“Reflections on Rigor” – What does it mean and why does it matter?

I’m continuing to reflect on the topics that were covered during the UW System School Counselors’ Workshops in September.  One recurring theme, at least among the messages that the UW Admissions Directors were delivering, was the concept of rigor.  I apologize in advance for the length of this post, which I know may be daunting to the reader, but this is a big topic worthy of a big entry.

 I believe the directors are in agreement that rigor is a factor when evaluating a student for admission.  “Rigor” can be defined in various ways, but I think it’s safe to say that there are elements common to most of our evaluations:

  1. the level of challenge of a given class – for instance, AP, IB, “advanced” and “honors” courses would generally be recognized as more rigorous, while courses that are remedial, basic in nature or meant to review/reinforce earlier studies would be recognized as less rigorous.  Naturally, there’s a continuum with many courses between the two extremes.  Course descriptions can be very instructive when we try to evaluate the rigor/challenge of any given course.
  2. the specific discipline of a course – there are five general disciplines that fall into commonly-accepted definitions of “college preparatory” – English, math, science, social studies, and foreign language.  These are the disciplines that most directly prepare students for the expectations that will face them in a competitive college environment.  College professors expect students (even freshmen) to be able to research and write essays and papers; to gather, synthesize, and present information; to have an understanding of national and international issues and social structures; to be able to use mathematics not only in respect to pure math, but also in relation to disciplines in natural sciences and the social sciences; to have knowledge in the natural sciences that prepare them for college laboratory science courses; and to communicate effectively verbally and in writing.  These skills will be necessary for all students, regardless of their eventual major, since all students will devote a significant proportion of their college degree to general education-type requirements. 

 At this point I think it’s very important to stress that this does NOT mean that we think courses outside of the “college-prep” disciplines are unimportant.  Indeed, studies in the fine arts, computers, family and consumer education, business, agriculture, technology, and the like are all very important in defining a well-rounded person, and a well-rounded education.  Courses that prepare students for life are important!  The UW System reinforces this in its overall admission policy which allows for the inclusion of these courses in campus admission evaluations.  Please understand: Students are not penalized for taking these courses!  Rather, it would be the absence of core college-prep courses that might reflect negatively in an evaluation.

 Rigor in the senior year is especially important.  We know that some students will satisfy most graduation requirements prior to their senior year.  It may be tempting for them to take a less-challenging schedule during the senior year in an effort to increase/maintain their GPA, or to simply “take a break” after working hard the previous years.  This strategy, however, can backfire.  Here is an analogy frequently cited by Alan Tuchtenhagen, Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Services at UW-River Falls: If you have a student who is a candidate for a college athletic scholarship, is it likely that the student would tell the coach that s/he wants as little challenge as possible during the senior season?  No!  The student will want to maintain or improve their skills in order to be better prepared for college-level competition.  This is exactly what should be happening academically during the senior year – academic conditioning!  Students need to be prepared for the academic competition inherent in the college environment, and this means taking a challenging senior schedule.

 ACT has also taken a strong stand on high school rigor – on its importance, that is.  Please see my October 1 entry, and the links to ACT research, for more details.

 A final note on rigor, as it applies to students who begin high school science, math, or foreign language in 8th grade.  The purpose (in our minds, at least) for starting high school work in 8th grade is so that the student can go farther in that discipline in high school, not so they can quit sooner.  If a student takes algebra in 8th grade, then quits math after algebra 2 in 10th grade, we would not view that as a good thing. 

 The bottom line is this, in regard to rigor:  We are trying to admit university graduates.  “Getting in” as a freshman really isn’t the point.  Graduating from college IS the point.  We’re not trying to make it harder to get into college; we’re trying to make it easier to graduate from college.  Expecting and enforcing rigorous high school preparation for college-level study simply makes sense.  It is in the student’s best interest to do so.  And, ultimately, I think that’s what we all have in mind:  the student’s best interest.

Affirmations:  Because of broad agreement about the importance of rigor among my UW System Admissions colleagues, I asked them to let me know if they were willing to affirm their agreement with this entry.  Those who affirmed this entry are:

UW-Eau Claire – Kris Anderson, Executive Director of Enrollment Services

UW-La Crosse – Kathy Kiefer, Director of Admissions

UW-Madison – Tom Reason, Interim Director of Admissions

UW-Milwaukee – Beth Weckmueller, Executive Director of Enrollment Services

UW-Oshkosh – Jill Endries, Director of Admissions

UW-Parkside – Matthew Jensen, Director of Admissions

UW-Platteville – Angela Udelhofen, Director of Admissions

UW-River Falls – Alan Tuchtenhagen, Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Services

UW-Stevens Point – Catherine Glennon, Director of Admissions

UW-Stout – Joel Helms, Assistant Director of Admissions

UW-Superior – Tonya Roth, Director of Admissions

UW-Whitewater – Jodi Hare-Paynter, Interim Director of Admissions/Registrar

3 thoughts on ““Reflections on Rigor” – What does it mean and why does it matter?

  1. I am glad to hear that rigor is being used more extensively in the past. I personally challenged myself my senior year in anticipation of college whereas some students slid through taking very easy classes to keep their GPA. Sometimes its difficult to weigh classes against each other but there are also some easy decisions that can be made.

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