Few terms in higher education stir more divisive debates than rigor. The controversy, in part, is rooted in a lack of consensus about the definition of academic rigor. The most generic definitions align rigor with standards or expectations, set by faculty, a professional association, or a governing body. For some, particularly students, rigor is understood as whether a class is hard or not. According to the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), however, rigor is “the interaction between critical thinking, active learning, high expectations, and meaningful content.” 

But rigor can also be toxic. Toxic rigor focuses on logistics and deploys standards as a means to weed out students based on systems that uphold inequities. That could mean telling struggling students they simply need to work harder or assigning difficult work for the sake of difficulty

Student-centered learning design prevents toxic rigor because the approach balances academic challenge and support to guide students from where they are now to where they need to go. But to create healthy student-centered learning experiences free of toxic rigor, higher education leaders and faculty members must first understand how and for whom the higher education system was designed. And, more importantly, who was left out of its design.  

The Relationship Between Rigor and Equity

While many people in the U.S. higher education system today are working toward change, historically the postsecondary experience wasn’t designed for a diverse population of learners, particularly learners who have disabilities, are from under-resourced or rural communities, communities of color, or military-affiliated. Depending on how rigor is applied in courses, it can break down or uphold these inequities.

When balanced with support, rigor can be used to bring learners who are harmed by inequitable systems closer to the opportunities they deserve. For example, when rigor is applied with active learning practices, students are able to bring their lived experiences into the learning environment, moving them closer to opportunity by better integrating real-world contexts and the classroom. 

Conversely, when rigor is toxic it can undo higher education’s efforts to diversify student bodies. When students enroll in a college or university they expect to have reasonable opportunities to succeed. However, toxic rigor can create situations that violate that social contract, with significant consequences. 

Without addressing toxic rigor, higher education institutions could risk continuing historical patterns of leaving diverse students unsupported and contributing to disproportionately higher dropout rates. Additionally, students who leave school before graduating may be left with higher debt burdens, which can be especially harmful to students in already economically vulnerable positions. Investments in inclusive recruitment strategies need to be matched by support to help students, especially those unfamiliar with higher education, navigate the system.


Meeting Students Where They Are

This is where student-centered learning design can help institutions apply rigor in a healthy way. Approaching learning design with students at the center is not, as some critics say, moving the metaphorical goalposts to make higher education easier. Rather, design that centers the student recognizes the support students need to achieve a goal and gives them a greater chance to do so.

Entry-level classes are a prime example of where student-centered design can prevent toxic rigor. Sometimes these classes are treated as filters, designed so only some students can actually pass and progress

There are options for higher education to re-design entry-level classes to be ramps instead of barriers, which can provide students with better chances to reach their goals. Co-requisite education, which allows students to enroll in support courses alongside degree-bearing courses is one option. Additionally, colleges like the California State University system and the School of Education at Western Governors University have adjusted their pre-requisite requirements.

Design for One Is Design for All

As higher education leaders consider a student-centered approach to temper toxic rigor, it’s important to understand which student or students are being placed at the center of the learning experience. While it may be tempting to design experiences that support the majority of students, a more effective approach is to use Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to create experiences that remove barriers for those who have been affected by systemic inequities. 

UDL can help institutions build curricula that support all students, not just those who are most likely to succeed. When we conduct learner interviews and analyze survey data at WGU Labs, we don’t just pay attention to what the majority of learners say. We acknowledge and work to understand people in the minority — even if it’s looking at responses from only one or two percent of people. 

Universal design doesn’t only benefit students furthest from opportunity. It's similar to curb cuts (or ramps) built into sidewalks. While curb cuts were initially intended to help people in wheelchairs navigate urban areas more easily and safely, today they help a variety of people including people with strollers, bikes, and roller bags. Often referred to as the curb-cut effect, this phenomenon applies to education as well. Adding appropriate student support to courses because it will help one student has the potential to help all students while maintaining a healthy, rigorous learning experience.  

Long-Lasting Impacts

Using student-centered learning design to prevent toxic rigor has long-term effects. Supportive entry-level classes in a degree pathway can boost students’ skills and broaden the number of learners prepared for higher-level courses. The reverse is also true: Enabling toxic rigor can impact students’ futures. 

For example, if a student has a bad experience in their first college-level math class, they may be more likely to avoid classes with large math components. Ultimately, that choice closes the student off to careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), limiting both the student's options for in-demand roles and STEM companies from attracting the diversity of talent that leads to greater business success. 

While the biggest impact will be to concentrate on preventing toxic rigor in entry-level courses, measures need to be taken throughout the higher education journey. The most effective approach is to scaffold support to enable student success rather than to challenge learners until they fail. 

Rigor is a fundamental part of an effective academic experience. But it’s not the only aspect of learning that matters. When used in balance with strong learning design, equitable approaches, and tailored support, rigor can serve its purpose to challenge students in meaningful ways without turning toxic.