Dysfunctionality as a Consequence of Rigor

Many of my colleagues are discussing Academically Adrift — a book which The Chronicle has called “the most significant book on higher education written in recent years” — a study which reveals that students today are studying less than ever, and therefore learning very little.

One of the notions that the book raises is that there is a lack of “rigor” in college.  A key data point that supports this idea is the finding of the study that 35 percent of students reported studying five hours per week or less — and that 50 percent of the students surveyed said they didn’t have a single course that required 20 pages of writing.  As the Chronicle suggests:  “as the proportion of the population going to college rises, more and more [students] are simply not suited for academically rigorous forms of higher learning. Consequently, schools dumb down the curriculum, engage in grade inflation, etc.”  Moreover — and this one claim that my colleagues are very interested in discussing — the reliance on student evaluations seems to reward less stricture.  In “A Lack of Rigor Leaves Students ‘Adrit’ in College,” NPR cites author Richard Arum:  “There’s a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high.”

I suspect there is some truth to these notions, and that whatever the study in Academically Adrift signifies, it reflects a culture that is undergoing change — and that universities may not be adapting to this change in the best of ways.  It is easy to suggest that teaching praxis should become more “rigorous” and raise challenges that have students work with more discipline and meet tougher challenges.  But what also may be indicated here is that our notion of “rigor” may also need to adapt.  I’m still thinking this through, but I would point readers to Craig E. Nelson’s “Dysfunctional Illusions of Rigor: Lessons from the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning” — an excerpt from Wiley’s book series, To Improve the Academy, which recently was reprinted in the Tomorrow’s Professor mailing list.  In a nutshell, Nelson asks teachers to re-evaluate their assumption that students are to blame for their lack of preparation to learn in college, and to consider whether pedagogical alternatives can lead to higher learning, even for the most ill-prepared.

Here are the core “illusions” that teachers harbor, which Nelson suggests can lead to dysfunction:

1. Hard courses weed out weak students: When students fail it is primarily due to
inability, weak preparation or lack of effort.

2. Massive grade inflation is a corruption of standards.

3. A good clear argument in plain English can be understood by any bright student
who applies herself.

4. Traditional methods of instruction provide proven effective ways of teaching content
to undergraduates.

5. If we cover more content, the students will learn more content.

6. Traditional methods of instruction are fair to a wide range of diverse students of
good ability.

7. Students should come to us knowing how to read and write and do essay and
multiple choice questions.

8. It is essential that students hand in papers on time and take exams on time. Giving
them flexibility and second chances is pampering them.

It’s hard not to hold some of these assumptions, which seem “common sense” for most of us.  (For instance, if students don’t take exams on time, wouldn’t an open deadline only displace the dysfunction to a time management crisis for the teacher?  And how on earth can “grade inflation” be good?)  Nelson provides some interesting ways of reconsidering teaching.  But the key lesson of Nelson’s study is that rigor for rigor’s sake only makes methods that are not working even worse.  It is wise for us to consider alternative pedagogies and to explore the scholarship of teaching to try to find new ways of reaching the learners who seem “adrift.”  We can’t just say ” swim harder.”

There are many alternatives out there that might be worth exploring, especially in the research that Nelson cites in his essay.  If you see yourself in any of those 8 “illusions” above and are interested in finding out more, as a starting point,  the Institute for Learning and Teaching at Colorado State has productively expanded some of Nelson’s ideas in their great “Master Teacher Initiative – Teaching Tips” website.

Published by

Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.

4 thoughts on “Dysfunctionality as a Consequence of Rigor”

  1. The illusion that catches my attention is, “If we cover more content, the students learn more content.” Education theorists commonly disagree on questions of depth versus breadth. The answer depends on pegagogy, region (how does the local knowledge base relate to the standard), motivation (how does the course relate to end goals), and more.

  2. What if the “illusions” are actually the truth? I’m insulted that this guy thinks teachers live in an illusory world that doesn’t take stock of the lack of study habits, the lack of inquiry, the lack of desire to learn, etc. At this stage, no one really knows whether or not rigor works in the public school system that feeds higher education because rigor is never actually applied there with significant consequences below the elite level (honors/AP).

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