Academic Rigor and the Inclusive Classroom

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

For some time now, I’ve been reflecting on the idea of academic rigor – what it is, where it comes from in our courses, what kinds of practices promote it. And in light of the Reinert Center’s theme this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own evolving conceptions of academic rigor, and how these intersect with a commitment to inclusive teaching.

What is Academic Rigor and Where Does It Come from?

Virtually all of us are committed to this thing called “rigor.” We believe in it. We broadcast our commitment to it. We assume that we design courses that have it.

We just can’t always define it.

When you ask someone what academic rigor means, you often hear answers like “challenging students” and “holding high standards.”

But “challenging” them how? High standards for what, exactly? And “high” in what ways?

In “The Anatomy of Academic Rigor: The Story of One Institutional Journey,” Draeger et al. (2013) explore some of the different ways “academic challenge” or “academic rigor” has been defined. They start with a consideration of questions from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) that aim to capture “academic challenge,” questions that ask college students to report on the number of books or pages of reading students have been assigned, the number of pages they’ve been asked to write, and the extent to which the courses they have taken foreground higher-order thinking skills (e.g., analysis, evaluation, application). Draeger and colleagues offer a nice summary of the literature on what academic rigor is (see p. 269), and they lay out the methodology by which they studied faculty conceptions of academic rigor at their own institution. Their conclusion offers a “multidimensional model of academic rigor,” which includes that includes “at least four primary dimensions of academic rigor: active learning, meaningful content, higher-order thinking, and appropriate expectations” (p. 272).

Ultimately, the authors conclude – and I suspect many of us would agree – that the amount of reading or pages written or time spent on a course cannot tell us much about rigor. Those things may be signifiers of how “challenging” the workload is, but not the intellectual stakes of that work. The consensus arrived at on Draeger’s campus is more likely to resonate with us: “learning is most rigorous when students are actively learning meaningful content with higher-order thinking at the appropriate level of expectations within a given context” (267, emphasis added).

Personally, I am much more interested in this way of thinking about rigor and challenge, in particular because it highlights the importance of context. Our conceptions of academic rigor are always situated: in a first-year undergraduate course, “rigor” looks different than it does in a culminating graduate-level course, even when both contexts involve “actively learning meaningful content with higher-order thinking.” For me, this is where considerations of inclusive teaching come into play.

How Does Inclusive Teaching Promote Academic Rigor?

Before I address this question, I’d like to tackle one common misunderstanding about inclusive teaching — that it undermines academic rigor. I have noticed that people sometimes worry that inclusive teaching involves a reduction of rigor, a kind of watering-down of high academic standards to the lowest level of performance in a course.

For example, if an instructor de-emphasizes grammatical correctness (choosing instead to privilege critical thinking) when providing feedback on essays written by English language learners, his colleagues may see this as proof that he isn’t holding international or multilingual students to the “same high standards” as he is her American or native English speaking students. Or, if a STEM instructor decides to move from traditional exam-based assessments to alternative forms of assessment as a way of addressing achievement gaps for underrepresented students, her colleagues may see this as a kind of “coddling” that only delays the “reckoning” these students will experience when they discover they aren’t “suited” to STEM fields.

But holding high standards for grammar isn’t the same thing as promoting academic rigor. And neither is assuming there’s only one way to demonstrate success in a course. Indeed, often, what feels like academic rigor may actually be code for a different kind of academic challenge: that of identifying the sometimes-hidden habits of critical thinking or studying that can best help students to meet our high academic standards.

Looking back, I now see that when I was a less experienced, less confident teacher, some of the “rigor” in my courses probably came from expecting students to read my mind. Those who could intuit – by instinct or by educational training – what I “was looking for” were more likely to succeed. Those who – by virtue of different educational or cultural backgrounds and experiences – had not yet been trained to decipher what college instructors “were looking for” were less likely to succeed.

Once I learned to be more explicit and transparent in my teaching — by articulating the high standards I was aiming for, by naming the specific kinds of higher-order thinking I wanted to see, by sharing observable criteria for success, and by explaining the processes for achieving success — my students could rely less on intuition and mind-reading. And this meant they all had a fairer shot at meeting the high standards I set. Even more importantly, it meant that my students were learning transferable skills and that I was assessing all my students on high standards of learning.

At its best, inclusive teaching allows us to articulate what academic rigor looks like and to empower our students to achieve the high standards we are establishing for them. Inclusive teaching demands that we set high standards, prepare all students to be able to achieve those standards, provide honest feedback to help students understand where they are falling short, and help students identify where they may have knowledge/skill gaps and how to work toward filling those gaps.

There will always be students in our courses who are in over their heads or whose past educational experiences have not prepared them well for our courses (perhaps because those experiences were not as rigorous or as inclusive as they could have been). But some students fail to meet our high standards because we don’t expect them to, or because we haven’t yet made it clear what those high standards really are, or because the students have not come from backgrounds that offered them a common understanding of the very elements that constitute academic rigor.

The  aspects of academic rigor that Draeger et al. advocate for — meaningful content, appropriately high expectations, active learning, and higher-order thinking — are, after all, situated concepts. What they mean may differ according to cultural or disciplinary norms. What constitutes analysis and evaluation and application looks different even across different courses within the same discipline, taught by different instructors. Helping students to understand what these activities look like in your course is an aspect of inclusive teaching. It’s also a way to promote the kind of rigor you are hoping students will achieve.


Draeger, J., P. del Prado Hill, L.R. Hunter, and R. Mahler. (2013). “The Anatomy of Academic Rigor: The Story of One Institutional Journey.” Innovative Higher Education, vol. 38: pp. 267-279.

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at

What Should We Know about Stereotype Threat?

inclusive teaching banner_FINALRecently, the Reinert Center hosted two book group discussions on Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. A readable distillation of Steele’s social psychological research on stereotypes and identity (as well as subsequent research inspired by his work), the book can help us to understand educational performance gaps between students of differing identity groups.  In our discussions, both graduate students and faculty members wrestled with the practical implications of this research for classroom practice.

To help instructors better understand what “stereotype threat” is and what we can do about it in our classrooms, the Reinert Center has created two short resource guides: Understanding Stereotype Threat [LINK] and Reducing Stereotype Threat in the Classroom [LINK].

To talk with someone about how stereotype threat may be operating in your classrooms and ways you can reduce these effects, contact the Reinert Center for a consultation [LINK].

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at

Facilitating Diversity Discussions

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby James Fortney, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

For me, inclusive teaching often begins with the selection of a text that engages diversity as a significant theme (e.g., Alvarez, Bauer, & Eger, 2015). By text, I mean anything from research studies to YouTube videos to service-learning sites. How I select a text depends on the goals of the course and the specific context in which I want students to engage with diverse voices and experiences. For example, when I teach qualitative research methods I ask students to discuss qualitative studies conducted with vulnerable populations (e.g., people with disabilities), in critical settings (e.g., homeless shelters), that aim to impact some type of social change (i.e., political in nature). The overarching goal is for students to discuss the methods employed by the researcher – but in and through the complexities of diversity that are central to the study. Selecting the text, however, is the easy part! Engaging in discussion of diverse course content can be a challenging and uncomfortable experience for instructors and students alike. Below, I offer a few evidence-based strategies for facilitating diversity discussions in any course.

Be mindful and proactive (Allen, 2011; Dannels, 2015)
As I already noted, select a text that is meaningful for the goals of your course. In doing so, begin developing your “facilitation toolkit” of questions and content that will help you reinforce those goals throughout the discussion. For example, you may wish to draw students’ attention to theories, contributions, or critiques that are particularly important for your course. You may also find it productive to pose your own questions during the discussion as a way of modeling the type of critical thinking and participation you want from your students.

One way I try to be proactive when facilitating diversity discussions is to imagine possible moments when issues or tensions may arise and then reflect on how I will react as a facilitator. Deanna Dannels (2015) encourages instructors to ask themselves the following questions:

  • What will I do if a discussion about a controversial topic gets too heated?
  • What do I say if a student makes a racist, sexist, or any discriminatory remark?
  • How can I create a “safe” classroom where all views are respected?

Each instructor’s response to these questions will be different – and will depend on the specific text, context, and course goals for discussion. But generally speaking, do not ignore these moments. Find ways to “walk into dialogue” about diversity with your students (p. 166).

Create and use ground rules for interaction (Dannels, 2015)
Provide an example of a code of conduct, statement of ethics, or oath of inclusion at the start of the semester as a way to begin communicating with your students about participating in diversity discussions. Consider revisiting these commitments at the start of each discussion to re-create and re-enforce ground rules for interaction. I frequently use the Credo for Ethical Communication endorsed by the National Communication Association. The Oath of Inclusion in the SLU 2016-2017 Student Handbook is another excellent resource to help develop these rules with your students. Ask yourself, “How will I hold myself and others accountable to these commitments during our discussions?” Again, try to be mindful and proactive.

Have students engage in perspective-taking activities (Dannels, 2015)
Throughout the discussion, model and encourage students to “consistently look for and consider various perspectives on an issue” (Dannels, 2015, p. 157). Below are three questions to add to your “facilitation toolkit” to help prompt students to engage in perspective-taking:

  • If you were to argue the opposite of what you just said, what would it sound like?
  • Can you think of a counterargument to your point?
  • How might someone who disagrees with you respond to that statement?

Build in opportunities for reflection and action (Johnson, Johnson, & Tjosvold, 2006)
Finally, it is important to create a structured and safe space in which students can practice disagreement and intellectual conflict (Dannels, 2015). One way to help create this space is to check-in with students throughout the discussion about how they are experiencing the discussion. These check-ins provide opportunities for you to clarify the goals of the course, your intention for introducing diversity-related topics, and affirmations of the ground rules for interaction. They also provide a nice “break in the action” for everyone (including you!) to breathe, stretch, and regroup before continuing the discussion.

These are just a few strategies to help you develop and facilitate diversity discussions with your students. If you would like to learn more about this topic, I encourage you to explore some of the resources cited in this post and referenced below. You may also wish to attend the Reinert Center’s praxis workshop on Tuesday, November 1 from 1:30-3:00 pm in BSC 253 A&B. The topic for that workshop is “Facilitating Diversity Discussions for Any Discipline” and it will build upon several ideas introduced in this post.


Allen, B. J. (2011). Difference matters: Communicating social identity. Long Grove, IL: Waveland.

Alvarez, W., Bauer, J. C., & Eger, E. K. (2015). (Making a) difference in the organizational communication undergraduate course. Management Communication Quarterly, 29, 302-308.

Dannels, D. P. (2015). Eight essential questions teachers ask: A guidebook for communicating with students. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Tjosvold, D. (2006). Constructive controversy: The value of intellectual opposition. In M. Deutsch, P. T. Coleman, & E. C. Marcus (Eds.), The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and practice (2nd ed., pp. 69-91). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at

New Resource Guides

Reinert Center RIT_circle_2014_solid_082214

Two new resource guides have been posted to the Reinert Center website:

If you want to talk with someone about either of these topics in your own classes, you may request a teaching consultation by completing this form [LINK].

If you have ideas for resource guide topics you would like to see posted, share them here [LINK].

Instructor Identity: Part I. Student Implicit Bias

id-wheelby Gina Merys, Associate Director, Reinert Center

As part of our year-long theme, Inclusive Teaching, we have been focusing on ways in which instructors can create equitable learning environments for all of their students. While we examine the variety of student needs and identities in our classrooms, it can be easy to forget that instructor identities, and how they are perceived by students, are also an integral part of the learning context.

When an instructor’s identity and a student’s implicit bias[1] are mismatched, an undercurrent of dissonance can occur, which can lead to small and large disruptions of the teaching and learning that occurs in a class. For instance, a friend of mine who identifies as Asian-American, discussed with me the fact that although she has lived in the U.S. since she was a very young child and speaks perfect English, she receives at least one comment in her teaching evaluations each semester that states, “Because Dr. Blank is foreign, I cannot understand what she is saying in class.” Regardless of how clear and articulate her language is, some students will register her as unclear because the way she looks matches an implicit bias those students have toward people who look like her.

Other common biases that instructors talk to me about on regular occasions are notions about how “nurturing” female instructors should be and what that looks like in a classroom setting, or about what type of hairstyle or attire is “professional” for an instructor. The list goes on and on, but what makes these biases so powerful in the classroom is that, for the most part, they are subconscious[2]; students often do not realize they have these preconceived ideas nor that these biases are getting in the way of their learning. Not only does students’ implicit bias impede their own and other students’ potential learning, but also it can be extremely damaging to instructors who are working against stereotype threat[3]. The implications for instructors in these situations can be quite stark both personally and professionally.

Assisting students in uncovering their implicit biases by taking some class time in the first week of the term to discuss expectations for teaching and learning as well as to present some common biases that instructors experience and witness can go a long way to setting up the course to be a positive experience for both students and the instructor.  Presenting a mixture of both identity bias and content bias in the conversation works as a way to triangulate those ideas that may hinder learning, as well as to make it clear why this conversation is an important and useful one to have regardless of the subject area of the course.

One way to enter into this kind of discussion is to start with students’ own identities. It is common to use one of the many different identity “inventories” to start students down the path of uncovering who they are and which values impact their identities and viewpoints. In order to add another layer of insight to the discussion, these inventories can also be modified to be inventories of the “identity” of a content area, which will uncover some of those implicit biases students have about a course as well as who and how that course “should” be taught. Some areas to examine are: Who is a (scientist, journalist, nurse, philosopher)?, What type of knowledge is learned in (insert course or subject area)?, How is knowledge in (insert subject area) used? Who benefits from knowledge in this area? Who teaches (insert subject area)? How do I learn (insert subject area)? Adding this new layer of exploration can be the essential component to moving the discussion into effects on teaching and learning that implicit bias may exert.

If you would like to discuss the effects of implicit bias on the teaching and learning happening in your classroom, contact the Reinert Center to set up a teaching consultation.

[1] To learn more about implicit bias, read Sandy Gambill’s Notebook post here. [LINK]

[2] Certainly, not all bias is implicit. Many instructors also face very real, very explicit bias on a daily basis from their students and colleagues.

[3] To learn more about stereotype threat in the classroom consult the following resource guides: “Reducing Stereotype Threat in the Classroom” [LINK] and “Understanding Stereotype Threat” [LINK], or join our conversation of Claude Steele’s book, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do.

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at

Course Design Strategies for Student Identity Development

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby Chris Grabau, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Student identity development is an expanding interdisciplinary field that strives to identify, describe, predict, and explain behaviors that shape identity (Evans, Forney, Guido, Renn, Patton, 2010). One of the main focus areas for the field is the study of psychosocial events that help shape student identity as college students transition from adolescence into adulthood (Chickering & Reisser, 1993).  While there are several opportunities to support identity development within higher education, below are a few resources to help instructors develop a more holistic and inclusive learning environment for identity development.

For a review on theories related to student identity development – visit our mini-literature review. [LINK]

Incorporate critical thinking into class exercises

In the book, Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success (2015), authors Major, Harris, and Zakrajsek offer several activities that can be incorporated into a course. The book is an exhaustive overview of research-proven teaching techniques and strategies designed to improve learning outcomes.  The activities offer students an opportunity to critically think about course material as well as provide students a space for personal development that may be situated in cultural and specific contexts.

Offer reflexive critical reflection

Incorporating a critical reflection exercise into a course may also support students’ identity development.  Stephen Brookfield’s “Classroom Critical Incident Questionnaire” can provide a quick opportunity for students to internally process their relationship to learning.  Distributed during the last few minutes of class, the questionnaire offers the following questions:

•      At what moment were you most engaged as a learner?

•      At what moment were you most distanced as a learner?

•      What action that anyone in the room took did you find most affirming or helpful?

•      What action that anyone in the room took did you find most puzzling or confusing?

•      What surprised you most?

The instructor can collect them at the end of the period or offer a place for students to share their answers in a think/pair/share exercises.  While the questionnaire gives a teacher an opportunity to obtain good information about how students are learning, the exercise also gives students an opportunity to practice many of the behaviors described in Chickering and Reisser’s Seven Vectors of Identity Development.  Completing the questionnaire offers students an opportunity to develop content competence and to manage emotions (Brookfield, 1995; Chickering & Reisser, 1993).

Consider Inclusive Teaching strategies

In order to reflect the diverse identities of college students, instructors may want to strive to incorporate inclusive teaching strategies into their course plan.  Inclusive teaching strategies help instructors to address the needs of students from a variety of backgrounds, learning styles and abilities.  Goodman (2011) offers a few suggestions to help faculty situate learning experiences that contribute to identity development for all students.  Her strategies include: (1) affirm all identities, (2) examine how differences matter, (3) show that people receive privileges whether or not they recognize them (4) emphasize the systemic nature of oppression, (5) heighten investment in the benefits of a greater awareness of privilege, and (6) provide positive role models and options for action.

If you would like to explore further how to incorporate strategies to support student identity development into your course, please contact the Reinert Center at to schedule a teaching consultation.


Brookfield, S.D (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Jossey-Bass, 1995.

Chickering, A. W., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and Identity. Jossey-Bass.

Evans, N. J., Forney, D., Guido, F., Renn, K., & Patton, L. (2010). Student Development in College: Theory, Research and Practice (2nd Ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Goodman, D. J. (2011). Promoting Diversity and Social Justice: Educating People from Privileged Groups. Routledge.

Major, C. H., Harris, M. S., & Zakrajsek, T. (2015). Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success. Routledge.

Perry, W. G. (1999). Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years: A Scheme. Jossey-Bass.

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at

New Resource Guide on Difficult Dialogues

inclusive teaching banner_FINALA new resource guide on Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom[LINK] has been posted to the Reinert Center website [LINK].

If you want to talk with someone about difficult dialogues in your own classes, you may request a teaching consultation by completing this form [LINK].

If you have ideas for resource guide topics you would like to see posted, share them here [LINK].

Implicit Bias

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby Sandy Gambill, Sr. Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Implicit bias is not a new concept, as the 28,100,000 returns on a Google search demonstrate. However, it is a concept that is being discussed in a wide range of situations lately, including the first presidential debate [LINK] of the 2016 election cycle.

Harvard’s Project Implicit [LINK] offers perhaps the most straightforward definition of implicit bias as “thoughts and feelings that exist outside of conscious awareness or conscious control.”

Established in 1998, Project Implicit seeks to “educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a ‘virtual laboratory’ for collecting data on the Internet.” It offers a variety of online implicit association tests (IAT) available to the general public to help uncover hidden biases and preferences about race, gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation. There is also sometimes a “Featured Task,” which is currently a “Presidential Candidate Association Task.”

An IAT typically begins with asking you to answer questions relating to your explicit opinions on the subject of the test. From there you are asked to categories items related to the test subject in a group as quickly as you can, using the e and i keys on your keyboard.

If you have never taken an IAT, it can be a little challenging. Sometimes, it feels more like I’m having difficulty with controlling my reflexes than making a choice. In fact, that is something the Project has studied and addresses in its FAQ [LINK], which explain more about how the testing works and what your results might mean.

So how do we reduce implicit bias in our everyday lives and in our classrooms? Verna Myers urges us to “walk boldly [LINK]towards them.” As the Reinert Center continues its examination of Inclusive Teaching practices this year, we will be posting classroom-specific ideas here in this blog and sharing tips and resources in our Inclusive Teaching Resources page [LINK]. SLU faculty interested in exploring these issues in more depth may wish to participate in our faculty book group on Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi (click here to register [LINK]).

If you have practical suggestions for identifying and reducing implicit bias in the classroom, please share them in the comments section.


Project Implicit [LINK]

The Berkeley Blog [LINK]

Verna Myers TED Talk  [LINK]

How to Fight Your Own Implicit Biases [LINK]


Creating Inclusive Course Assignments

inclusive teaching banner_FINALA new resource guide on Creating Inclusive Course Assignments [LINK to PDF] has been posted to the Reinert Center website.

If you want to talk with someone about designing more inclusive assignments in your own classes, you may request a teaching consultation by completing this form (LINK).

If you have ideas for resource guide topics you would like to see posted, share them here (LINK).

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at

Focus on Teaching & Technology Conference: Nov. 3-4

UMSLSLU faculty and graduate students are invited to attend the 2016 Focus on Teaching and Technology Conference (FTTC) on November 2-3 at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.  The two-day conference features presentations, workshops, and exhibits on emerging trends and effective uses of technology in higher education.

Several SLU faculty and instructors are scheduled to present including:

Simone Bregni (Languages, Literatures and Cultures),

Patrick Brooks (Prison Program)

Mary Gould (Communications)

Fr. Mike May (Mathematics and Statistics)

Dan Nickolai (Languages, Literatures and Cultures)

Nathaniel Rivers (English)

Mark Wilson (Theatre)

Derek Bruff will present the keynote address for the conference. Buff is the Director of the Center for Teaching and a senior lecturer in the Department of Mathematics at Vanderbilt University. His research interests include educational technology, visual thinking, and social pedagogies. His book, Teaching with Classroom Responses Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2009. Buff has taught at Harvard University and has a Ph.D. in mathematics from Vanderbilt University.

The conference is a great opportunity to learn new technologies and to meet other faculty who are incorporating technology for effective teaching in their courses.

Because Saint Louis University is a co-sponsor for the conference, SLU faculty will receive a 25% discount on the conference registration. Graduate students already receive a reduced student rate for registration. The early bird registration deadline is October 1, 2016.  To register for the conference, visit:

Also, considering nominating a colleague for the conferences’ Teaching with Technology Award. The award is for an instructor who has used technology in innovative and effective ways for classroom and online teaching.  To submit a nomination, visit: Nominations are due October 1, 2016.