May 21st, 2012

Academic Rigor: Lessons from Room 10


Room 10 was often an uncomfortable place. I dreaded having to walk in there. Room 10 felt a bit like Hell’s Kitchen and my teacher, Mrs. H, was the Gordon Ramsey of chemistry teachers, to use a current analogy. Was the teacher really that mean and the course that tough? Yes, she was mean and AP chemistry was one difficult course. Mrs. H’s handwriting was atrocious, and by today’s standards, she didn’t create a supportive learning environment. Despite all this, I noticed that the best students at my school signed up for AP chemistry with Mrs. H. I hesitated before signing up for the course, but something drew me to the experience.

After some reflection, I believe I know why students at my high school entered Room 10 and why I am writing about this some 25 years later. Mrs. H gave her students an academic punch in the arm and it hurt. Some students could not take the punch and went down for the count (transferred to another course). Those of us who survived learned how to navigate a tough course with a demanding teacher who had only our best interests at heart. My classmates and I never discussed it, but I think we were drawn to the course because we knew if we could survive “Hell’s Classroom,” we could take anything thrown at us in college.

I can honestly say that walking into Room 10 was one of the best decisions of my life. It amazes me that after all these years, and knowing now that my AP course was poorly designed and executed, I had an extraordinarily valuable experience in that class. I want students to value the courses I teach, and in my classroom I cultivate very different student-teacher interactions. However, my commitment to academic rigor and high expectations for students has been influenced by Mrs. H and Room 10. Most faculty aspire to high standards for their students, but I do not read much about rigor in the educational literature these days. It may be that many faculty think rigor is an implied part of the collegiate experience. However, documentaries such as Declining by Degrees and the recent book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses tell a different story. It almost seems that any mention of rigor or challenge has become “educationally incorrect” in the literature of scholars who promote the reform of higher education and place an emphasis on learning over teaching. Moving away from the traditional lecture format does not require one to abandon rigor or high expectations, although this is rarely addressed in reform-minded manuscripts.

My experiences in Room 10 have convinced me that my job is to provide what has been termed “productive discomfort” (Mrs. H’s academic punch in the arm). I want my students to wrestle with ideas that at times disorient them and other times make them want to know more about the world of chemistry. I strongly believe there is a need to push students to maximize their potential and learning capacities.

My commitment and approach are complicated by the number of students who are poorly prepared to perform at high levels or lack the study and learning skills needed to be successful. Hardly a day goes by without a student asking how to do better in one of my courses. A similar question to Mrs. H would have been answered with the admonition to do more of the problems at the backs of the chapters. That used to be my standard line, but I have realized that students truly struggling with the material often need a new way of approaching problem solving and concept mastery. One successful approach has been to encourage students to draw diagrams and sketches (external representations) to help organize information and ideas. This allows them to apply their creativity and right-brained skills to tackle more analytical tasks.

The most rewarding and meaningful experiences of my teaching career have been the success of students who once struggled but ultimately overcame their difficulties. In my mind, a student’s journey from failure to mastery (or struggle to success) is what higher education is all about, and the only way we can make this work is by setting the academic bar high, but not beyond reach, and then providing the necessary support and motivation. If I had to establish a marketing campaign around this idea, it would sound like the Home Depot slogan: You can do it (succeed in a demanding course) and we can help (by providing a supportive and instructionally diverse environment).

Now it’s your turn. What kind of “productive discomfort” (Mrs. H’s academic punch in the arm) do you provide your students? Please share in the comment box.

Dr. James Ricky Cox is a chemistry professor at Murray State University.

Reprinted from Lessons from Room 10 The Teaching Professor, 25.5 (2011): 6.

  • Susan Wooten

    In my early years as a department chair, I had a difficult meeting with a faculty member in response to several conversations with distressed students in the professor's classes. My goal for the conversation was to get the faculty member to develop more empathy for the students being taught. About midway in the conversation my colleague demurred, "You just want me to lower my academic standards." In a flash of insight that belied my relative youth I responded, "No, I do not want you to lower the level of rigor in your classes, but I do want you to be more supportive of your students while they strive to achieve your high standards?"

    There is some measure of truth in your observation that we see less discussion of rigor in much of the current literature on learning, but if we lose sight of this issue, education is less than it should be. A meaningful challenge that stretches a student's capacity is at the heart of education. Ken Bain talks about this in his book, WHAT THE BEST COLLEGE TEACHERS DO, where he tells us, "the best teachers expect more from their students."

    My hunch is that Mrs. H set high standards and acted in the belief her students could attain them. Dr. Bain's research observed that the best teachers often "set high standards and conveyed a strong trust in their students' abilities to meet them." We need more teachers like Mrs. H in high school chemistry and across the academy.

  • Dr. "H"

    Dr. Cox is right on the money when he claims there is a lack of academic rigor today. I taught in a college classroom for 18 years, 1/2 of them in an Ivy institution. I was a Mrs. H insofar as I was demanding, though I don't' consider myself mean. I assigned a lot of reading and writing, mainly because my students came to college underprepared, both for writing and for critically reading. None could respond critically to a text, summarize without using all the words in the text, and formulate a clear thesis. By the end of the course, students were able to outshine even some graduate students. Many won awards.

    Though these sound like positive experiences, I received some very negative evaluations from some, who claimed I made them work too hard. I even got reprimanded for this, twice, both times when I was coming up for contract renewal. It disheartened me enough that I decided to leave teaching, because I felt it important to keep the standards high, even if students did not want to aspire to achieve them. The educators who got mainly "positive" evals were those who went easy on the students. It's too bad.

    • roberto

      I agree with you.. but teaching is not all about making your students outshine others, or the best people in the future generation, or to be leaders. It is all about reaching and carrying all of them, Since they are all enrolled in your class.
      Students are different in many ways, levels of thinking, attitudes, attention span, etc.. this is because they are made by
      the Lord that way. So That there will be different type of people to be suited to different jobs a country needs to progress.
      Engineers and laborers, doctors and nurses, to assistants, athletes and sports writers, novelist and actors, etc..
      As you see, IF ALL YOUR STUDENTS OUTSHINE OTHER GRADUATES" then all of your students in your 18 .5 years of teaching would like to be presidents ( batches every year) so there are many contenders. What I am saying is, just teach students according to their level of interest… boosting it is much valuable. but pushing them academically would not be successful to all of them. For some maybe yes, coz they need it, we need it, the whole country needs it. " Clear picture: A white piece in a chess would be complete if there is a king, queen, bishop, horse, rook, and the pawns………. I am an educator too, but I am not saying that I am correct here.. it is just my paradigm in teaching…. just my opinion, and I do regard yours too.

  • Antithesis of "H"

    This statement really struck me as being profound:

    "It amazes me that after all these years, and knowing now that my AP course was poorly designed and executed, I had an extraordinarily valuable experience in that class."

    There are a variety of students with a variety of learning styles/preferences and some do actually learn from poorly designed and executed courses. And some faculty justify their poorly designed and executed courses as being academically rigorous.

  • Dr. "K"

    I teach graduate students at an old Southern school. I am frank and can be blunt in my assessment of students. I am only harsh when they suggest that I change my standards. I suggested to one student who complained about my high standards that she only had three impediments to success in my course – I could not find where she could read, write, or do simple math. She got angry, then became resolved to prove me wrong. That was my point. I am here to teach you. I am not here to listen to your whining. Once students realized I would help the sincerely ignorant and not waste time on the silly and stupid, my teacher evaluations skyrocketed. Students now come to my class because it is rigorous, not in spite of it. Thankfully, my Dean and Chair support me, as do the vast majority of my students.

  • Dr. SKS

    It takes a discerning teacher/professor to know the difference between "productive discomfort" and "unproductive discomfort". We've all seen both. In my experience, productivity (however measured) comes mainly from enthusiasm, regardless of the amount of work or discomfort involved (ask an athletic coach).

    • Dr. G

      If you are implying that all it takes for student success is an enthusiastic teacher, I am with Prof. B. A circus clown is enthusiastic, but that doesn't help students succeed. In fact some of the best teachers I've had were not type A personalities. Of course, many students would agree that instructor enthusiasm is more important than the amount of work involved, but I'd be concerned about what they get out of such a class.

  • Prof. B

    I really appreciate both Dr. Cox's article and Dr. H's post highlighting the tensions between maintaining academic rigor and the desire (or often the requirement) for good student evaluations. I am deeply disturbed by trends that I have experienced over the the past few years as a full time professor of history working toward tenure. It seems that on the one hand the administration (and myself) demand that I set a high bar in terms of academic achievement, and yet students seem to value something very different–entertainment value. I incorporate media, images, documentaries, even films, memoirs and novels to "engage" them, since this is what they expect history to be, but I find myself pandering to students for the sake of higher evaluations. And whereas I was once very demanding in terms of exams and written work, I found I simply could not be the one "hard" professor who couldn't attract students from the more popular professors who spent their time telling stories and showing movies and giving "A"s. Unfortunately this drove me to inflate grades to appease students and keep my job. In the end, despite my struggles against it, I gave in to pressures from a student-centered culture and compromised my own standards. I'm still conflicted about this, but I do have my job. As was suggested by the author and some commentators, perhaps we should have more dialogue about who exactly is setting the standards these days and whether this is in everyone's best interest.

  • DRJ

    As a teacher of freshman composition, I give my students a temporary grade on their final drafts and then require them to respond to all my marks and suggestions in the paper, as well as their peer reviewers' comments; once they have completed that process, I raise their grade from the lower, temporary grade it was assigned. Their grades cannot be raised more than a whole grade point, so they know they need to do the best they can on the first final draft they turn in. This also teaches them better revision and editing strategies, as they realize that "good writing is never finished." Many students want to turn in a paper and forget it, perpetuating a "product-oriented" writing approach, but knowing that the paper can perpetually be improved encourages a much more "process-oriented" approach to writing.

  • Tom O'Brien

    Dr. Cox,
    Your comments resonate in my soul…"a student's journey from failure to mastery (or struggle to success) is what higher education is all about, and the only way we can make this work is by setting the academic bar high, but not beyond reach, and then providing the necessary support and motivation". Everyday I challenge myself to find new, innovative ways to reach my students. If they cannot learn a concept one way, rearrange it and reapproach…the students work hard and in the long run respect and appreciate their accomplishment. If you want them to eat for a life time, teach them how to fish, do not hand them a fish…
    Tom O'Brien
    Cardiovascular Technology Faculty
    Central Florida Institute

  • LA Brown

    As an undergraduate professor with the local community college, my classes include an in-class "group project" that requires creative/critical thinking, collaboration, and communication skills. These skills are integral components of the student learning outcomes for this CC and are listed as components of our teaching requirements in the classroom. Some overall guidance is provided but the students are expected to "think out of the box". In the first few weeks of the project, anger, confusion, and disorientation abound. As the semester progresses, the basic goals of the project become clearer to the students. At the end of the group project, most of the students are asking why other professors do not do the same process in their classrooms and want the names of the professors who DO use this learning technique. Quite amazing!

  • Dr. Grumpy

    Few discussions of "teaching v. learning" have much to say about the responsibilities of the student in the learning process. More often, we are admonished to charm the uninterested and motivate the unengaged. Students need to understand that those who give some effort can learn in all kinds of class environments. We are raising wrong expectations in students. In the so-called real world, no one gives a damn if you're having fun.

  • Dr. Alisa Hunt

    I can empathize with the professors who struggle with student evals when it comes to rigor. I have been fortunate to work for a University that has always backed me up when dealing with students who are not putting forth their best efforts. I try to do all I can, provide all the support and resources possible to help my students – and I am a stickler for a well written paper (I teach finance!) – and am always available to answer questions and provide additional help, but not all students are in a place to learn. Someone told me something recently that seems to fit here – "I am responsible to you, but I am not responsible for you"

    I hate it when a student doesn't do well, but I can only be responsible to them, not for them.

    • DRJ

      Interesting comments about teaching enthusiasm/entertainment vs. rigorous teaching. They definitely are not mutually exclusive. And I know if professors who are serious about teaching, but have no clue about the performance elements of teaching. It should be approached as a performance art; however, many professors either refuse to condescend to such an approach, or they just don't have the personalities for it. One does not have to look at teaching as performance as a dip to student-centered entertainment. I don't think professors should teach to the student evaluation, but they should definitely try to teach with an audience-centered approach. And that begins with knowing your audience. For anyone who has been teaching for more than ten years–your audience has changed. Most realize that, but many don't think it should affect their styles of teaching. This is a mistake.

  • DRJ

    The legislature in my state has recently instituted a funding formula that is partly based on graduation and retention rates. This is obviously a move toward grade inflation; however, it has also caused higher education to take a hard look at its pedogogies and administrative systems. The more students have to pay and borrow for higher education, the more they are going to want to shape it in their own image. This is just the reality of our times. Good luck to those of you who think you can lecture traditionally from high atop the tower–I hope you already have tenure. "The times they are a-changin'."

  • Alan Pearlmutter

    Thanks for this article. I agree with this approach in teaching and have lived up to it in all my teaching, especially at the college level. I am a musician and music educator, and many times students enter my courses with the sense that it is "an easy course." Even the basic music appreciation/history course is complex and involves art, history, and aesthetics, besides musical appreciation. I have my students write a great deal, because they don't do it well. The only way to improve is by experience. It is unfortunate that colleges have to have so many remediation courses. Keep the standards high, but reachable!

    Dr. Alan Pearlmutter
    Bristol Community College
    Fall River, MA

  • Jane Burgess

    I teach basic English and writing skills to young Marines and the real discomfort is asking them to write and practice the skills they are learning. They don't mind learning, but writing is excruiciating for them. So many of them think of themselves as "dumb". I want them to know they are not dumb and they can prove it by putting the skills into practice. One of my Marines asked me today,"Is my essay really good? Do you want to keep it to show guys in other classes?" I took it and he smiled.
    J. Burgess
    Coastal Carolina Community College

  • I wonder if the terms "academic rigor" and "high standards" are used as, well, cop-outs. Certainly not in all cases, or even in the majority. Dealing with negative student evaluations that reflect a teacher or prof simply doing her/his job can be frustrating. I'm a TA for English Lit., and this year I had students give me a "mid-term check-up," to let me know what they liked about tutorial, what they would like to see more of, and what they would like to see less of. Two students responded with, "I want Lisa to lecture more," a response which totally boggles the mind when you consider that tutorials are designed precisely as counterpoints to that other thing students attend twice a week–lecture. It seems some students just felt more comfortable with a passive learning style than with the active learning tutorial demands of them.

    Claims of maintaining the supposedly fast-eroding standards of academic rigor ring false, however, when high demands are not coupled with a strong dose of empathy– a point that the anecdote recounted in Susan Wooten's comment illustrates wonderfully. Empathy is so important to any work that involves people. There is nothing more alienating than to be treated as though you are not a whole person, but exclusively as a student, or some sort of student-automaton.

  • Dr. Fisher

    Dr. "H," I couldn't agree more. Academic rigor and high expectations are vital to student learning and development. For eight years I taught in one of the poorest counties in rural Alabama. I developed a reputation for being a "hard" teacher.

    Parents and students often voiced that my expectations were too high, especially since nearly every student in another fifth grade class in the school made A/B honor roll each 9-weeks. My student's grades were more widely distributed on the scale. Still, I was nominated as the school's teacher of the year a time or two by students and once for Disney's teacher of the year by a struggling student.

    Since then, I have moved into the higher ed arena and surprisingly find that my expectations are still higher than my students expect and often want. Many have an expectation of higher grades for meeting minimal criteria. Over and over I find myself explaining average work earns an average grade "C", while an exemplary grade such as an "A" is earned with exemplary work–going above and beyond the minimum.

    One day, I was checking my mail when a parent stopped by my home. She just wanted to let me know that her daughter, a former student, was majoring in Biology. She went on to say that her daughter often complained about me "teaching like we're in college." She just wanted to thank me because my class sparked an interest in science and convinced her she was up for the challenge. Not that I have any doubts about the impact of my high expectations, I must admit that it is so nice to know that my students' and my hard work pays off, even if it comes a decade later.

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