Sunday, May 8, 2016

Getting beyond rigor

The other day I got access to my summer course on Blackboard.  With just under 25 days left to go until the start of courses, it's time to look at my old syllabus (from last summer), see what sorts of innovations my colleague (Rebecca) has in her version of the course, and decide how to update my own course.  I had some ideas last summer, but since then the course has actually received an update by means of course title and course objectives, so I need to make sure that I am covering my bases.

Concurrently, in another thread, while I was commuting this past week I was listening to some of my saved items in Pocket, and I was reading (listening to) this article on Hybrid Pedagogy by Sean Michael Morris, Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel titled Beyond Rigor. This article brought me back to thinking more about academic rigor and what the heck it really means.  I think it's one of those subjects that will get a different answer depending on who you ask.  The authors write that:

institutions of higher education only recognize rigor when it mimics mastery of content, when it creates a hierarchy of expertise, when it maps clearly to pre-determined outcomes

I suspect that's partially one definition of what rigor is thought to be, however I've come across courses that I've personally found that they were lacking rigor but they met those specific requirements mentioned above.  Sometimes I've found that rigor has to do with the level of expected work that a learner does.  If we think of learning as exercise and school as a gym, the analogy of a rigorous workout is something that raises your heart rate, burns calories, and gives your muscles a work out. At the end of a rigorous workout you feel tired. Luckily for exercise folks that stuff is easily measured.  I know that I did something rigorous when I feel exhausted after the gym. However, when it comes to learning we don't have instrumentation that is as easy to use and assess.  So, what the heck is rigor in a college course? How can we define it? Is it a malleable concept or is it hard set?

Interestingly enough the authors approach rigor not from what the attributes of the content are (i.e. who much of it, and by whom), but rather from an environment aspect. Rigor emerges from the environment rather than being a predefined constant.  In order for rigor to emerge when the environment is engaging to the learner, when it provides a means to support critical inquiry, when it encourages curiosity when it is dynamic and embracing of unexpected outcomes, and finally when the environment is derivative.  This last one was defined as a "learning environment is attentive and alive, responsive not replicative."

The one constraint I have with this course (well, other than the course description ;-) ), is the textbook. The department uses the Systematic Design of Instruction by Dick, Carey, and Carey as their foundational book and model. Last summer I developed the course from scratch using DCC as the core organizing principle.  Now, while still important, after the update to the course title and description DCC must share the stage with other elements, so I am re-considering (again) what rigor looks like in this environment.  I am pondering, how I can rework an introductory course to be derivative and to give students a more control in shaping the curriculum (thinking rhizomatically here) beyond having to choose from some finite options...

At the moment, rigor for me is still one of those "I know it when I see it" things.  It would be interesting to discuss this a little further with others who are interested on the topic to see where we land on it.

On another note, and rigor aside, the two things I am keeping and/or expanding are mastery grading (you either pass or you need revision) - I am not going back to numerical grades for anything.  I would prefer that students focus on feedback rather than the numerical grade.  The other part I am keeping is digital badges.  They worked fine last summer, I just need to figure out how to make them better.


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