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The Need To Better Understand Academic Rigor

How do we begin to define what makes a course rigorous for the modern adult learner?

Higher education is being disrupted more than ever. How it is delivered has been forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to March 2020, only about half of students took at least one class online, but then online learning became a necessity for all overnight. Now, learners have new expectations and desires around how higher education is delivered and accessed, with six in ten people saying they prefer fully online or hybrid education without considering the pandemic.

However, there is also a risk amid this innovation and experimentation that the quality of higher education will be diluted if we don’t establish standards to ensure that the delivery of virtual learning—both by traditional institutions and new providers—can meet adult learners’ needs.

Academic rigor is widely considered to be a critical component of the quality of higher education, but research shows that faculty and students define rigor quite differently: 

  • For faculty, it’s all about brain work. They tend to see rigor as the interaction between critical thinking, active learning, high expectations, and meaningful content (Graham & Essex, 2001; Draeger et al., 2013).
  • For students, it’s all about the syllabus and the support. They tend to focus on “how much” they are asked to do and the help they get in doing it—citing things like workload, grading difficulty, clarity of instruction, and level of support (Schnee, 2008; Draeger et al. 2014; Wyse and Soneral, 2018).

Adult students, who often are taking classes online, balancing life and education, and entering college with diverse backgrounds, may have a different understanding of rigor altogether (Schnee, 2008; Campbell 2018).

The key for higher education is to marry these various perspectives and focus on what elements are most critical for setting up students for long-term success. In that way, we can begin to define what makes a course–both online and in-person–rigorous for the modern adult learner.

In my years as an associate provost and dean and now in my role of leading the research arm of StraighterLine, I've spent a lot of time thinking about academic rigor and how it is defined by various stakeholders. To help bridge the gap between the faculty and student perspectives on academic rigor, I reviewed the existing research and formulated a definition of rigor that can serve as a baseline for discussions in higher education.

For today’s learners, it’s clear that rigor is reflected in a combination of course challenge, learning support, and design. The variables within each area can be turned up or down, but each must be present and they need to move in relation to one another. This means providing high levels of support and good course design for a course that is particularly challenging or reducing the workload of a course if its design is lower quality and forces learners to invest more time to understand the material.

An online course environment adds a layer of complexity for students and demands more thoughtful learning design to arrive at an appropriate level of rigor: the distinction between being rigorous versus merely difficult becomes even more important. Students can often be “challenged” by unclear expectations and a burdensome workload without experiencing all the aspects of a truly rigorous learning experience. Research has found that non-traditional and online students generally perceive a higher level of challenge in postsecondary courses than do their in-person counterparts (Barrett, 2015).

This makes the design of online courses particularly critical. “Course clarity and organization” are prerequisites for an appropriately rigorous online course (Duncan et al., 2013).

Learning support, which is critical in all courses, also needs to be more intentionally designed in online programs. There are far fewer opportunities for casual observation of a students’ work and whether they are struggling with a concept. Therefore, regular check-ins, low-stakes assessments, and easy access or quick referral to tutoring, academic counseling, and other support systems need to be built into online courses.

In the issue brief Rigor and College Credit, I make the research-based case for why online courses must maintain a balance among course challenge, learning support, and design. Putting the research into practice, courses at StraighterLine are intentionally designed to maintain the balance among these three elements, while paying particular attention to the student experience. This brief is intended to provide a framework for a larger discussion: 

  • How do we define academic rigor and why is this conversation urgently needed?
  • What is the role of rigor in learning, and ultimately, career and life outcomes?
  • How do we develop a more informed understanding of academic rigor and its connection to outcomes, especially as we look to build new models that focus on what adult learners really know and can do, rather than the time they spend on their education?
  • How do we ensure rigor in online learning?
  • What is the role of student support in rigor?

 Read the issue brief here.

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Dr. Amy Smith is the chief learning officer of StraighterLine, a student success and college readiness company. StraighterLine partners with more than 150 colleges and universities to provide and operate low-risk online pathway programs, expanding access for adult learners and students with missing gen ed courses, financial constraints, work-life balance issues, academic criteria challenges or who lack confidence after a long academic hiatus. Click here to learn more.


Barrett, B. (2013). Creating Structure Out of Chaos in a Virtual Learning Environment to Meet the Needs of Today’s Adult Learner

 Campbell, C. M. (2018). Future Directions for Rigor in the Changing Higher Education Landscape

 Draeger, J., Hill, P. P., Hunter, L. R., & Mahler, R. (2013). The Anatomy of Academic Rigor: The Story of One Institutional Journey

 Draeger, J., Hill, P. P., & Mahler, R. (2015). Developing a Student Conception of Academic Rigor

 Duncan, H. E., Range, B., & Hvidston, D. (2013). Ex­ploring Student Perceptions of Rigor Online: Toward a Definition of Rigorous Learning

 Graham, C. & Essex, C. (2001). Defining and Ensuring Academic Rigor in Online and On-CampusCourses: Instructor Perspectives

 Schnee, E. (2008). “In the real world no one drops their standards for you”: Academic Rigor in A College Worker Education Program

 Wyse, S. A. & Soneral, P. A. G. (2018). “Is This Class Hard?” Defining and Analyzing Academic Rigor from a Learner’s Perspective


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