These conversations ask you to reflect deeply and critically on the standards for academic work in your classroom. They help you to move beyond “because I said so” and into “and here’s why.”
About the Author
Dr. Melissa Wehler serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences and Professor of English at Central Penn College. Her academic writing has been published in several essay collections where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture. She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.