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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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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 5, 2018, p. 1-42
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22121, Date Accessed: 7/13/2020 4:19:55 AM

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About the Author
  • Corbin Campbell
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    CORBIN M. CAMPBELL is Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her work, broadly situated, examines the organizational contexts that support learning and growth for students and faculty in higher education. Her recent work, awarded a 2015 National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation postdoctoral fellowship, studies new ways to conceptualize and measure the educational quality of colleges and universities that more closely reflect the teaching and learning process. By understanding college quality from a teaching and learning perspective, her work questions the current institutional prestige and reward structures in higher education. Recent publications on these topics have appeared in the Journal of Higher Education, Research in Higher Education, the Review of Higher Education, and Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research.
  • Deniece Dortch
    College of Education, The University of Utah
    E-mail Author
    DENIECE DORTCH is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the College of Education at The University of Utah. Through her program of research, she studies the experiences of Black graduate students and the institutional policies and practices that influence studentsí academic and workforce trajectories. Dr. Dortch earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership & Policy (with a concentration in Higher Education) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; a Masterís in Education (with a concentration in Higher & Postsecondary Education) from Teachers College, Columbia University; and a Master of Arts in Intercultural Service, Leadership & Management (with a concentration in Diversity Leadership & Social Justice) and Bachelor of Arts in Language & International Trade from Eastern Michigan University. Dr. Dortch is the inaugural director of the African American Doctoral Scholars Initiative at the University of Utah. Prior to beginning doctoral work, she served as the program director of leadership programs at the Memorial Student Center at Texas A&M University. She is originally from Holland, MI.
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