Thursday, February 23, 2012

Academic Rigor Exposed

I was reading Jenny's post the other day on What is Academic Rigor and it got me to question my own conceptions of academic rigor.  I think many academics treat rigor just like supreme court judges treat pornography: They know it when they see it. I too have been guilty of not defining rigor, and just saying "oh that's not rigorous" when I recognize that something isn't rigorous (or at least I mentally categorize it as so). Some of the participants in the synchronous session that I didn't attend had their own conceptions of what rigor is (via Jenny's blog):
  • not for the faint-hearted; takes effort and commitment (Tom Reeves)
  • unchanging, in the sense that ‘rigorous’ means performing the same (type of) study every time, conforming to the same (set of) principles etc. (Stephen Downes)
  • more likely to lead to the truth (but what is truth?) (Stephen Downes)
  • disciplined, measurable, stands up to scrutiny by others (brainysmurf)
  • can replicate the methods (Tom Reeves)

When I speak of academic rigor, I am not talking about research, but rather what happens in the classroom. The question to answer here is: What is an academically rigorous classroom?  
The question has come up many times in the past, in many programs that I have been involved in. Sometimes the question is framed in an oppositional manner with face-to-face being pitted against online. Other times it's comparing two classes in the same program.

In interrogating my own thoughts and feelings about non-rigorous classes, I have come to the conclusion that to me non-rigorous means that students aren't set up for the long term. They are learning a skill, or picking up a piece of knowledge that has an expiration date (whether you know it or not).  A course that is academically rigorous sets students up to be able to interrogate their own assumptions, to continue to interrogate their own assumptions and previous knowledge when they leave the classroom, and to be able to be life long learners after they leave the classroom and they graduate from their program of study.

The same course can be rigorous or non-rigorous.  For example, if I am taking a course in design theory (any design theory), the non-rigorous approach would be to test students with multiple choice tests, and maybe short answers after lots of long lectures.  A potential rigorous approach would be to have students work on papers, position papers, or semester projects where the knowledge that they have gained can be synthesized with other knowledge, and students are expected to demonstrate that they can apply and extend the stuff they learned in class.

Even then, though, some people may read those final papers and say "this isn't rigorous," so I guess we're back to "I know it when I see it..."
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