One of the most confounding problems we face as faculty members is the “stunning level of student disconnection” that grew out of Covid and continues to characterize our classrooms today. Students “ghost out” of courses by week six. Discussion topics that used to trigger lively conversations now simply earn us blank stares and awkward silences. At times, the impact of that discomfort is muted, but only because so few students attend class.
Faculty members have been at wits’ end this academic year trying to come up with solutions. Teaching has always been a demanding vocation, but usually those demands are balanced with the gratification of seeing our work have an impact on students. In our present moment, however, teaching has become exponentially more demanding while the rewards have evaporated. It’s been hard to feel a sense of satisfaction in the classroom when disconnection and atomization rule the day.
There has been no shortage of proposals for how to fix this set of problems. Many take a “tips and tricks” approach (“here are three ways to improve participation in class discussions!”). That probably sounds like I’m belittling those strategies. I’m not. They are important and necessary — yet insufficient. The causes of student disengagement are structural, and require structural solutions.
But not all structural solutions are equal, and some of those proposed lately threaten to do more harm than good. Which brings me to the issue of “rigor.”
One of the more prominent strands in the what-to-do-about-disconnected-students discourse has been a series of calls to “return to rigor” or “restore standards.” The logic is seductive: During pandemic pedagogy, we abandoned things like deadlines and attendance requirements, and instituted pass-fail grading — all of which seemed appropriate at the time. But now that we’re “post Covid,” order must be restored. Moreover, structure seems to be a vital part of equitable course design, so shouldn’t we restore as much intentional and explicit structure to our teaching as we can?
No one is arguing that higher education should be a breeze, or that structure is a bad thing. It’s all too easy, however, to use “rigor” and “structure” as cloaks to hide practices that actually erect barriers to student success. And what is the point of pursuing “solutions” that exacerbate disconnection, disengagement, and low levels of student motivation, the very problems they are supposed to solve?
Broadly speaking, instructors looking to make their courses more rigorous do so in two ways:
- Logistically. This is when you rework a course to set strict deadlines and attendance policies, add more assignments, create examinations with a high number of questions relative to the allotted time for their completion, or devise grading curves aimed at minimizing the number of A’s. Irrespective of the actual content, the aim here is for the structure and mechanisms — the logistics — of the course to be difficult.
- Cognitively. Here the instructor makes a course more challenging via course content and pedagogy. A cognitively challenging course might ask students to question their prior assumptions or to engage with material that has a sophisticated, complex, theoretical bent. In a cognitively challenging course, we design activities to help students conquer what Lev Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development” — that zone of learning in which the material is “not too easy, and just challenging enough that, with a little help from a more learned individual, we can master the material.”
The problem is that, too often, administrators, critics of higher ed, and even some professors mistakenly think that logistical changes will lead to cognitive improvements. They think the key to creating a cognitively challenging course is to overload students with work and grade harshly.