Reconsidering Academic Rigor: Posing and Supporting Rigorous Course Practices at Two Research Institutions
by Corbin M. Campbell & Deniece Dortch - 2018
Background/Context: U.S. institutions of higher education have been criticized for providing limited learning gains and lacking rigor. Most understandings of academic rigor in higher education focus on how rigor manifests in students in terms of amount of work or approach to learning.
Purpose/Objective: This study examines rigor as posed by course practices. We define rigorous course practices as teaching practices and coursework that challenge learners to sustain a deep connection to the subject matter and to think in increasingly complex ways about the course content and its applications. The study sought to further the discourse on college academic rigor by describing rigor in coursework at two selective research institutions and examining which course contexts and teaching practices were associated with higher levels of rigor.
Setting: We studied two highly ranked, highly residential, selective, very highly research-oriented institutions on the East Coast of the United States: a mid-sized (< 5,000 undergraduates) private, urban institution and a large (~15,000 undergraduates) public institution.
Population/Participants: We sampled 400 courses at each institution. Of the faculty who taught these courses, 31.4% agreed to participate. We conducted 150 class observations: 99 at Site 1 and 51 at Site 2.
Research Design: This study used a quantitative observational protocol.
Data Collection and Analysis: Data were collected during a week-long site visit, with observers using a structured rubric. Data were analyzed using descriptive statistics and OLS regression in blocks, partitioning the variance in academic rigor that can be explained by course characteristics (e.g., class size and discipline) and teaching practices (active learning, cognitively responsive teaching).
Findings/Results: Most courses in our sample focused on applying, and 85% of the courses achieved a higher-order level of cognitive complexity (analyzing, evaluating, or creating) at some point during the class session. Active learning and cognitively responsive teaching practices were associated with higher cognitive complexity and greater standards and expectations in the courses.
Conclusions/Recommendations: The discourse on academic rigor in higher education warrants further scrutiny and, could be balanced by studies that provide greater depth in the educational practices in classrooms. This study suggests that institutions and faculty may have a significant role in scaffolding rigor. Academic rigor is not simply about having bright, dedicated, and hard-working students but is also determined by classroom environments and processes that can be cultivated.
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