Not sure ‘rigorous’ is what we want

We use the word “rigorous” a lot in education — as in, “our students take rigorous courses” or “we have rigorous standards” — but what exactly does it mean? Is it a good thing?

I looked up rigorous in a few dictionaries today, and among the definitions were words like “harsh,” “strict” and “severe.” Also, “extremely careful,” “scrupulously accurate” and “exacting.”

It sounds awful, really. Very Dickensian.

I know in the context of education, we use rigorous to mean “intellectually challenging,” but maybe we should say that instead. The problem with rigorous is that too many of us equate rigorous with hard, and as a result, make things hard for the sake of being hard.

Here’s what I mean.

Take a psychology class, where students are learning about classical and operant conditioning — you know, getting dogs to drool to a tone or teaching pigeons to play Ping Pong.

An easy test might have a question like:

Behaviorists believed that individual behavior could be shaped through the use of:

  • Incentives
  • Dream therapy
  • Talking
  • Antidepressants

Picking the right answer (incentives) means you have at least a superficial understanding of behaviorism.

A more intellectually challenging test might have a question like:

A key difference between classical and operant conditioning is:

  • Classical conditioning requires building associations, but operant conditioning does not
  • Operant conditioning involves behavior, but classical conditioning does not
  • Classical conditioning involves reward systems, but operant conditioning does not
  • Classical conditioning involves existing behavior, but operant conditioning involves new behavior

That’s more challenging because it requires you to make comparisons and interpret/apply multiple new vocabulary words. Answering it correctly (the last one) requires a much greater understanding and higher level of critical thinking on Bloom’s taxonomy.

But here’s a third question that’s hard just for the sake of being hard:

Which psychologist claimed he could select any infant from a dozen and train him to “become any type of specialist I might select”?

  • Ivan Pavlov
  • B.F. Skinner
  • John B. Watson
  • John Garcia

Being able to recall Watson’s name or any specific disparate facts — like the date of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the name of the fire chief in Fahrenheit 451, the colors of the South African flag — is hard but not really intellectually challenging. You don’t really have to understand behaviorism to answer it — you just have to have memorized the right name.

We spend way too much time asking students to do this in the name of rigor.

We also make the mistake of substituting hard for intellectually challenging when we assign mountains of busywork, rather than fewer, more sophisticated “thought” questions.

If we want our classes to intellectually challenge our students, we need to move away from teaching and testing facts and details that are difficult only because of their specificity — and move toward lessons that build deep understanding and stretch our students’ minds and capacities.

Maybe it’s time to retire the word “rigorous” and start talking about “intellectually challenging” or “cognitively demanding.” At least it would force us to focus on the right goal.

Have a wonderful holiday season. I’ll be back in 2019!