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Academic Rigor: The Deciding Factor?

Academic Rigor:  The Deciding Factor?
Barbara Esteves-Moore

“Rigor is not just about giving harder tests, assigning more homework, or providing extra credit for overachievers. Academic rigor is about creating challenging, engaging, and engrossing lessons that encourage each student to think in new ways.” 

A Guest Blog by Dana Matthews, Associate Director of Admission

As Admission Officers, we get asked about academic rigor all the time. Questions include: What is academic rigor?, How rigorous is your program?, How do you measure academic rigor?, and What do universities look for in academic programs?. Parents also question how academic rigor translates into an advantage to help their child gain admission into a specific university if most schools have similar classes and academic expectations. 

During The Wardlaw + Hartridge School STEM Career night, I asked our Upper School students what they think academic rigor means to colleges and how it affects their future. I found it intriguing that during the discussion not one student mentioned academic rigor. Why? The students felt that it was hard to measure every student on how challenging a class is and felt that academic rigor was subjective and could be manipulated. They felt it was less biased to measure how each student uses the knowledge they obtain. They knew that taking higher level classes did put them in a better position to be accepted to their universities of choice. However, they realized that many students are taking the same classes across the world so to compete solely on academic rigor did not differentiate them from others. 

I found it refreshing to hear our students identify that it takes more than being in a rigorous class and doing well on standardized tests to differentiate themselves from other students. Robyn Johnson, PhD, author of books such as Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching, and The Differentiation Workbook, states that “Rigor is not just about giving harder tests, assigning more homework, or providing extra credit for overachievers. Academic rigor is about creating challenging, engaging, and engrossing lessons that encourage each student to think in new ways.” 

This statement is embraced by the faculty and staff at Wardlaw + Hartridge. Our faculty and staff offer academically rigorous courses but validate the students’ aptitude on additional factors other than test scores and homework. They know each student and provide challenging lessons and meaningful projects to ensure that all students leverage their personal experiences to differentiate themselves.

So instead of asking how rigorous a school’s program is, ask how are the students applying the knowledge they are obtaining. Why should you ask this question? If your child is not encouraged to use the knowledge they obtain in a way that showcases how they think and who they are, how will your child be different from any other student applying to the same university?