Academic Rigor: A Message to Academic Leaders

Faculty and students are not on the same page about what makes a course rigorous.

Draeger, del Prado Hill, and Mahler (2015) find that “faculty perceived learning to be most rigorous when students are actively learning meaningful content with higher-order thinking at the appropriate level of expectation within a given context” (216). Interactive, collaborative, engaging, synthesizing, interpreting, predicting, and increasing levels of challenge are phrases faculty use to describe rigor. In contrast, “academic rigor” is an uncommon expression among students. They describe challenging or “hard” courses “in terms of workload, grading standards, level of difficulty, level of interest, and perceived relevance to future goals” (215). Course quality is “a function of their ability to meet reasonable faculty expectations rather than as a function of mastery of learning outcomes” (216).

These material differences about workload and course difficulty impact enrollment as students vote with their feet. These perceptions also impact end-of-course evaluations and retention. Some teachers attempt to manage expectations and more closely align students’ perceptions of rigor in the context of instruction. But ad hoc solutions fall short when the issue is systemic. Effectively managing these conflicting views requires combined effort by faculty and administrators.

Academic leaders can attend to this disconnect by gathering program or institution-wide data from students on the front end of the academic process. Sander, Stevenson, King, and Coates (2000) developed a questionnaire to “enable students to tell the teaching team what they believed should happen in teaching and learning (ideal expectations), what they believed was likely to happen (predictive expectations) and what they definitely did not want to happen (counter-ideal expectations)” (p. 310). The authors also collected data on students’ views of assessment and which qualities a good teacher is supposed to have.

This kind of data allows teachers and administrators to gain valuable insights about students’ perspectives and expectations about learning. Because learning maturation occurs over time, a sense of first-year students’ understanding and potential misperceptions about learning provide a critical lens from which introductory and general education course evaluations should be filtered. Subsequent surveying of advanced standing students can shed light on how beliefs and attitudes toward learning and academic effort have changed, and hopefully matured, as students advance through programs.

Addressing issues related to rigor more directly, a survey by Lizzio, Wilson, and Simons (2002) emphasizes students’ perceptions of workload. They ask:

  • What is your sense of the volume or amount of work in this subject compared to other subjects?
  • What is your sense of the difficulty of the material in this subject compared to other subjects?
  • What is your sense of the balance between the breadth (the range of areas covered) and depth (how thoroughly they are covered) of material in this subject?
  • What, for you, have been the key ideas in this subject? How well do you feel you understand each of these ideas?
  • If we were to give more time or emphasis to one topic, which should that be? Why?
  • If we were to give less time or emphasis to one topic, which should that be? Why?
  • What are your time commitments outside of university?
  • What activities compete with university study?
  • What skills, attitudes, or resources might assist you in better managing the workload in this subject?

Conversations among academic leaders, faculty, and students about rigor and learning are more likely to adjust student expectations to a more realistic level than efforts by individual faculty. Academic leaders are in a unique position to identify trends and patterns in student perceptions and view the findings holistically. Responding to data and making those responses explicit and visible demonstrates that the institution cares and is receptive to student needs. Collecting data on expectations up front and acting on the results may lead to more students completing and taking seriously the end of course evaluations.

“Sometimes expectations and preferences might be responded to by moving to meet the students’ expectations or preferences. Other expectations or preferences that the students might have could well be unrealistic. In such cases, it would be more appropriate to sensitively manage these expectations or preferences to more appropriate levels. In either event, the student has been listened to and responded to, which is, in our view, the real purpose of accessing student expectations and preferences in the first place” (Sander et al. 2000, p. 322).

Gathering this kind of data also supports faculty development. Academic leaders and faculty will have more insight about the comments and feedback armed with data on student perspectives on workload and learning. Viewing course evaluations through the lens of student perceptions about learning and rigor shows faculty that the value of course evaluations goes beyond a few summary ratings. 

The final benefit is programmatic. Information about student expectations and perceptions about the program’s difficulty, learning, and instruction can be beneficial in the design and delivery of modules and courses (Sander et al. 2000).

If teachers, administrators, and students hold different definitions and expectations about rigor and learning, the academic process falls short of its potential. Academic leaders can gather front-end data to better understand and manage mismatched definitions of rigor. The purpose is not to water down courses, make grading easier, lower expectations, or reduce standards. The goal is to manage expectations at the start of the academic process, thereby improving learning and retention and more accurately interpreting course evaluations through more closely aligned conceptions of rigor.

Note: This piece is a modified version of an article in Magna Publications’ Academic Leader Newsletter (Sept 2017). Click here for subscription information.  Interested in learning more about rigor, learning and course evaluations, please consider participating in:

Magna Online Seminar, “Aligning Student and Faculty Perceptions of Rigor” on September 27.  Register Here

Magna Online Seminar, “Interpreting Rigor: Tools for Evaluating Faculty and Increasing Program Retention,” on October 4, 2017.  Register Here.


Draeger, J., del Prado Hill, P., Mahler, R. “Developing a Student Concept of Academic Rigor.” Innovation in Higher Education, 40 (2015): 215–228.

Lizzio, A., Wilson, K., Simons, R. “University Students’ Perceptions of the Learning Environment and Academic Outcomes: Implications for Theory and Practice.” Studies in Higher Education, 27, no. 1 (2002): 27–52.

Sander, P., Stevenson, K., King, M., and Coates, D. “University Students’ Expectations of Teaching.” Studies in Higher Education, 25, no. 3 (2000): 309–323.


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on September 7, 2017, in Learning, Professional Development, Students, Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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