Prof. Roksa Talks with the Chronicle of Higher Education about Academic Rigor


The Chronicle of Higher Education

Josipa Roksa discusses academic rigor and student and faculty perceptions of engagement in a new article about universal standards.

For Students, Expectations About Academic Rigor Are Far From Universal

A more-objective approach would suit Josipa Roksa, an associate professor of sociology and education at the University of Virginia. The level of academic challenge might be more accurately captured, she said, by the number of pages students are assigned to read and write, for example, or the number of hours they report studying (and study time has declined precipitously since the 1960s).

The survey took those measures, too, finding little connection between the amount of reading or writing and academic challenge, Mr. McCormick said. The number of hours students reported studying did seem to correlate somewhat with their sense that they’d been challenged to do their best work.

Students’ self-reported level of challenge also tended to align with other measures that the survey tracks: the complexity of tasks students are asked to complete, the strategies they use to study, how they approach learning, and their perception of the clarity of teaching.

The term 'best work' also raised questions for Ms. Roksa. To students, she said, it probably means putting forth effort. Research for Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, the more-recent book she wrote with Richard Arum, revealed that faculty members and students have different ideas about what rigor, engagement, effort, and best work mean. Students, she said, often define academic engagement in minimal terms: attending class and completing most of their assignments.

'Students are very high on their perceptions of their engagement,' Ms. Roksa said. 'When you unpack what it means to be engaged or work hard, it’s a low threshold.'

The question may be getting at a complicated educational interaction that is difficult to pick apart, she said. In asking about challenge, the question is simultaneously touching on institutional decisions, students’ motivations and perceptions of their instructors, and the cognitive and emotional dimensions of teaching.

There are at least two ways to think about the word 'challenge,' Ms. Roksa said. The first is as rigorous and demanding. 'Or,' she said, 'it might be, ‘faculty expect me to put my best effort forward.’' Challenge, when accompanied by support, she said, might feed students’ perception that instructors are telling students, 'I believe in you.'

And if students feel that their professors believe in them, she added, they will probably try to do good work.