Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Rigor of Coursework

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The world of college counseling has changed a great deal in the last couple of years, so it’s oddly reassuring when some of the questions counselors have to address are chestnuts that come along every year, just as sure as there will be a new edition of the Fiske Guide.  Many of these questions come up this time of year, as students consider modifying their schedules through the drop and add period.

“Is it better to take the AP class and get a B, or take the regular course and get an A?”

“Would colleges rather see students take AP classes at the high school, or take entry level college courses at the local university?”

“If a student is going to be a business major, are they better off taking Statistics as a senior, or staying in the Calculus track?”

Like most questions about rigor and curriculum, the answers are sometimes not that easy to parse—but as a rule, the answer to those questions depends on the answers to other questions:

What’s the student like?  Questions about course selection and rigor too often assume the student will earn the same grade in a more challenging class as they would in a regular track class, and that simply isn’t always the case.  A quick email to the student’s last English teacher could be quite revealing when a discussion comes up about Honors English.  If the A that was earned in English 11 was a generous one, the course to take in Grade 12 is an easier choice.  It’s likely the student knows this already.  Start by asking them about their classroom experience.

What’s the rest of the schedule look like?  Another assumption behind questions about rigor too often assume the student has an unlimited capacity for tough courses.  Many students eating off the top of the rigor menu in three subjects may find a fourth top course too much to handle, or they may devote so much energy keeping that grade afloat, their remaining classes pay the price, and grades begin to dwindle.  Review the schedule as a whole, and make sure this review includes a look at time devoted to work, extracurriculars, and family commitments.  Homework won’t get done if there isn’t time to do it.

What is the college looking for?  Susie was ready to take on the challenges of Calculus, even though her Precalculus experience was anything but smooth, and her interest was far away from high level math.  Four quick calls to the admissions officers of her college choices—calls she made, not the counselor—showed that three of them weighed the courses identically in the admissions process for her particular major, and one gave Statistics an extra plus—so, as the British say, Bob’s your uncle, and Susie was a happy stats student.

On the other hand…  More than a few colleges, including the ones that garner most of the headlines, are likely to tell students and counselors they have no required level of math (or English or…), and simply want the student’s course selections to represent the highest level of challenge the student can reasonably manage.  Understanding the reason why college provide that answer, it doesn’t help much.  If the student feels they have the ability to do well in either, say, Stats or Calculus, the issue isn’t the student’s capability or stress level—it’s what the college prefers to see.  If a college doesn’t really answer the question, a quick peek at the transcripts of past admitted students could guide the counselor’s advice.  Thank goodness for SCOIR and Naviance!

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