Academic Rigor White Paper 3: Aligning Institutional Processes to Support Academic Rigor

Cover of Academic Rigor White Paper 3, Aligning Institutional Processes to Support Academic Rigor
Authored by Andria F. Schwegler, Associate Professor of Psychology in the Counseling and Psychology Department at Texas A&M University - Central Texas

Andria teaches a range of fully online courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels, including statistics, research methods, history of psychology, and social psychology in addition to courses in the psychology of learning and educational technology. She is the Graduate Coordinator for the Master of Science in Educational Psychology program.

Academic rigor may be poorly conceptualized and not fully aligned with institutional processes because many assume it is an inherent quality of higher education without the need for examination (e.g., Labaree, 1997; Whitaker, 2016), or some may assume that it cannot be objectively assessed. 

See Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

Institutional Processes

Faculty-Student Interactions and Students’ Evaluation of Instruction

To expand understanding and implementation of academic rigor, actions that faculty members can perform as they interact with students to facilitate their learning need further investigation. Many studies acknowledge that faculty-student interactions are important, but few provide evidence of specific behaviors that are associated with learning; whereas, others suggest that some faculty behaviors are unrelated, or even negatively related, to student learning. Specifying faculty members’ behaviors that support learning is critical because many behaviors evaluated by students and administrators have not been demonstrated to facilitate learning.

Faculty Teaching Observations and Evaluations of Teaching

Administrative evaluation of faculty provides opportunities for faculty members to demonstrate the variety of ways they promote academic rigor in their learning contexts; however, these processes may need revision to accommodate the multitude of ways rigor can be supported and the implications of upholding it.

Assessment of Student Learning and Engagement

Though academic rigor is a quality of the learning context, it is of little value when removed from a consideration of what students know and can do as a result of participating in that learning context. However, existing assessments of student learning may fail to fully capture learning due to poor test construction or lack of relevance to real world applications of the information. Assessment of student learning may need revision to more closely reflect real world tasks and may need to be supplemented with opportunities for students to report behaviors related to engagement in the learning context.

Support for Teaching

In their efforts to make teaching visible and document academic rigor in the learning context, faculty members may benefit from peer support for teaching. However, low participation rates in professional development opportunities and the stigma associated with seeking teaching support may inhibit meaningful collaborations among faculty, to the detriment of student learning.

Institution and Program Marketing

Institutional communications to the public should reflect the value assigned and activities supported to foster academically rigorous experiences for the advancement of student learning. Institutions may need to reconsider marketing strategies to clarify the messages they are communicating to prospects, parents, students, and other stakeholders regarding the purpose of a higher education and their identity as an institution of higher education.


Implications of an Observable Definition of Academic Rigor

Quality Education for All Learners

Definitions of academic rigor that are based on selecting the most qualified and well-prepared students do not provide access to a college education for many individuals. Creating processes that allow all learners, not only those who are already well prepared, access to a quality higher education and the resources they need to succeed are essential.


Students Value Rigor

Despite the challenges it adds, research indicates that students value academic rigor in their learning experiences. Students report being better prepared for the real world having been academically challenged, and their evaluations of their teachers are not compromised by rigorous learning experiences.


Pathways to Degree Completion

Definitions of academic rigor that are based on selecting the most qualified and well-prepared students do not provide access to a college education for many individuals. Creating processes that allow all learners, not only those who are already well prepared, access to a quality higher education and the resources they need to succeed are essential.


Aligning institutional processes with an observable definition of academic rigor – one that is based on research evidence and makes central the importance of student learning – requires a critical examination of existing procedures and documents to verify they acknowledge the multiple, evidence-based ways to demonstrate rigor and accommodate the implications of doing so. A more explicit and aligned approach to demonstrating rigor facilitates clear communication with stakeholders regarding the value of student learning to the institution. 


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