When I advocate for Universal Design for Learning, I often get questions about academic rigour. Does offering flexible deadlines and approaches, options for assessment, and supports to reduce barriers diminish rigour and prevent students from developing necessary skills? Are we expecting less of our learners and reducing their ability to overcome challenges? In my experience, the answer to these questions: no, not at all. But the questions are important, and I think they invite us as educators to think carefully about what we mean by “rigour” and what we want it to look like in our classrooms.
I always tell my students (and anyone else who will listen) that the words we use shape our understandings of the world around us. After all, we only need to look at recent news to see the impact of word choice and rhetorical framing. Given my mild obsession with diction, it’s unsurprising that I’ve thought a lot about what “rigour” means and how it informs our understandings of pedagogy. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “rigour” as “the fact of being careful and paying great attention to detail” and “the fact of being strict or severe.” In universities, I think we often conflate the two definitions, striving for the first but implementing the second instead.
If we want our students to be rigorous — thoughtful, careful, critical, and detailed — in their thinking and in their scholarship, we don’t necessarily need to be strict or severe. Rather, we need to create opportunities for our students to attain, practice, and apply skills in multiple ways so that they are prepared to think deeply and engage critically and ethically in a variety of contexts and conditions. In this sense, flexibility, pedagogical care, and frameworks such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can actually expand rigour in a classroom. In fact, UDL practitioners have a term for the kind of rigorous students many of us a seek to develop: expert learners. CAST, the non-profit education organization that created UDL defines expert learners as “resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal-directed, and purposeful and motivated.”
UDL encourages educators to develop expert learners by creating pathways through courses so that students have opportunities to consume, share, and engage with knowledge in multiple ways. In this sense, UDL isn’t about lowering standards; it’s about showing that there are often different ways to meet them. Not only does this approach reduce barriers to learning, it also helps students become self-aware learners who understand that they have a variety of methodologies, tools, and mediums at their disposal to solve problems and share information. Hopefully, by the end of their university career, they will have enough experience to know what works best for their brains and circumstances. They might also see that many of their peers make different choices, have different strengths, and adopt different approaches; witnessing how diverse individuals approach the same assignments and problems is the perfect way for students to better understand and appreciate that there are multiple ways of knowing, doing, and succeeding.
Addressing well-being in the classroom can also promote rigour, self-reflection, and understanding. Adopting a mix of flexible and hard deadlines in class provides students with opportunities to prioritize different types of work and practice setting personal timelines. We all encounter various forms of long, short, hard, and flexible deadlines in our lives, and figuring out where we have wiggle room and how to juggle different kinds of demands is important for any rigorous thinker who is prepared to overcome challenges. Likewise, modelling care and compassion in classrooms can help students to develop communication skills, build empathy, and learn how to locate resources for themselves and others. While we might think that feelings have no place in a rigorous classroom, creating opportunities for students to practice perceiving, articulating, understanding, and regulating emotions is important; emotional intelligence has been shown to support critical thinking, cognitive maturity, and innovation.
But what if students only ever choose one kind of assignment to show their knowledge and never challenge themselves? Or never have to learn how to manage the stress of a timed test? Or think emotional discomfort means they should be exempt from learning? These outcomes are unlikely; flexibility doesn’t mean no deadlines, providing multiple pathways doesn’t mean changing course outcomes, and modelling care doesn’t mean removing all stress — it means acknowledging stress, discomfort, and difficulty and providing tools and resources as supports.
I’m all for rigour. I want to give my students the tools, skills, self-awareness, and confidence they need to overcome challenges, solve problems, and engage with the world around them in a careful and detailed way. But, in my experience, strict rules don’t necessarily encourage rigorous thinking. If we want students who can self-regulate, who are strategic, who are resourceful, and who are detailed and careful, then the answer lies in our pedagogy, not our policies. We can create opportunities for our students to build these skills, and we can do it in ways that don’t cause harm. Universal Design for Learning, flexibility, and pedagogical care can help us reach these goals.