zyBooks is proud to work with the University of Phoenix, an online institution of higher education committed to serving a unique and critical adult student population. The university has been at the forefront of the seismic shift from traditionalist to theory-based teaching practices, practices they apply to their classrooms to give their students a greater chance for success.
Central to this shift has been a fundamental rethinking of the notion of “rigor.”
We spoke to Dr. Jacquelyn Kelly, Associate Dean and veteran education researcher, about how her university applies a theoretical framework to teaching math, and approaches academic rigor – insights you can put to work at your institution, too.
In this post
What drives your university’s approach to teaching math?
Dr. Jacquelyn Kelly The biggest thing for us at the University of Phoenix is to make math safe for students. We mainly serve non-traditional adult learners, and those learners may have been out of academia for quite a while. Many of them are parents or working or first-generation college students. It’s a very diverse population.
We’re serving an incredibly important student population who is looking to better their lives and their family’s lives. This comes with some additional challenges. If they’ve been out of school for a while, the idea of coming back might be very scary. They are also balancing many competing priorities, real life competing priorities.
When they come to us, they may remember previous experiences that they had with math at other institutions, like in high school or even grade school. And those experiences by and large were incredibly negative – they were likely exposed to a very different instructional paradigm that did not focus on the student-centric approaches now well-known in education research.
How are you helping your students succeed in math?
Dr. Jacquelyn Kelly We know that math success is really predictive of college success. We want to make sure that our students have the skills that they need to be set up for success as they enter their math courses.
We do that by integrating a lot of different educational theories. Here at the University of Phoenix, we created a philosophical framework using a variety of seminal, well-accepted learning theories, cognitive theories, theories for motivation, and theories for identity development.
This synthesized philosophical framework drives what we do in our classrooms. It informs how we set up the classroom environment, the teaching strategies, the advisory information, and all of the experiences that the students require to feel safe.
How do you apply these theories on a practical level?
Dr. Jacquelyn Kelly That’s the challenge that all education faces. We have these theories that we know work in the research field. And then we have practices that exist in the actual institutions of education. And those are often not aligned.
A lot of the research that I’ve been doing in the last few years is understanding how to bridge the gap between these complex theoretical constructs and the practices we see in the classroom.
The way that we do it is by relying on that framework. We overlay that framework on top of course features that exist in our classes. We go through each feature and determine which part of our theoretical framework applies.
Can you give us an example?
Dr. Jacquelyn Kelly We’ll start by looking at a class and asking which course features we have control over. Because pragmatically, we don’t have control over everything.
We know, for example, we have control over discussion questions. So we’ll go through them and say okay, based on our theoretical framework, our conceptual change theory says our discussion questions should look like this. Our theory about academic self-concept says our discussion questions should also do that. Our theory about cognitive change says they should also do this.
We walk through each of the six theories that make up our theoretical framework until we develop a list of discussion questions that encompass all of them.
For many course features, we can maximize this kind of implementation because we created a scoring rubric from this matrix so we can see, okay, did we do it? Did we kind of do it? Or were we unable to? We quantify, essentially, the score of every class feature that we design to know how consistent it is with our theoretical framework.
Theoretical Framework For Learning
|Theoretical Construct||Theoretical Claim|
|Conceptual Change||Students learn through conceptual development and conceptual change|
|Social Constructivism||Learning occurs and knowledge exists between social entities and is developed through social interaction|
|Metacognition & Affect||Learning is influenced by metacognitive process and affective state.|
|Systemic Functional Linguistics||Language is contextual; teaching students to navigate those contexts is essential for learning and communicating knowledge.|
|Academic Self-Concept||Academic self-concept is the strongest quantitative predictor of student persistence.|
|Hidden Curriculum||Unintentional messages about learning and knowledge are delivered to students from the structure and policies of the learning environment.|
Source: University of Phoenix White Paper “Using a custom authoring online product to create (education) theory-informed online asynchronous learning environments”
Have instructors been receptive to this approach?
Dr. Jacquelyn Kelly Changing institutional paradigms is a big challenge. Many of the outdated norms that exist in academia, traditionalist views of teaching, are still views that many faculty hold across multiple institutions, because those paradigms existed as they themselves went through the educational system. So they know nothing different.
One thing that has been an incredible challenge is helping faculty understand an evolved definition of academic rigor.
What are the challenges with academic rigor?
Dr. Jacquelyn Kelly Rigor has become almost a buzzword to make sure we’re not watering down academia or anything like that. The question we ask faculty is, when you say “rigor,” what does it actually mean to you?
The answer is usually that students have to have to be challenged, coursework has to be hard. Students, essentially, have to be kind of miserable because faculty is often relating rigor to their own process of earning their terminal degree, which was in fact pretty miserable in many cases.
But if you get instructors to really talk about, ask what really is rigor? Very few are able to actually say, well, it’s just a leveling measure. It’s just a measure that students have met some sort of level of proficiency. That’s it.
We’re still sticking to many outdated teaching practices with the excuse of maintaining rigor. What we’ve noticed is if we can explain that you can still maintain rigor while shifting your methodology to something more productive, they’re likely okay with it.
Because once instructors recognize that rigor is just a level, we can set learning outcomes at the right level. And they will understand that anything in the classroom that supports students with feeling good has a positive effect and is not contradictory to rigor. We don’t want to equate rigor to student suffering.
The Challenge with Rigor
Dr. Kelly discusses the problem with the conventional idea of “rigor”:
Can you give us an example of redefining academic rigor?
Dr. Jacquelyn Kelly A big issue is understanding that leniency is not related to rigor.
A student could have a hardship in their life, say, a family member passed away or they just lost their job – big life events that happen to our non-traditional students because they’re in the middle of their real lives. An outdated perception would be that an instructor couldn’t make any exceptions to turning in an assignment late because it wouldn’t be “fair.”
A practice that would be more in alignment to what we expect in the classroom is we see that student as a human. A student might need a reasonable accommodation because of what’s happening in their life, and by doing so the instructor is not sacrificing the quality of their learning and instruction.
At the University of Phoenix, we specifically put policies in place to support faculty to extend time frames like that because we know that it doesn’t compromise the rigor of the classroom. That’s an example of how a small shift from a traditionalist to a more research-based approach has improved student outcomes.
Why do you think this evolution has been so difficult?
Most faculty’s overarching memory of their own academic experience is earning their doctorate before starting to teach. So that’s their perception of how academia should feel. So unless we define it for them, many instructors will come into a 100-level class filled with novice learners just starting out and apply the expectations and feelings they had at the doctoral level.
That’s not a great place to be for anybody. Not the students. And not the faculty because they just become frustrated. And we want our faculty to have joy in teaching.
How does redefining academic rigor benefit your faculty?
We were discussing at my faculty council the other day, that as a parent, if you’ve gone through some sort of generational trauma, you have to learn to basically re-parent yourself before you parent your own children or do that in tandem. And that is work. That is work.
It’s the same thing with our faculty. They’ve come through a generational system that is essentially abusive for academics. And not on purpose. It’s just really intense and there are no feelings, and it’s not supported by the best research. So as they move into teaching and developing teaching roles, they have to be able to essentially re-parent or relearn how they learn before they can effectively support their students.
And if they do, magic happens.
And if they don’t, the same trauma cycles will continue to repeat, just at lower levels now.
Why faculty needs to re-learn how they learn
Dr. Kelly explains how instructors can break the rigor cycle:
At the end of the day, every single thing we do is for students. In order to support our educational systems at large – nationally, locally, everything – we all have to be in it for the students. We think about that in every single thing that we do. And we try our best to come across with all of that consistently.
At the end of the day, we’re going to push all of the barriers. We’re going to try to do all this translation from traditionalist to theory-based. We’re going to do the hard work, even if it’s not the easy path. And we’re going to still choose that path because it’s the best one for our students.