Educators, like other professionals, often confuse hard work with virtue. I am not arguing against working hard as a good and even necessary thing, but is hard work inherently good? Is it better to work hard or to do well? Is there a distinction between the two? One can work hard in the service of nothing, simply in the service of work for work’s sake. Doing so is not inevitably bad, but what is the point of effort in the absence of meaning, such as achievement or progress, in the absence of doing well? Some religious orders engage in repetitive or tedious labor as a virtue, but their service–physically productive or not–has a contemplative and spiritual end. In contrast, empty, rote work is simply that: empty and rote.

In higher education we love to expound on the virtues of rigor, and rigor–I would contend–is, indeed, inherently good. Rigor is the process of setting challenges and striving for improvement, and, yes, it is often difficult and requires hard work. But hard work is not necessarily rigorous, and hard work without rigor can be, in fact, mere busy work or rigamarole. Both may be difficult and sometimes appropriate, but only rigor tends toward meaningful learning

Consider this example. I have seen departments and individual professors put an emphasis on citation rules in writing that runs to the extreme. Undergraduate students, even freshmen, are expected to apply APA or MLA style with near perfection and without the aid of apps and electronic reference tools. When questioned, those who advocate for such will claim that these styles are essential to writing in their fields. They will say that these citation styles are the mark of good writing and that their knowledge will bolster the students’ success in graduate school and beyond.

Perhaps there is some truth in that claim, but mastering a citation style has no bearing on whether a student has crafted a clear, logical, and convincing argument. Learning MLA style is hard and can be useful, I suppose, but learning to organize thoughts in a persuasive manner requires rigor. It will naturally be easier for some and harder for others, but it will always be rigorous. Rote aspects of writing, such as overemphasis of citation styles or grammatical and mechanical minutia, just like rote formulas for writing, will certain end in dead writing and the onset of cognitive rigor mortis in the reader.

Recently I attended a conference and heard a talk by Carl E. Wieman, a Stanford physicist and Nobel laureate. He was addressing the way science is taught to undergraduates and describing his experience researched approaches that lead to better learning outcomes through what he called “a scientific approach to teaching.” Instead of reenacting the more traditional or de rigueur approach of lecturing on terms and processes to be memorized, he uses what he calls “practice-with-feedback, research-based active learning,” which starts with the introduction of a question to be answered. The students work on this problem together before the instructor engages them in a class discussion. The instructor provides frequent feedback throughout.

His and others’ experiments with this inquiry-and-feedback-based method demonstrated marked improvements in student learning and even attendance when compared to what he calls the “pedagogical bloodletting” that traditional approaches represent. You can hear a podcast of his presentation and view his slides here.


A familiar truism is that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” but this aphorism is a misquote of Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism. Pope actually wrote,

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring. (Emphasis mine)

The distinction between “knowledge” and “learning” is instructive. Knowledge is more stuff stuffed into an overstuffed head. Learning is the ability to use that knowledge and new information. Accumulating knowledge is an accomplishment and often demands hard work, but it ends there. Learning, though, applies that knowledge and is thus a real challenge that requires rigor.

Both rigor and rigmarole are responses to questions. Rigor starts with “why?” and continues with “so what?” Rigamarole starts with “what?” and sometimes asks “how?” but not much more. Answering these questions reveals much. “What?” and “how?” are necessary and important questions, but answering them alone does not lead to progress. Answering “why?” inevitably leads to inquiry, analytical thought, and synthesis of–yes–knowledge. We call this outcome “understanding.” The question “so what?” leads to evaluation and even deeper understanding. Rigor starts with “why?,” and true learning starts with rigor.