Maintaining Academic Rigor in the Classroom

September 14, 2018

By Gary R. Hicks (Professor, Mass Communications)

Maintaining academic rigor in the classroom is an issue that is – or at least should be – on the minds of university instructors from the beginning of their careers to well after their days at the academy are over. Just how likely this is to occur depends on many factors, including whether the instructor received any kind of training in pedagogy in graduate school (highly unlikely), pressures of the tenure track (usually very high, given what is sometimes the inordinate importance attached to student evaluations), and, of course, simple burn out. All of these reasons are understandable, but none constitute a legitimate excuse for the damage to the academy and to the student/instructor relationship that can occur when standards are allowed to fall and our expectations of our students’ performance are lowered. Doing so works to erode the academy from the inside – and makes us look ineffectual to those on the outside. A 2017 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers showed rather dismal disparities between what employers expect out of college graduates and what graduates leave the academy capable of doing. For example, 99.2 percent of employers considered critical thinking essential, yet rated only 55.8 percent of their new hires capable of it. Likewise, 95.9 percent of employers considered oral and written communications abilities essential yet found only 41.6 percent of new hires proficient in this area. Losing rigor also threatens the most important relationship on any university campus – that between professor and student. Far too often comparisons are made between the academy and business. We hear this from politicians wanting to cut budgets for higher education, and from students and parents whose expectations of a university experience extend only as far as starting salaries. We also get this message from within the academy. As a former chair of my department, I can recall many conversations with former administrators that began, “In this consumer age of higher education…” Most of these talks left the administrators frustrated with me, and I disillusioned by them. We all seem to need someone to blame for lowered standards and the increasing differences between our expectations and those of our students. We can look to public policy as the culprit. Studies that I located pointed to historically different definitions of academic rigor. Shortly after World War II, with millions of people using their benefits under the G.I. Bill, the President’s Commission on Higher Education in 1947 emphasized how rigorous academic education was necessary for the public good. By 2006, another government commission took a far more business approach to the importance of rigorous education, stating, “Employers report repeatedly that many new graduates they hire are not prepared for work…” What happened in our culture to turn the purpose of higher education from developing “better-informed citizens,” who could contribute to a participatory democracy and a better society, to one whose primary – and often sole – purpose is to create workers? We often look to the “no child left behind” policies of a prior administration for turning K-12 education into a “teach for the test” book camp. There are many bogeymen that we can point to and blame for students who are ill prepared to succeed in college. Remedial work is important. Special programs for disadvantaged students and first-generation college students are, in many cases, key to students’ success. But the worst mistake we can make as professional educators is to buy into the misconception that in order for students to succeed in our classes, we have to lower our expectations. To the contrary, when students understand what is expected of them, many will work hard to rise to those expectations. It is for those students that we can say we created truly university-educated individuals.  

National Association of Colleges and Employers Website:

Francis, Clay. (2018). Academic Rigor in the College Classroom: Two Federal Commissions Strive to Define Rigor in the Past 70 Years. New Directions for Higher Education. 2018 (181), 25-34.

Categories: All Categories, Classroom