I had preached to myself long enough that I decided to try it. The preaching was particularly the result of reading the research. The evidence is clear that one of the best ways to improve student performance is to raise expectations. I decided that I would expect more, and I had my answer ready: "sure it's hard, this is college."
It wasn't the research and preaching, however, that convinced me to try to improve courses that I already felt were quite rigorous. It was a discussion with colleagues. We were all telling war stories about classes we had taken, the kind of stories where the first liar doesn't have a chance. We were bragging/complaining about the tough professors, reading lists as long as your arm, papers due every week and challenging ideas.What occurred to me during this discussion was that we all seemed to like the classes we were talking about. We were remembering the courses that we liked. What also occurred to me is that even though I think my courses are demanding, the courses I am now teaching are generally not as difficult as the courses that I remembered. I don't mean difficult for the sake of difficult. We weren't remembering busy work and meaningless memorization; we were remembering honest academic rigor, the kind that made us feel good about our accomplishments.
Why aren't my classes taught at the same level of rigor as the classes that I remember the best? I could find no satisfactory answer. I could find the poor excuse answers like blaming public education for poorly prepared students, or blaming TV for eliminating recreational reading in our world, or blaming society for rewarding excellence in athletics above excellence in academics, or blaming students who are just not interested, or blam-ing. . .
That is just the point. I could blame everyone and at the same time not admit that I was the one who prepared my own course outlines, established my own reading lists, assigned papers, gave tests and lectured. After all, I was talking about something I had control over; these were my classes and the only thing that could really get me in trouble was if I did such a lousy job behind the closed door of the classroom that the students broke out and marched on the dean's office.
I started off slowly. I added an additional novel to my literature course, an additional text to an education course, and a few hundred pages of reading to my Bible as literature course. I also required meaningful written work as preparation for every class meet-ing.
Were there some negatives? Yes! I had more that the usual number of students drop my course during the first week of school after reviewing the course syllabus. I assume that these might have been people shopping for an easy class or students who decided that the work required for the class was too much of an investment in effort given their level of interest. I also assume that some students might have found themselves in over their heads.
I tried not to make judgments about the students who dropped and have convinced myself that it was not a significant number, just a few more than usual.
Were there some positives? Yes! First, and probably not the most important, I had more fun. I read more; I felt more engaged with the students; class discussion was more lively; I admit to working harder but not putting in that much more time. I especially enjoyed reading the daily written work. Even though I didn't grade it every day, I read it every day. Students had more to say and said it better because of the improved and increased reading list.
Some students did complain. I listened closely to these complaints, though, and have tried to listen between the lines. Some complained because it was their way of bragging. Others complained in the form of constructive suggestions that would allow the same amount of work, only on a different schedule: Could I make the term paper due on this day instead of that? Could I spend some time explicating a certain idea from the reading that wasn't clear? Would I read rough drafts and suggest improvements?
I usually don't pay excessive attention to student evaluations. They do help, but there is a sameness about them quarter after quarter. Mine always seem to be a little better than OK; and if OK is OK with everybody else, it's OK with me. After upping the ante a bit, though, I wanted to read what the students had to say when they didn't have to sign their names. The bottom line is this. Student evaluations were better when the class was harder.
They were not only better, but there were better suggestions for improving the class. The students seemed to have more invested in the class. Many who would have just taken the course seemed to invest themselves in it.
Now that I've completed my experiment, I will become as obnoxious as the joggers who report on their training regimen to uninterested friends, and reformed smokers who set out to reform the world. So I admit to bragging.
I'm like the guy who lost a few dozen pounds and I want to tell people about it.
I don't really know how my experience generalizes to other courses. I think that all I did was improve a course by making it more rigorous and think that this is possible at other levels. It is at least something that we should consider in our current climate of education reform. What happened didn't cost students or taxpayers, and it had the pleasant effect of invigorating my work. I may be good for another quarter century now and so might our education system if we increase the rigor of our courses.