But is it Rigorous?

When speaking to faculty about implementing UDL, one concern often presented is that faculty do not wish to reduce the rigor of their course and content and are afraid that implementing UDL may do so.

This is such an important concern.

Higher education is intended to be a place in which learners come to greatly expand and enhance their knowledge and skills on their way to being professionals. Any intervention that includes more people simply by lowering the standard should absolutely be challenged and most likely dismissed as a poor fit for the context of higher education.

The good news is: UDL absolutely does not reduce the rigor of curriculum. In fact, the implementation of UDL is intended to enable and encourage greater rigor than what is afforded by traditional instruction. Let’s explore this claim.

Consider this Scenario:

A professor of biology, Dr. Xavier (fictitious), starts a new course on molecular biology with high hopes in terms of the kind of content mastery she expects of her students. She carefully arranges the curriculum, structuring from foundational content to advanced concepts. Then she arranges these content through selecting textbook chapter reading order, and develops associated lectures and PowerPoints. Fall comes and classes begin.

By the time she is five weeks into the course and mid-term tests scores are coming in, it is clear that the majority of students aren’t achieving the rigorous goals that Dr. Xavier had so painstakingly prepared.



At this point, we often come to the conclusion that the students enrolled in the class are not “strong enough” students to handle molecular biology to the degree Dr. Xavier has intended.

This view presents Dr. Xavier with limited options. For example, she can

(1) go on with the course anyway, implicitly or explicitly sending the message that students who cannot keep up don’t really belong in this class/field, and/or

(2) reduce the expectations placed on students (either by reducing the volume or difficulty of content or by loosening passing criteria).

Dr. Xavier’s approach and the situation that she faces are common in higher education. The decision she must make as to how to respond (or not respond) is a frequent frustration.

For many, if we may speak frankly, this is simply the “natural selection” of higher education. Learning microbiology is tough. There may be a perception that some “have what it takes” and some, unfortunately, do not. That’s life.

But wait!

While it is surely accurate that not every student taking Dr. Xavier’s course is destined for a job in microbiology, I suggest that we often come to the conclusion of who is “in” and who is “out” too quickly. In this scenario, we are not looking at “who can learn microbiology,” but “who can learn microbiology the way Dr. Xavier happens to be teaching?” We are not examining “who can practice microbiology,” but “who can demonstrate knowledge of microbiology in the form of a scantron multiple choice exam that Dr. Xavier happens to prefer?”

Recognizing that form and content are inseparable is really important for our discussion. When we talk about “rigor,” what exactly do we mean here? The form or the content or both?

I suggest that there are different views under the surface of conversations surrounding rigor in higher education, and these implicitly different views may interfere with clear communication. Let’s juxtapose rigor of form (methods and materials) and rigor as content (outcomes), for a moment.

  • Rigor as Methods & Materials. Some people may – consciously or unconsciously – associate rigor with methods and materials. In this view, maintaining rigor may translate into keeping a challenging textbook as a primary vehicle of content exposition. It may mean insisting that students write essays to demonstrate content mastery. It may mean a desire to maintain the oral-only lecture as the driver of instruction.In this setting, there is an implicit or explicit sense that students who cannot learn via lecture and textbook reading, who cannot write strong essays or perform on multiple choice tests are frankly not college material. While I often hear rigor expressed in these terms, I suggest that this has little to do with rigor and much more to do with inertia.
  • Rigor as Outcome. There is another way to think about rigor in higher education courses: rigor of outcome. In this view, creating or maintaining rigor may translate to setting lofty and professionally relevant student outcomes (what they will know/retain in future employment, be able to do/transfer to real world applications).  Note that this understanding rigor has not yet made statement about how students learn or how they express their knowledge and skill. It is simply a view of outcome.In this setting, there is an implicit or explicit sense that how we teach and assess should support students in achieving the desired outcomes. There is no need to stick with certain methods or materials if options are available that would enhance students’ ability to reach the goal.

Defining what we mean by rigor is an important check. Often, someone will say that they want rigorous outcomes, but in further conversation it becomes clear that this belies a desire to maintain materials and methods, as with Dr. Xavier. UDL is not compatible with the view that one must maintain traditional methods and materials; it is, however, instrumental for enhancing rigor of outcome.

In the case of Dr. Xavier, the confounding of the two types of rigor becomes clear. Explicitly, Dr. Xavier has set high outcome objectives for her students. That’s wonderful. Implicitly, and perhaps unconsciously, Dr. Xavier has assumed that college-level courses should be delivered with “rigorous” methods of learning and assessment (i.e., traditional forms). Because of this, she may be prematurely concluding that her students are unable to achieve her rigorous outcomes when they struggled to reach and/or demonstrate those outcomes via traditional channels. The result is that Dr. Xavier is faced with a difficult lose-lose choice. Ironically, in her desire to preserve rigor (of methods), Dr. Xavier must reactively reduce rigor (of outcome) either by excluding who achieves the outcomes or by scaling back the outcomes themselves.

In addition to losses to course rigor, there are also personal and communal loses here. What a tragedy, for example, that there may have been some students in the class that would have made wonderful molecular biologists,  but left the program after eeking by with a “D” in the class for reasons that – in fact – had nothing to do with their capacity to be microbiologists.


Re-envisioning with UDL

The same story would play out very differently should Dr. Xavier plan with and implement UDL.

Rather than reducing the rigor (outcome) of the course, many UDL experts believe that rigorous outcomes are requisite to applying UDL. If UDL doesn’t reduce the rigor of the outcome, it increases the ways in which students may achieve the outcome.

The UDL framework involves thoughtful, intentional backwards planning (from objectives to assessments to methods and materials), with a conscious reflection on anticipated variability among learners. The implementation of UDL draws from a collection of well-established best practices, intentionally choosing ways to design flexible methods and materials to address learner variability en route to the stated objective.

When students can spend less time navigating rigid and inhospitable learning environments and assessments, more time and energy remains to focus on meaningful content and skill building.


Rigorous vs Difficult: A Source of Confusion?

So, why is UDL sometimes thought to reduce rigor? One answer may be in what I’ve already suggested, that there are difficult-to-see presuppositions about what a college student ought to be able to do / ways they ought to be able to learn. These presuppositions may be outdated and irrelevant for most professions. But it may also be that when UDL is implemented well, learning is in fact much easier. And I wonder if rigor has become confused with difficulty. Can curriculum be rigorous, but still relatively easily achieved? I would say yes. But this is so unusual in higher education, that we have come to associate difficulty with rigor to a strong degree.

In a recent publication documenting the process of designing and implementing UDL in a nursing course, Kumar and Wideman (2014) found that students overwhelmingly benefited from the flexibility afforded to them in a UDL classroom.  There are many gems in their manuscript, so I strongly recommend reading it in entirety, but one quote from a student really stood out to me. The student said, “It’s my first time I’m doing this in university and French is my first language. And when I’m doing it in a different language, I was like panicking every time. And to pass this class—honestly, it’s the way [the instructor] gives the material that makes it so easy” (p. 136).

From my perspective, taking a science course in one’s second language as a full-time student in a 4-year degree setting does not sound like something that would ordinarily be described as “easy.” I can see how a knee-jerk reaction upon reading this would be to wonder how such a class could be so basic. But what becomes clear from the manuscript is that the class had high expectations for the students that never waned. Rather, the flexible options afforded to the students enabled them to feel more in control of their own learning, equipped to make good decisions, and supported in their acquisition of knowledge and skill. In other words, while the course was objectively rigorous, the student experience was subjectively easy.

That’s what excellence in teaching and learning looks like.

Take Action! 

So what can you do to get going with these concepts? I suggest taking the time to start with learning objectives for one unit of instruction. Make sure you have built strong, measurable objectives with verbs that match what the students actually ought to be doing. (Here is an article that can help with that!).

Develop/re-develop assessment(s) that enable students to demonstrate mastery of the objective. Where possible and reasonable, make these assessments as proximal to real-world application as you can. Also be on the lookout for ways that the task can be made flexible while holding to the same standard.

Next, think about the kinds of variability you can expect in your learners. To get started, you may want to think about variance in interest, background knowledge, preferences for expression, and common disabilities (e.g., sensory disabilities, learning disabilities; my disability profiles handout can be an aid for this step).

Then, consider how the learning experience can be made more flexible to enable students to find the learning easy (i.e., efficient and effective) despite a rigorous outcome.

Remember that implementing UDL is an iterative process. And you don’t have to do it alone. Asking for support from a UDL specialist is an excellent way to walk through the design and implementation process and/or gather feedback before moving forward. Starting small (with one lesson or one unit) and expanding over time is a best practice for UDL integration.


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