Below is a written version of comments offered in the general discussion by Jim Trostle of the Anthropology Department at the CTL roundtable on academic rigor on Thursday, March 15, 2012. We’re grateful to Jim for attending the roundtable and giving us permission to reproduce his remarks here.
I am growing increasingly tired of conversations about how we can increase the “rigor” of our teaching, and am increasingly eager to talk instead about how we can increase the impact and creativity and engagement and excitement of our teaching. It seems to me that we don’t usually spend a lot of time defining what “rigor” is, or what exactly it is supposed to produce among our students, but we nonetheless tend to measure it with easily obtained information (how many hours studied, how many non-A grades given, how many courses offered at 8 a.m. or on Friday). These measures tend to equate rigor with concepts like “good hard work” or “being a serious student.” And then we turn around and compare our measures to those of other schools, never really knowing what the measures mean. Is a student who puts in 6 hours of study time per week more or less rigorous than one who puts in 15? And what about the student who takes Adderall and does the 15 hours it would usually take to do work in 3 hours instead. Is that rigorous or not? Is a course at 8 a.m. more rigorous than a course at 10? How about at 8 p.m. as opposed to 8 a.m.? And then how do we account for innate ability? For those who work best at midnight instead of eight in the morning?
Are we equating studying with exercise for the mind? Well, exercise therapists used to think that the more their clients exercised the better. Then they decided that one could get adequate cardiovascular training in 25 minutes a day, and now some are suggesting that 30 seconds of exercise at peak heart rate per day is enough. Do we really know what the best study habits are for our students? (And if we know, do we also know how much variability there is in student study needs?) And what about that approach to learning which says we learn better not when we are deeply stressed but rather when we are relaxed and rested? If this is the case, a relaxed course might yield better academic outcomes than a rigorous one.
Lastly, I asked about the difference between an absolutist approach to learning that says “this is the ideal of what constitutes knowledge, acquire it and you get an A, else you get a lower grade,” and an incrementalist approach to learning that says “here’s how close you come to this ideal knowledge at the beginning of this course – progress this much more toward it and you get an A, and if you progress less relative to your own baseline score you get a lower grade.” The absolutist approach would suggest that only a few students attain the ideal, and thus the A. The incrementalist approach would suggest that anyone can get an A, assuming they make significant and documented progress.
“But we award As,” you might say, we are gatekeepers, and our evaluations have value only if we assign top scores to a few. This is one philosophy of teaching. Another philosophy says we are coaches, and our job is to improve the performance of all. In this sense we create value that can be shared among many rather than limited to a few. I’m aware of the danger of replicating Lake Wobegone’s children, or of awarding A’s for effort, so please don’t misinterpret my remarks to mean that everyone deserves an A. The point here is that one can grade in (at least) two ways: on a scale where all are compared to one another, and only a few get the top score; and on a scale where each person’s learning is compared at the beginning and the end, and excellence of performance is based partly on approximation to the ideal and partly on progress toward that ideal. It might be fun to think more about whether we could practice this latter kind of grading as well as the former.
Meanwhile let’s move on beyond rigor.