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Rigor and College Credit: Why We Need a Better Understanding of Academic Rigor

Issue Brief_Rigor
Download Issue Brief on Rigor

The COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed the way higher education will be delivered. 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 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 differently. To bridge this gap, Dr. Amy Smith, chief learning officer at StraighterLine, reviewed the existing research and formulated a definition of rigor that can serve as a baseline for the field.


“For today’s learners, it’s clear that rigor is reflected in a combination of course challenge, learning support, and design,” Smith writes in a new issue brief. “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.” That 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.

The issue brief is intended to provide a useful framework to discuss academic rigor, online learning, and the value of higher education and to be a starting point for future conversations.

Interested in learning more? Read the brief here.