Two years ago, my department created a new two-course, doctoral-level sequence primarily aimed at our quantitative methods students. This sequence, aside from our students, also attracts students from other departments (primarily in the social sciences) that plan to pursue more advanced methodological coursework (e.g., Hierarchical Linear Modeling).

One of the primary characteristics that differentiates this new sequence of courses from the other doctoral sequence of methodology courses that we teach is that it is “more rigorous”. This adjective, rigorous, bothers me. It bothers me because I don’t know what it means.

How do I know if a class is rigorous? When I ask my colleagues, the response is more often than not akin to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s “definition” of pornography (see Jacobellis v. Ohio)…I may not be able to define what a ‘rigorous course’ is, but you’ll know it when you take one.

It seems that students, in my experience, associate rigor with the amount (and maybe complexity) of mathematics that appear in the course. Rigor also seems to be directly associated with the amount of homework and difficulty-level of the assessments.

I think that I relate rigor to the degree to which a student is pushed intellectually. Because of this, I have a hard time associating rigor with a particular course. In my mind, rigorousness is an interaction between the content, the assessment and the student. The exact same course taught in different semesters (or different sections within a semester) has, in my mind, had differing levels of rigor, not because the content (nor assessment) has changed, but because the student make-up has been different.

The experience in the classroom, as much as we try to standardize it in the curriculum, is very different from one class to the next. A single question or curiosity might change the tenor of a class (to the good or the bad). And, try as I might to recreate the thoughtful questions or digressions of learning in future iterations of the course, the academic result often never matches that of the original.

So maybe having students that are all interested in statistics in a single course lead to a more nuanced curiosity and thereby rigor. But, on the other hand, there is much to be said about courses in which there are students with a variety of backgrounds and academic interests. I think rigor can exist in both types of courses. Or, maybe I am completely wrong and rigor is something more tangible. Is there such a thing as a rigorous course?