Academically Adrift Redux: Countering the Memes #2 -- Redefining Rigor

Academically Adrift Redux: Countering the Memes #2 -- Redefining Rigor

The best way to counter the reflexive assumption that college has become less demanding is to ask the question, “what constitutes rigor?” and to answer that question by focusing on developing better ways of defining rigor.

In a way, this meme is primarily a product of the other two, at least in the context of the Academically Adrift study. As my recent ETCJ article noted, notions that college is less demanding are based on the other two notions: that students spend much less time studying in college, and that they don’t learn much. My previous post describes the problems with the first notion, and my next post will deal with the second one.

However, it’s important to discuss college rigor as a separate issue, in part because this notion is reflexively shared broadly among academia and the public regardless of social or political affiliation. For example, Doonesbury clearly buys into Academically Adrift’s assertions , while NPR’s February 2011 story on the study used the headline A Lack of Rigor Leaves Students ‘Adrift’ in College . Likewise, conservative critics of higher education such as Richard Vedder have been only too happy to accept AA‘s findings as confirmatory truth.

The problem here, ironically, is a lack of critical thinking: a reflexive and uncritical acceptance of Academically Adrift‘s narrow and provincial approach to defining college rigor -- time spent studying, class attendance, reading and writing page counts, and performance on standardized tests. As the February 2011 NPR piece asserted,

Part of the reason for a decline in critical thinking skills could be a decrease in academic rigor; 35 percent of students reported studying five hours per week or less, and 50 percent said they didn't have a single course that required 20 pages of writing in their previous semester.

Although my previous post discusses the time issue, I just found myself imagining a future where pharmaceuticals reduce the amount of time students need to learn something. Ethical issues aside, is this what it will take to disabuse people of the notion that more time spent studying is inherently better?

As for the value of page counts, how is 20 a magic number? Sometimes 20 pages can be a sign of sloppiness or a rush job -- recall the wisdom in the expression “sorry I didn’t have time to write a shorter letter,” for example. Likewise with reading books (AA considered a course which required 40 or more pages a week to be “reading-intensive”, hence ‘rigorous’).

Far worse, of course, is the notion that reading books and writing papers is the only way to develop critical thinking skills, as if math, engineering, computer science, cybersecurity, art, music, or theater majors (to name a few) somehow have to write 20 page papers to demonstrate critical thinking skills. Academically Adrift excludes hands-on learning, internships, and any other form of experiential learning -- unless of course you write a 20-page paper about it or read 40 pages about it per week, then you’re fine.

[momentary digression to vent: I just found myself getting steamed at the notion of a study which essentially describes a world with no art, no music, no theater, and for that matter not much STEM either, and which otherwise thoughtful people thoughtlessly accept as word. Doesn’t that steam you as well?]

Sprinkled throughout Academically Adrift are further signs of its narrow and outdated approach. How is it that adjunct faculty have "undermined" colleges (p.6), for example? AA‘s methodology considers the rigor of individual courses in isolation -- one course which requires 40 or pages of reading per week is more rigorous than four courses which require 35 pages of reading per week, for instance. In real life, students have to manage the rigors of multiple courses simultaneously, but AA has nothing to say about this variable.

AA also interprets the finding that one-third of college students “admit” (why not “report?” Are the students on trial here?) that they receive no news from any source “on a typical day” as a sign of “disengagement” (p.143). Here’s my question: why is this not interpreted as a sign of critical thinking instead, in the form of discerning student consumerism? Given that the news media have far from distinguished themselves over the past decade, to the point where The Daily Show and the Colbert Report have become more trusted sources of news information (and one wonders if the students surveyed in the cited study considered these to be “news sources”), one could make the case that students’ ignoring traditional news sources is a positive development, not a negative one. Similarly, AA’s dissing the appearance of Ultimate Frisbee on a college transcript (p.77) may seem trivial* -- but did the authors simply forget about physical education, which thousands of colleges and universities still require, including many of the most rigorous ones? Or perhaps they're saying that it can't be useful if it can't be measured by the CLA?

Which brings us to the most notable way in which Academically Adrift mishandles the notion of college rigor: when it comes to assessing it. But I think that’s better discussed in the context of the third and most important Academically Adrift meme -- the notion that students don’t learn much in college. More on that in the next post...

(*Yes, I admit -- as a former Ultimate club player, this one really ticked me off -- although I did not earn college credit for it [my Wilderness Camping course took care of my required PE credit -- try testing that with a CLA-type exam!], anyone who’s played the game knows that’s is very worthy form of physical education.)