Talking about Academic Rigor with Students


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

13240559_10101056173646389_348591978591550789_nDr. 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.

Lunch & Learn Highlights: Classroom Management Techniques

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

Classroom management is a part of teaching that challenges new and seasoned educators alike. On Friday October 21, 2016, a group of 20 faculty members gathered for a roundtable discussion on classroom management techniques.

Lunch & Learn on Classroom Management TEchniques

Topics included handling classroom disruptions, handling classroom conflict, and maintaining student engagement. Here are some of the techniques, thoughts, and resources that were shared:

  • Don’t be static, move around the classroom
  • Let students know when behavior is factored into grading
  • Don’t let students dominate the conversation
  • Be prepared to help students understand the value in what they’re learning
  • Be proactive in managing behaviors that can incite conflict
  • Ask students what they’re interested in
  • Design engaging activities
  • Bring current events and other relevant information
  • Offer students choices
  • Share your personal experience with students

Additional Resources:

Central Penn College’s Lunch & Learn program is an opportunity for faculty to spend time together, share their experiences, and learn from one another. Watch your CPC email for future Lunch & Learn opportunities, we’d love to see you there!

In the meantime, join the conversation by sharing in the comments section; what are your favorite classroom management techniques?

Are You a Networked Educator?

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

I recently heard an interview with Dr. Bonnie Stewart and I became interested in her work on networked identity. Her words made me think deeply about the value of my personal and professional networks and the richness they bring to my world and to my teaching. My strength as an educator and the value that I have to offer my students is thanks in large part to my past experiences and the people that I know and learn from every day. It’s my responsibility as an educator to remember and reflect upon past learning experiences, to cultivate and maintain relationships, and to seek new opportunities for continued growth. I do this for myself, because I care about my relationships and I care about my career; I do this for my students because they are depending on me and I do not want to let them down.

If you are looking for ideas on how to be a more networked educator – start here:

Know who your mentor is…mentorship is for all stages of our careers and throughout our careers we may experience many mentors. If you do not currently have a trusted mentor, it’s time to find one. Mentorship begins with a relationship. Identify people who have achieved the success that you’d like to achieve and network with them, build a relationship, and learn.

Be active in your professional organizations…my favorite professional organization is having its annual conference in Philadelphia this year. When I went to register for the event, I learned that my membership had lapsed. How could this happen? Well, I moved last year! I forgot to change my address with the organization and I missed my renewal notice. If you haven’t interacted with or heard from your professional organization lately, check your membership. If you’re not a member, join. Our participation in these organizations keeps us up to date on the latest research and trends in our academic disciplines. Commit yourself to joining and getting involved with at least one professional organization in your discipline this year.

Join the conversation…Twitter is an excellent forum for networking with the most active professionals in your field. If you are unfamiliar with Twitter, start by following your professional organization. Go to their website and find out what hashtags they use, follow their discussion and, when you’re ready, jump into the conversation.

Engage in peer review…a great way to develop as a teacher is to watch other people teach. Network with a colleague in your discipline and ask if they are open to having you visit their classroom or, better yet, invite yourself into a classroom outside of your academic discipline to expand your perspective.

Record your reflections…commit to a system for keeping track of the people you meet and reflecting on the new things you learn (I use Microsoft OneNote). Build a filing system in Outlook for archiving emailed newsletters and information from your professional organizations and subscriptions. Block a little time on your calendar every week to read articles and catch up on professional development activities.

Share your knowledge…respond to your professional organization’s call for papers and presentations to share your scholarship. Invite your peers to learn from your experiences in the classroom – the CTE is always looking for guest presenters and guest bloggers. Let us know if you are interested!

What do you do to be a networked educator? Share with us in the comments section!

The Value of Course Level Assessment

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

Todd Zakrajsek, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Executive Director of the Academy of Educators at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Dr. Zakrajsek is also an accomplished author and presenter in the world of faculty development and teaching excellence in higher education; I’ve had the privilege to hear him speak on numerous occasions. During his talks, Dr. Zakrajsek usually shares a video clip called the Five Minute University:

This video is a humorous riff on a lingering question: Why invest so much time into learning if we are destined to forget most of what we learn? I acknowledge that, as educators, we knowingly view this question as illogical. We are privileged to know that higher education is not just about memorizing facts and figures or checking boxes on a degree matrix; it’s about developing the hard and soft skills that will sustain an individual in their career and for the rest of their life. The real question is: How do we ensure that our courses and curricula are equipping students with the skills they need to be successful? The answer: Assessment.

It is a misnomer that assessment is reserved exclusively for the academic department level, academic school level, or institution level. Assessment belongs at every level, especially the course level. I highly-encourage every educator to find a method of course assessment that works for them and to practice it regularly. The results of this practice are higher-quality courses and an improved student learning experience.

My personal assessment practice begins with course planning: (1) I use the approved course learning objectives as the learning goals for developing my course; (2) I determine what constitutes evidence that these learning objectives are being achieved; (3) I create an outline for my course that aligns my course learning objectives with weekly learning goals and objectives; (4) I develop assignments, activities, and instruction to support the process, capture evidence, and assess learning.

Once the course begins, I monitor overall student performance throughout the term and make note of the needed changes or improvements that become evident right away. Next, I make it a point to check in with my students regularly to hear their thoughts on their experience in my course (eventually I pair this information with my student observation results).

When the term wraps up, I add my final reflections and organize my notes (I use Microsoft OneNote* as my notebook) so they are easily accessible the next time I am scheduled to teach the course. I organize my notes into five categories: (1) things that exceeded my expectations; (2) things that met my expectations; (3) things that need improvement; (4) things that need to be eliminated from the course; (5) things that need to be added to the course.

On a final note, if you ever have the opportunity to hear Dr. Zakrajsek speak (he is the Director of the Lilly Conferences on College and University Teaching), take the opportunity. Dr. Zakrajsek is an inspiring speaker and teacher educator.

Microsoft OneNote Logo

*Microsoft OneNote is a notebook in Microsoft Office that allows you to capture notes, drawings, screen clippings, and audio notes. You can organize your notebook into tabs (I tab mine by course). There is a built-in search tool that makes retrieving notes easy.

What do you do to assess your courses? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Midterm Inspiration

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

Midterm is a stressful time for students and professors alike; sometimes we need a little extra inspiration to get us over that midterm hump. Kevin Gannon, professor and chair of the History Department at Grand View University, provides us with a healthy dose of motivation in his recent article, Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. Through the lens of critical pedagogy, Gannon reminds us that reflective teaching can be used to refresh and re-energize our teaching, especially when we feel drained or defeated.

If you enjoyed Gannon’s article, check out his interview with Bonni Stachowiak on the Teaching In Higher Ed podcast. 

What do you do to refresh and re-energize your teaching? Tell us about it in the comments section!