Some faculty have advocated a return to “rigor” to address perceptions of growing student disengagement in our classes. In this episode, Kevin Gannon joins us to discuss an alternative approach that provides students with cognitive challenges in a supportive environment. Kevin is a history professor and the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at Queen’s University of Charlotte. He is also the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press.
- Gannon, Kevin (2020). Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.
- Gannon, Kevin (2023). “Why Calls for a ‘Return to Rigor’ Are Wrong.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 22.
- Imad, M. (2022). Trauma‐informed education for wholeness: Strategies for faculty & advisors. New Directions for Student Services, 2022(177), 39-47.
- Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed, New York (Herder & Herder) 1970.
- Boucher, Ellen (2016). “It’s Time to Ditch Our Deadlines.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 22.
- Vygotskii L.S. (1984). “Problemy detskoi (vozrastnoi psikhologii).” In Sobranie sochinenii v 6-ti tomakh, vol. 4, pp. 243–432. Moscow: Pedagogika
- Cavanagh, S. R. (2023). Mind over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge. Beacon Press.
- Jack, Jordynn and Viji Sathy (2021). “It’s Time to Cancel the Word ‘Rigor.’” The Chronicle of Higher Education. September 24.
John: Some faculty have advocated a return to “rigor” to address perceptions of growing student disengagement in our classes. In this episode, we discuss an alternative approach that provides students with cognitive challenges in a supportive environment.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist….
John: ….and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer….
Rebecca: ….and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
John: Our guest today is Kevin Gannon. Kevin is a history professor and the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at Queen’s University of Charlotte. He is also the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press. Welcome back, Kevin.
Kevin: Thanks. Great to be back with you all.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are:…. Kevin, are you drinking tea?
Kevin: I am drinking Cheerwine because I’m in North Carolina now. And this is how we roll in this state. And it’s so damn hot outside, a hot beverage is the most unappetizing suggestion right now.
Rebecca: All right, we’ll let it slide. [LAUGHTER]
John: I would have been tempted to have Cheerwine because it does have that whole North Carolina flavor, which I had never heard of until I came down here, the first time in 1987. But it’s incredibly popular.
Rebecca: What is it?
Kevin: It’s a cherry soda, basically. You got to be ready for sugar. You got to get your pancreas in shape and then prepare to go, but it’s quite tasty.
John: It’s a very inexpensive and popular cherry soda.
Rebecca: Interesting. It sounds like medicine.
John: No, it’s more sugary than medicinal.
John: …but Duke, some time before last year, removed all of the soda from the vending machines and every place where they serve beverages on campus. You only have choices of healthy drinks: water, fruit juices, iced tea, they have of course, because it is North Carolina.
Rebecca: Is it sweet tea then?
John: It is not sweet tea, it is unsweetened tea. So I have a Tea Forte black currant tea that came down with me in my new Duke University mug.
Rebecca: And I have an Irish Breakfast tea because it’s 90 degrees outside and I have a hot tea because… I don’t know why. [LAUGHTER]
John: And I would not be drinking tea if I were not sitting in a very nicely air conditioned classroom here at Duke. So we’ve invited you here today to discuss your May 22 Chronicle article where you address the arguments that some people have raised advocating a return to rigor as a solution to what seems to have been a substantial reduction in student engagement Since the start of the pandemic. What do you think is the source of the disengagement that faculty have been perceiving?
Kevin: Well, I think there’s a lot that goes into it. But I will say that I think it’s important for us to remember that there’s: A) no one cause or explanation for it, which leads to B) there’s no one solution that’s going to fix it all. And we know this, I think, but in the day-to-day practice or dealing with this room full of disengaged students, it’s hard to remember that sometimes. And so I think the root cause of this disengagement comes from the fact that we went through and are still dealing with the effects of rolling trauma on a global scale. And we can talk about trauma-informed pedagogy all we want, but it’s not going to erase the fact that trauma happened and for some of our students, and for some of us, continues to happen as well. And of course, what we saw as a result of that was the pandemic laid bare so many of the other things that were already in place that were unsustainable, and didn’t let us hide from those things anymore. So whether we’re talking about the so-called racial reckoning of the summer of 2020, or we’re talking about the ways in which people from different socio-economic groups experienced the pandemic and or healthcare as a result of that. And we’re in an age now of sort of creeping authoritarianism, pseudo-fascism, whatever you want to call it. I don’t think anybody could realistically expect folks to bring all of their cognitive energies to bear in a classroom with all of this going on in the background. It’s like trying to read a book while you’re in the spin cycle of a washing machine. There’s no way. And I think we can talk about creating spaces that are sanctuaries from that, but I don’t think that we alone can solve all of the things that are leading to disengagement. In fact, disengagement, the diversion of cognitive bandwidth, defense mechanisms, these are all things that are actually, I would argue, fairly healthy responses to everything that we’re seeing around us. And we need to have the sort of empathy and understanding of what many of our students and ourselves are going through to allow space for that to happen.
Rebecca: Yeah, sometimes it feels like there’s a request to just snap out of it.
Kevin: Right. One of the refrains I’ve had over and over is we’re not going to pedagogy our way out of like systemic collapse. And so I think Mays Imad actually put it very well, when she talks about learning as a sanctuary. Our classes can be a sanctuary from this, and that’s important. And we should be doing that work and we should be providing those spaces and curating those spaces and nurturing those spaces for ourselves and for our students, but to put all the pressure upon educators to get students “reconnected,” despite everything else that’s happening around us, I just think it’s unrealistic, and it sets us up for failure. And the same is true, I would argue, for K to 12. Teachers, during the pandemic, educators were expected to sort of fill in the gaps of all of the missing social services over and above “just education.” And I think that when we talk about this disconnection, there’s a danger of us moving into that space where we’re being expected to solve systemic problems, when we are not in a position where we’re able to do so. And in fact, we are suffering from the effects of those problems, in many ways the same as our students.
John: And at the same time, I know our campus at least, and I think, throughout the US, we’ve seen an increase in the diversity of our student bodies. There’s many more first-generation students coming into our classes, there’s many students from historically minoritized groups who simply were not generally attending, and those students often come in with less knowledge of, as you note in your article, the hidden curriculum of education. We have to help them learn that curriculum. And that brings us to that whole question of the push to rigor. In the article, you describe two approaches to adding more rigor, one is adding more logistic rigor, and the other is adding more cognitive rigor to classes. Could you talk a little bit about those?
Kevin: Sure. And so when we think about this idea of rigor in the way that we normally talk about as faculty members, I do think that there are these sorts of two camps that rigor falls into, I don’t think that we… and I’m speaking broadly here, and certainly implicating myself, in some of this… I don’t think we always do a great job specifying which one or the other we’re referring to. So it’s very easy for me as a faculty member to say, “I’m making a very rigorous class.” And maybe all of that is one type of this rigor as opposed to a balance. And so I think when we look at rigor, what it basically boils down to is there’s sort of two broad ways in which a course could be challenging, it could be difficult. One of those is what we talk about as faculty as the good stuff and what I call cognitive rigor, complex thinking, higher order thinking, the ability to critically interrogate information, the ability to step outside of one’s own perspective, all of the things that we know higher education should be doing. And then there’s the other kind. There’s, for lack of a better term, I call logistical rigor. And that’s where you see things like inflexible policies, volume of work, not necessarily difficult work, but so much of it that the sheer volume in itself is what makes the difficulty exist for students. The classic story, I keep saying it’s apocryphal, but when I tell this story at various workshops I do at other campuses, people always swear it happened to them. So I think it is real. But the apocryphal story of the big lecture class where the professor strolls out of the first day and says, “Look to your left, look to your right, only two of the three of you will be here by the end of the semester,” like that’s that sort of logistical rigor that I think we see a lot. The problem is, as I note in the article, we often mistake one for the other. We often say that our classes are rigorous. And we think in our faculty braids that they’re cognitively rigorous, but the way our students are experiencing them is actually through logistical rigor. And so if you look at some of the research, and I linked some of it in the article, what really surprised me as I dove into this, were the vastly different perceptions that students and faculty had about a rigorous class. There was an article that listed the top 10 features of a rigorous class according to students. The top five of those were what I would call logistical rigor, the number of pages that were assigned to be written during the semester, the reading load, the pace of the scale of work, none of the good cognitive rigor stuff came in until the bottom five on that student list, and the numbers there were significantly lower. And this is just one study, but there’s a pattern across when we look at student perceptions of rigorous courses, of difficult courses, it’s a pretty clear thread that students are experiencing difficulty as logistical rigor. And so when we as faculty say, “Well, we’re really after these cognitively rigorous courses and that’s what it’s all about.” Well, that’s not what our students are seeing, which leads me to wonder if that’s really what we’re doing. And my suspicion is, is that no, that we’re often creating these logistically rigorous course spaces, and thinking that it’s cognitively rigorous, and of course, those are two very different things.
Rebecca: Well, and I think sometimes that code word of rigor, and I intentionally use the word code here is that it’s often used to weed certain students out and then we wonder why particular disciplines aren’t diverse or don’t have new faces as a part of the fields and disciplines, as if having structure or support or scaffolding is somehow the antithesis of rigor.
Kevin: Right. And this is really the crux of it, and of course, everybody’s brains will first go to STEM courses because STEM fields have really been struggling with this. But as a humanities guy, there are humanities fields, including some sub-fields in my own discipline of history. I would argue philosophy wrestles with this as well, where rigor in this logistical sense is exactly as you put it, the sort of weeding out, its code for “Some of y’all should be here, and some of y’all shouldn’t, and by the end of the semester, we’re going to have that sorted.” And of course, is that what we want to be doing? Is this how we reproduce our disciplines? If your answer to that is “yes,” I would argue that you’re probably in the wrong line of work. So we need to be thinking, what is it that we’re actually doing? There’s a difference between saying “our uses of rigor are counterproductive” and “we should dumb everything down.” Those are two separate things and that’s not what I’m saying. But our uses of rigor are doing the very things that you point out, Rebecca, that we’re putting barriers in front of students, we’re closing off pathways and opportunities for them to engage in our discipline. And given this moment of where we’re at in higher education right now, I think that’s a horrible, horrible strategy. Rigor, it has become such a loaded concept, because it has become this stand in for weeding out or culling or all these other awful metaphors that we use in higher ed to talk about kind of thinning the herd, so to speak, and that language matters.
John: When you were talking about the difference in faculty and student perceptions of making courses more rigorous. It reminds me of the discussion that we often see about active learnin. When faculty are surveyed in terms of the extent to which they use active learning activities in the class and the proportion of time that they lecture. When students are surveyed on the same questions, we get a remarkably different picture, suggesting that faculty are doing a lot more lecturing, and a lot less active learning than they believe that they are. And it might be nice if we could get a little bit more dialogue going back and forth between students and faculty and getting perhaps more student feedback in general. But it does suggest that we’re seeing a disconnect between what students observe and what faculty think they’re doing in their classes.
Kevin: Right. And a lot of times will be talked about, “Well, I do X in my class,” like I know in my own case, there are a lot of occasions where what I say I’m doing is actually more aspirational than actual. I would love to be doing these things. And on a good day, these things are happening. And maybe they’re working. And I get that. There are some days in some classes where the stuff that we know is most effective and most desirable, just doesn’t work the way that we would hope or the way that we would want. But that doesn’t mean that we stop trying. I think there are plenty of opportunities in place for us to have that sort of dialogue you’re talking about with students to see: are the actual experiences of my students aligned with what I think they are? And this is why we do assessment. This is why we do, at least in a perfect world, student ratings of instruction, if this course was designed to get you from point A to point B, and I want to say that you got to point B, I need to be able to prove that. And I need to be able to describe what that experience was like for you as students. And so how do I bring student voice into this. So you could do informal midterm feedback, you cn do weekly reflection papers, you could do check ins with students. The faculty development world has, I’ve seen it referred to as the small group instructional diagnosis, which is a unwieldy term for a kind of guided reflective discussion for midterm feedback and input from students about how a course is going. I think there’s a lot of tools already there that, working together…. and this is the other hard part….working as colleagues, working outside of my old office and department, and with my faculty development people or with other academic support, can I bring these folks into the process where they could work with my students as well, and help me gather that data? Am I doing, in actuality, what I say that I’m doing? What is my students’ experience of this course? And is that in alignment with what I have designed the course to be?
Rebecca: We all hit barriers like time and things that cause us to slip into old habits occasionally. So those aspirational moves certainly occur for all of us. But I also think that that transparency piece about like, “Why are we doing this active learning thing?” or “Why are we slipping into this old habit that’s maybe not the most ideal?” …can actually be really healthy, because then students can also share that and have that dialogue going back and forth so that they know where they’re at in something and vice versa, like we know where we’re at in terms of the classroom.
Kevin: Well, and it’s an excellent model, too. I think modeling transparency with our students in any way that we can about the course design, about the content, about the ways in which we might be collectively engaging with that. All of that is to the good. We want students to understand that learning doesn’t just happen by accident. We want them to get into this place where they’re thinking metacognitively, and to me really the only effective way to do that is to have this sort of radical ethic of transparency. If a student says “Why are we doing x in this course?” If my syllabus has, here’s all the stuff that we’re going to do this semester, and I can’t come up with a good answer to that, that’s a problem. And so this helps, as you suggest, keep us in this place where we’re ensuring that what we’re doing is in alignment with our goals and our values as disciplinarians, in other words, as members of our discipline, as well as effective instructors and human beings. Does this stuff align with what my professed core values as an academic and as an educator are. The only way we’re able to do that, I think, is to be in this place of transparency to model what that looks like for our students.
John: One issue where the logistical question comes up is that during the pandemic, a lot of faculty relaxed deadlines, and sometimes dropped deadlines entirely. And that certainly provided students with the flexibility they needed. But one concern is that some students would end up getting further and further behind in the course. And there’s a lot of research that suggests that without some structure in terms of deadlines, and getting things done in reasonable periods, the quality of student learning tends to deteriorate. What sort of policies might give students some flexibility, but still make sure that they’re progressing through the course, so they can keep up with other activities that they’re supposed to be doing as the course progresses.
Kevin: And so this is the key issue. And so I think it’s important to establish that, when I suggest that rigor, at least as we sort of traditionally used it is actually failing us, is getting in the way of actual learning, I am not suggesting removing structure from a course. And I wish I could remember which of his writings it’s from but there’s this piece of one of the Paulo Freire books or essays that I’ve read, where he talks about what we would call learner-centered instruction. And he basically says if we’re in a rowboat, and I teach you to swim by throwing you overboard, that’s learner centered, but that’s not necessarily helping you learn how to swim in that moment. And his point is structure is a necessary part of what he would call a liberating pedagogy, that it’s not just throw people in and say, “Okay, go learn, you are the agents here.” And so I think it’s important to realize that you can do this work well and meaningfully only if there is a structure in place, but it has to be a structure that’s explicit, that’s decipherable for students. Back to your notion of the hidden curriculum, if it’s hidden, [LAUGHTER] and the students are running up against these sort of invisible barriers without being able to name what they are, that’s a problem. But if there’s structure in the course, where students are able to see “here’s what I’m accountable to, and here’s how I’m accountable to other students in the class,” then you’re in a place where you could do what we might call that desirable level of difficulty. And so I think there are ways to bring in structure and maybe more structure than what we had during the pandemic. Getting through what we got through was a victory in and of itself, and whatever we had to do to do it, we got through it at least relatively unscathed as higher education. I think that’s a really important win to acknowledge. But it doesn’t mean that we have to go all the way back the other way now. And so I’m a big fan of the sort of nuts and bolts level of policies that build in flexibility, but don’t get rid of structure entirely. And so Ellen Boucher wrote a great piece in The Chronicle back in 2016, and had the headline, “It’s Time to Ditch our Deadlines,” which is unfortunate, because that’s actually not what she argues. She advocates for a two-day grace period, no questions asked, for her students. And if you needed more time than that, then you had to have a conference with her and come up with a plan, like “Okay, I can’t get this paper to you on the due date. I’m going to take the two days.” While I need more than the two days we’re going to have a conference and as the instructor, I’m going to work with you and say “Here’s the game plan. Here’s your next step. Here’s what you’re going to be accountable for and when you’re going to be accountable for.” So I’m doing extensions, but I’m not just saying turn it in whenever. I’m not leaving students to figure out “Okay, what are my next steps? What are my next actions?” Because in the case of deadlines, we know that when students are failing to meet deadlines, as you mentioned, this stuff just snowballs, and it becomes worse, and then they just ghost us, because the whole thing has become so overwhelming that the avoidance reflex kicks in. And so something like Boucher suggests where right off the bat, here’s a two-day policy, if you need it, just tell me you’re taking it, I don’t need to hear about whatever stomach ailment you had, or I don’t need the graphic email describing your symptoms. Just tell me you’re taking the two days if you need more than that we got to talk first. And so that’s an example of a policy that has a structure there but still it explicitly packages in that type of flexibility. And I think that’s a good model for where we need to be, understanding that for different students life is happening in different ways. And yet, there’s still we can’t just say “Okay, turn things in whenever,” because as most of us design courses, stuff builds on each other, right? That’s the whole point of scaffolding and getting rid of deadlines entirely or not having that sort of structured accountability in place does prevent the type of things from happening that should be happening. And so I think finding ways to preserve structure but flexibility within that structure, which, I get is… as I listen to myself say that, part of me goes, “Well, that’s a really just kind of wishy-washy answer.” But I do think, in this case, that moderating it, there was a reason we got rid of so much structure during the pandemic, with this recognition that it was absolutely necessary for the way that everybody’s lives were unfolding and happening. That didn’t go away, like people’s lives still unfold and happen in very complex ways. And that’s true for our students and us. So we can’t just say, “Oh, we’re going to swing all the way back, 180 degrees to the other side, and have deadlines by God.” I just think that’s an incredibly counterproductive thing. And I think that the folks who have been trying that are the ones who’ve been seeing a lot of resistance, and not a lot of success in terms of their students meeting those things. And that’s where we hear some of this frustration that’s coming out in the discourse.
Rebecca: I think the other thing that sometimes rubs up a lot against rigor is this idea of relationships between students and other students and students and faculty in the classroom and that sense of belonging… somehow these are like diametrically opposed. It’s not like rigors over here and belonging is over here, and they can’t possibly happen in the same place.
Kevin: Yeah, and doesn’t that speak to what we’ve seen with the sort of debate such as it is over active learning? The conversation starts from an erroneous proposition that you could either do active learning or you could have a “real class,” like you could do this namby pamby arts and humanities, sit in a circle and sing Kumbaya and braid each other’s hair kind of stuff or you could do real learning and manly-man stuff. And I’m exaggerating, actually only slightly. [LAUGHTER] A lot of times the conversation about rigor and challenge starts from this erroneous sense of mutual exclusivity, that you can have a compassionate flexible pedagogy or you could be rigorous, but you cannot do both. When it actuality it’s and you have to have one to have the other. You cannot have a challenging learning experience where your students can actually meet those challenges if you don’t have a compassionate empathetic pedagogical space, because the whole point about rising to challenges is you can’t do it by yourself. This is what the Vygotski talks about the zone of proximal development, learning is social, you need other people around you, you need an instructor, you need classmates. Well, why is that? It’s because we help each other when it comes to the point of really challenging and pushing ourselves cognitively to get to that achievement of that goal, that desirably difficult goal. We cannot do that if students don’t feel that they belong in that space. We cannot ask students to take intellectual risks or to try something that they have never tried before, if they’re at a place where they don’t feel secure in doing so. Because we wouldn’t ask that of ourselves either, if we’re being honest. And so rather than posit: “you could be rigorous or you could be flexible and compassionate,” it’s “you can be flexible and compassionate and then you can be challenging.”
John: At Oswego this fall we’re going to be using for one of our reading groups, Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s book that you reference here, her newest book, which is Mind over Monsters, and you cite that basically as suggesting the importance of bringing both of those things together. And it’s an excellent book, by the way, which I would recommend to anyone interested in addressing some of these questions.
Kevin: Absolutely. It’s a brilliant book. And I think it’s a vital intervention in this very conversation that we’re having.
John: A term that you use in the book, which was a technical term I hadn’t quite seen used in this context, was that many faculty when they tried to introduce rigor, essentially are adding more “hard-assery”, I think was term that you uses rather than actually more cognitive challenge. Why is that happening? Why do people do this?,
Kevin: Yeah, and the phrase I use is performative hard-assery. [LAUGHTER]
John: Oh that;s right. Sorry, I forgot. [LAUGHTER]
Kevin: Well, I’m glad that that resonated, because I’m really proud of that phrase. But I really do think that that is where a lot of the rigor conversation is. My classes are hard, my students write, they read a bunch, they do all these things. And it’s like, “Do they? and what is the result of them doing those things?” It comes back to the student perception of rigor as the more pages I decide to read and write, students don’t talk about what they learned, and they talk about what they had to do. They don’t talk about what they became. They don’t talk about how it made them feel. They don’t talk about how they changed. They just talk about things they have to do. And I think that that’s a really important distinction when we think about the student experience in all of this. And I think it’s very easy for us to say, “Well, I’m doing my job because I’m assigning my students a ton of work, and it’s hard and I grade hard.” And again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be challenging. I think we should absolutely be challenging. But how are we structuring those challenges? Am I giving my students a challenge just sheerly through volume. Is my class just kind of a death march through this enormous swamp land of content that’s just going past them a mile a minute, or Is it challenging in the sense that they are taking the time to be deliberative thinkers, to be critical consumers of information, because those two things look a lot different. And again, especially coming at this sort of not quite post-pandemic stage that we’re at, is a very real desire to bring some structure back, but thinking about bringing that structure back in terms of just assigning more stuff, because from our own graduate school experience, that’s how we structured our very lives. And so if we think about structure, and again, I’m saying we very intentionally here, that’s the first place our mind goes to. And so I brought back structure, because I’ve assigned a whole bunch more work. And now I also get to complain about how students aren’t doing the work, because I’ve built in this sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, it makes me feel good, it makes me feel like I’m “doing my job,” but am I? Are students learning? Is this advancing learning, because chances are, it’s probably not,
Rebecca: As you’re describing these two scenarios, the marching through the marsh, for example, I’m thinking of the really long checklist that accompanies it. And then in this other environment, this luxurious amount of time to contemplate something and wrestle with something and think through it, and how there needs to be space around that sometimes, to really have the time to process and understand what it is that we’re trying to grapple with.
Kevin: On a micro level, we think about this as instructors all the time, when we think about trying to foster an effective discussion in class. We know that asking a good question is the essential piece of having a good discussion. If I ask a complex question that requires a fair amount of cognitive heavy lifting, I need to give my students time, I can’t expect my students to answer it right off the bat. If it’s a good question, there’s going to be some silence afterwards, as students think about and chew on it a little bit before they decide how they want to respond. And it’s true on a course level too. Are we providing space for our students to do this work, to do this processing? Or is it just more, more, more, more, more, faster, faster, faster, faster, in the name of rigor, in the name of structure, in the name of challenging, but it’s really kind of the cognitive equivalent of trying to drink from a fire hose, like what’s really happening there?
Rebecca: Sometimes not much. [LAUGHTER]
Kevin: I have actually stood in front of a fire hose, not willingly, but I’ve been hit by a fire hose. And I can tell you, it’s not pleasant, it hurts and you’re really wet and miserable afterwards. And I would argue that those are not the things [LAUGHTER] we want associated with learning spaces. And yet, this is, a lot of times, where we, and again, speaking broadly, where we kind of lay it…this sort of, we’re gonna fire hose everything out, and it’s up to the student. And I’m exaggerating slightly for effect, but again, not very much.
John: If the solution to the student disengagement is not dumping more work on students and having more students fail along the way, as many people seem to see it, what can we do to get students a bit more engaged with the class? Because that’s been a complaint. I’ve heard from a lot of people at many institutions in the last year or so.
Kevin: So I think there’s two things I would use to answer that question. And the first I would say, engagement’s not going to be 100% all the time. And if we are thinking that it was somehow that way, magically, before COVID, we’re deluding ourselves. And so we have to give ourselves permission to fall short in that category, not every student is going to be engaged in everything at every time, no matter what we try to do, because that’s the world we live in, that surrounds the spaces we’re in. And so let’s be realistic in what it is that we’re after, how do we engage students in a meaningful and at least most of the time kind of way? And that’s where I think we can do a lot. And so there’s a couple approaches that I think hold a lot of promise. One is we do have to be challenging, we do have to provide challenge, people like to meet challenges. If students think they know something already, they’re going to hear it and “Oh, I already know this, I’m already checking out.” So we have to put in this level of difficulty, of mystery, of complexity, but we have to provide support in helping them meet those sorts of challenges. And we have to be clear and transparent about how we’re providing that support. The idea of a safety net under the trapeze artists, the trapeze artists who’s doing incredibly complex and really, really difficult things that they’ve practiced a lot to do, but they’ve had a net underneath them, just in case it didn’t go well. And at a much lower risk sort of way, that’s what we’re doing. I’m asking you to do difficult things, things that you have probably not been asked to do before. You may fall short of the goal, but that’s okay, because here’s the supports underneath you. This is a space where it’s okay for that to happen. And so depending on the type of class and the discipline you’re in, that might look a little different. But when people talk about desirable difficulties, in other words, challenges that people can actually meet, even if it takes a lot of effort, but there is a solution. And again, I reference Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, a lot in this. It takes a while to get there, but you get there and that’s what the important part is. So how do we create teaching and learning spaces where the challenge is centered, but the ways in which students are being supported in meeting those challenges are also at the center. Right now we’re very good at centering challenges. I would argue we’re less proficient at centering those other things. And so how do we support students in meeting those challenges of what should be a demanding education? And so Cavanaugh calls it, in her book compassionate challenge. I suggest in the article that the question we should have as our litmus test is: does this advance learning? Does this thing I’m doing advance learning in the sense of what are the goals? What are the outcomes that we’ve established for the course? Those sort of transformations, those promises, to use Ken Bain’s words, that we’ve made to students? Are we getting there? Do you know how we’re getting there? Are you able to assess as a learner yourself what’s working in getting you there? Those are the sorts of things that need to be at the center of the teaching and learning experience. And if we’re just doing challenge for challenges sake, or that sort of performative hard-assery shtick, our students are not going to be interested in having that conversation with us or with themselves even, about what’s working for them in terms of the strategies they’re adopting, and the things that they’re doing to meet the challenges that they’re faced with on our course.
Rebecca: Thinking about procrastination in relationship to what we’ve been talking about. And sometimes procrastination reads as lack of motivation, or a lack of engagement. And sometimes the reason for the procrastination is that there isn’t the deadline, or there isn’t the structure or there isn’t the milestones to move you along. How do you see the relationship of procrastination to rigor and this idea of engagement?
Kevin: That’s a great question. Because I think if we err too much on the side of the so-called logistical rigor, or it’s like just really hard, inflexible policies and strict deadlines and this high volume of stuff, we’re actually creating the circumstances that procrastination will become an epidemic among students, because what we’re giving is an unrealistic amount of work to do in the time that’s allotted. And it’s very easy to get from there to just sheer avoidance, I can’t do this, I don’t see a tangible way through this, I cannot see myself getting through this gauntlet. So eff it, basically, is how that works. And so I’m going to do other things, whether I’m doing this consciously, or subconsciously, or some mixture of both. That’s like the perfect storm. When it’s all extrinsic motivation and when it’s all insurmountable barriers, at least from the perspective of the student, that’s like the perfect storm for avoidance. And I’m someone who personally struggles with this all the time. My avoidance reflex is keenly developed over the 50 years of my life. [LAUGHTER] And I do not do well with unstructured time. And so getting back to this question of how do we find that balance, I think structure is important, not an overwhelming or a suffocating amount of structure. But there needs to be something in place to help our students fit themselves and their work and their lives into the framework of the course. We need to be able to give them the tools to do that without pre-determining every outcome or stifling every option. But I think thinking about what are the causes of procrastination, what are the effects of procrastination, because one of the things that when folks talk about student disconnection is this phenomenon that we’re seeing more and more of students just kind of ghosting, just dropping out, like they were in class for six weeks, and now they’re gone. And I think a lot of that is things have built up to the point where they seem so overwhelming that there’s no realistic solution in place. And a lot of that is exacerbated by that cycle of procrastination. And so by the time we get to the point where the student is feeling so overwhelmed that they just want to leave everything, which they do, it’s way too late. So we have to be intervening in the earlier part of that process where it’s procrastination that is creating the conditions that this sort of overwhelming volume is going to grow out of a little bit down the road if we’re not able to intervene. So I think thinking about procrastination is the way you frame it in these very explicit and sort of fraught of mind terms is a really important part of all of this.
John: Since I’m at Duke, I’ll mention a study that Dan Ariely had done a while back where he worked with one of his colleagues at MIT at the time, and they were giving students writing assignments where they had to write three papers over the course of the semester. In one class, they had fixed deadlines for submitting these papers that were evenly spaced. In the other section of the course, they were given the option of setting their own deadlines, which could be at any time during the semester. If they chose, they could set them all at the end of the term. And what happened was that students who had either fixed deadlines or who set the deadlines evenly over time ended up performing better than the students who chose to put the deadlines at the end. And I should also note, there was a one-percentage point penalty for each day they were late. So it was a small penalty, but it was a non-trivial penalty. So the logical thing is to put all the deadlines at the end and then try to get them done evenly. But the people who had deadlines later did the work later and did lower quality work. So those deadlines can be important as long as there’s some sort of incentive structure with it. And I think that has helped encourage me to not drop deadlines entirely. Usually I allow some scores to be dropped or allow some deadlines to be flexible, but warn students that if they don’t meet the deadlines they’re going to have trouble with these in-class activities that are going to be done based on the things they were supposed to have done before they come to class. But it’s a challenge. And I haven’t found a good balance
Kevin: That speaks to exactly the type of balance that we’ve been talking about. We don’t have to choose between strict, rigid, inflexible deadlines, or no deadlines, or complete student set deadlines, like the Elen Boucher piece that I referenced earlier. Here’s the structure, here are the deadlines. And then here’s the wiggle room that comes along with them. And so your desire to sort of have the deadlines but to balance them with flexibility in your classes, and to have students understand, this is why you need to have these things completed, or at least aiming for this particular juncture, because you’re going to need it in the next phase of the course, etc. This is all part of what we talked about supporting students to meet these challenges, this is the type of support. Support could be encouraged through our course design, as well as the actions that we’re taking on a day-to-day basis. And so again, I want to be really clear that I think rigor as we’re using it kind of higher education wide, has outlived its usefulness as a word. It has too much baggage, it has been wielded in exclusionary, inequitable, and sometimes very horrible ways. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t talk about challenge. And so I think like Cavanaugh does, and like a lot of other folks who have landed on this idea of thinking about ways that we can challenge our students. And the way to do so is to create structured environments where the structure facilitates rather than suffocate students as they endeavor to meet those challenges.
John: And at our teaching center, we’ve given hundreds of workshops over the years, but never once have we advocated rigor, or even used the term rigor in our framework we always refer to challenge and the benefits of that. And you cited a Chronicle article that was the basis of a podcast episode with Sathy and Jack. And we’ll include a link to that in the show notes.
Kevin: The headline was, “It’s Time to Cancel the Word ‘Rigor’” and playing on everybody’s sort of obsession with the boogeyman of cancel culture. And I think that that got in the way a little bit of folks engaging with the very real truth of the article was that, as Rebecca alluded to earlier, rigor has been wielded rather than used it’s been wielded like a cudgel, it’s been a barrier, it’s been exclusionary. And when we talk about rigor now, I think everything has a history, this is my own discipline talking here, I don’t think rigor with the amount of baggage it’s carrying, I just don’t think it can be constructively used when we’re talking about challenging students. And because students have experienced rigor, defined that way and referred to with that word, to the point where there’s that kind of baggage with it too where it’s sort of the pedagogical equivalent of hazing, as opposed to anything else. It helps us as educators ask ourselves, are my challenges cognitive or just logistical? Are my challenges supported for students? Or am I just sort of asking them to close their eyes and jump off the cliff and trust that no bad things are happening. And it helps me as an instructor hold myself accountable to ensure that again, I’m not doing the things that I would rather avoid and that I am doing the things that I tell students I’m doing to help support their learning. In the tradition of first-year student essays everywhere, look at the Webster’s definition of rigor, it talks about things like extreme inflexibility and rigidity. There are connotations, you know, rigor is for corpses. So I think that it’s a concept that has no usefulness for the questions that we’re trying to answer and the knots that we’re trying to untie at this particular moment in higher ed.
Rebecca: There’s a lot to think about. Thanks. [LAUGHTER] So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?
Kevin: Well, right now, I’ve actually thinking a lot about the course spaces in which some of these things that we’ve talked about play out all the time, and that’s the intro or survey courses. And I think the project that’s kicking around in my head right now, and I’m getting dangerously close to actually starting to write stuff, is thinking or rethinking the intro/survey course, sort of a critical interrogation. What are they supposed to be? What are they actually functioning as in reality? How large is the gap between those two things? And what are some ways in which people are creatively answering some of the problems that the survey course presents in terms of not just teaching but designing effective spaces as well as some of this comes out of my own field in history. We’re wrestling with again this death march through content. World history in two semesters, Plato to NATO in an academic year. Is that really what we’re after here? Or should we be doing something else? And so from my own discipline, I’ve developed an interest in thinking about this and thinking about the ways in which other fields and disciplines are wrestling with similar types of questions, which of course, then leads to the larger question of what is the point of these things? And are we doing the things that we say these courses should be doing? Because of that, thinking a lot about not just teaching and learning, but about first-year student success, about things like just and inclusive teaching, things like student-centered pedagogy, a lot of really interesting and fun things that are kind of swirling around. So the short answer, rather than that very long-winded one is I’ve researching survey and intro courses to see if there’s better ways that we might be doing it.
Rebecca: Sounds like a great project. Maybe you need a deadline so you get started on it. [LAUGHTER]
Kevin: Let’s not get carried away because I am going to take that two-day grace period, I can tell you that right now.
John: Well, thank you. It’s always great talking to you.
Kevin: Well, thanks for having me back. It’s a real treat to be with you two again.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.