The Definition of Rigor

I was talking to a friend the other day about the exams du jour, upcoming finals, and the multitude of research papers that all coincide with the end of the semester. It creates a campus-wide mindset of stress, frustration, and anxiety. Yet it is predictable, and college students accept it, armed with excessive amounts of caffeine. It’s just a normal part of life. However, my friend, ever the wise one, said something that really resonated with me.

“It’s not about the amount of work,” she said. “It’s not about the number of tests, or papers or assignments and how difficult they are. Rigor is teaching someone to think beyond what the textbook teaches them.”

Academic rigor is a common term, particularly when applying to college. The harder the college, the better it is because it will adequately prepare someone for graduate school or their chosen career. And if someone succeeds at a school that has a reputation for being rigorous, they must be more qualified for a position.

The problem is that rigor, like intelligence, is relative and is often thought about in a very cookie-cutter way. Intelligence is a grade on a transcript, a score on a test, a number on an IQ scale. By the same logic, rigor is how many students fail, how high the class stress level is, how many topics can be taught in a semester and crammed into a three-hour final.

Nothing is so simple.

Fortunately and unfortunately, many things in our world are standardized in order to cut through biases and give everyone a fair chance. Though this is done with good intentions, it also strips down complex concepts and crams them into a measurable, concise number. Something that can be proven for marketable purposes. One facet of rigor is the stereotypical one: the tests, the homework, the effect on GPAs. However, it also goes beyond that. Challenge students to take what you’ve taught them and think outside the box. That doesn’t mean making them teach themselves or have no help along the way. It means arming them will all the basic tools they need and then allowing them to discover their own path, one that stretches the limits of their imagination and pushes them past the confines of standardization. That breeds catalysts of progress, which is the ultimate goal of any educational institution: to be responsible for creating those who will revolutionize technology, medicine, politics, and law.

In other words, people who are going to change the world. People like that are not standard by any means and do not think in a traditional way. That creative mindset is not achieved in a traditional, easy way either, which means that our current criteria for rigor are completely meaningless.