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.