Previously, we have discussed broadening standards and thinking of the undergraduate experience as a telescope. The goal of these discussions is to think about the elements of instruction (such as policies, exams, and approaches to teaching) to ensure that we do not exclude excellent students simply because they do not fit overly narrow definitions of excellence. Broadening our standards does not mean lowering them; it simply requires us to acknowledge that, over time, we have focused on a narrow set of standards and treated these standards as the only measurement of success. Once we recognize this, we can reevaluate our course structures, assessment modes, and university-wide systems and change them so they embrace a diverse set of approaches. Embracing the full spectrum of standards ensures that we do not impose unfair barriers to student success.
This discussion of standards also brought to mind one of the most common criticisms of making institutional changes to include broader standards—the idea that these changes will compromise academic rigor.
But what is academic rigor? Our definition of rigor is often vague. We generally understand that a course that is rigorous will be challenging for our students and will require them to invest time and effort. However, this vagueness is where we run into problems, and rigorous is incorrectly treated as synonymous with hard.
Admittedly, rigorous and hard share similarities. For me, the main difference between these terms is a distinction in value and purpose. A course that is rigorous will challenge students and require them to invest time and effort for a clear purpose. The work that students do in the course directly relates to stated learning outcomes and therefore has defined value. In contrast, a course that is simply hard may still challenge students and require them to invest significant time and effort. However, their labor may not have an explicit purpose. Oftentimes, a course is hard simply for the sake of being hard. And students have an instinct for this—they call it “busywork!”
Switching back to academics, here is an example that highlights the difference I see between hard and rigorous in my own discipline. In physics courses, there is a heavy emphasis on being able to do complicated algebra by hand. A large portion of physics assessments requires students to complete these calculations under the pressure of a limited time frame. Multi-step questions will require the student to complete an initial step of calculations that they must then use to answer subsequent questions. However, because of the changing landscape, especially the invention of the computer, requiring students to practice by-hand algebra and making exam scores reliant on a perfect execution of these complicated calculations is losing much of its purpose. Therefore, I would argue that it is not necessarily rigorous anymore; it is just hard.
Being able to do these calculations does not verify that students understand how or why they apply to a broader course concept. It simply shows that students were able to run through the math without making any mistakes. And the students who understand how and why the calculations apply to the larger concept—and who could have otherwise done well on the exam— are penalized because they make a minor multiplication error in their initial calculations. I won’t say that forcing students to laboriously complete work that a calculator and even a cell phone (something that people have ready access to in the professional world) could do in seconds is pointless, but it is certainly less valuable than teaching students to grasp higher-level concepts and how to apply them.
This example points to a significant challenge in evaluating whether our structures are actually rigorous. The purpose of a particular activity can shift over time. In the past, training students to complete by-hand calculations did have a purpose—it was the only way to do these calculations. While there may be other reasons that we want to maintain by-hand algebraic manipulations, the invention of computers and calculators has made the original purpose obsolete. Determining which elements of our institutional structures we should keep and which need changing is not easy. It requires careful evaluation of our goals and the entire array of tools available to us. However, these are the challenging discussions that we need to have.
Hopefully these examples clarify that, when I suggest institutional changes to our university, I am not advocating that we let go of standards or rigor. What I am suggesting is that we may have to let go of the proxies for standards and rigor that we have relied on because they were once valuable and because we are comfortable with them. In this case, we need to let go of treating hard as a proxy for rigor.
And this can be difficult. Proxies for excellence fundamentally exist because they worked in the past and they often represent a solution that allows education to scale—they make it easier and more efficient to teach and evaluate large bodies of students. However, we need to acknowledge that treating these proxies as the ultimate measure of excellence sacrifices diversity and inclusion in the name of efficiency.
If we truly believe in inclusion and diversity, we need to do the work to understand how to measure excellence broadly and design courses and assessments to be rigorous rather than just hard. Tying coursework, requirements, and assessments to explicit goals and standards will ensure that the time and effort we ask our students to invest go towards a specific purpose. Making this change will eliminate unnecessary labor, reduce the chances of imposing barriers that prevent students from advancing at our institution, and integrate new structures that leverage the breadth of student strengths.
At its core, excellence always requires time and effort—this is a fact. Our students will always face challenges, work hard, and struggle with the process of mastering their chosen discipline. In the process of struggling, some students may choose to explore a different major than they originally applied for, and some may even choose to leave our institution. These are outcomes we must expect. However, we need to ensure that these decisions belong to our students and are not decisions born out of failure to meet what are ultimately unimportant requirements.