Academic Rigor: The Words We Don't Say

by Kylee Sibilia | 5/2/18 2:25am

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by Divya Kopalle / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

You hear the words “I’m fine” all the time at Dartmouth. It’s part of the lingo, the same as words like “Foco” and “facetimey.” It’s just something we say. Whether we’re inundated by three midterms over the course of 48 hours, four extracurricular meetings in a single day or a crisis at home that we are unable to deal with, when someone waves at us across the hall and asks how we’re doing, the vast majority of us respond with the same two words.

Dartmouth is hard. That’s a pretty simple concept to grasp at first; it’s what we all signed up for, after all. But when you delve more deeply into what exactly makes a school like this one so challenging on a day-to-day basis, the situation becomes a little more complicated.

Dartmouth has been one of the most highly rated academic institutions in the country for a while now, but in 2015, the College’s pedagogical approach was altered to put even more emphasis on the importance of learning. On Jan. 29, 2015, President Phil Hanlon announced his Moving Dartmouth Forward implementation plan, a key aspect of which was what was initially called “academic rigor.” This plan proposed to “require more from students in classes and consider ways to increase the rigor of the academic experience, such as curbing grade inflation,” with the eventual goal that “students are 24/7/365 learners and intellectual pursuits take precedence over activities that lead to high-risk behavior.”

In the classroom, the concept of academic rigor did not necessarily result in any immediate, earth-shattering effects. Professor Christopher Snyder, chair of the economics department, noted that his department had already been aware of the growing problem of grade inflation prior to the implementation of MDF and that he and his colleagues had already taken steps to address that problem.

“Before [MDF], some colleagues just took a look at the grade distribution and saw that this is something we should keep an eye on, so as a department we just set up some guidelines,” Snyder said. “They’re non-binding. In fact, faculty are free to grade any way they want. I think it just sent the message that we were concerned about grade inflation.”

In the economics department, these guidelines take the form of suggested medians for each class the department offers, with prerequisite classes having lower medians than core, elective and culminating classes. According to Snyder, these guidelines were published before the announcement of MDF, but the two initiatives sent the same message: grade inflation is a problem at Dartmouth.

It is still early to measure empirical data on the success of MDF at curbing grade inflation, but a study conducted by College Pulse on the concept of academic rigor gives us some insight into how students have changed the way they view the learning process over the course of the last three years. Out of the 478 Dartmouth students who responded to the survey, 45 percent said that they thought academic rigor had increased during their time as an undergraduate.

However, from a student’s perspective, it seems that the plan’s impact on grade inflation has been negligible. While 37 percent of Dartmouth respondents said that they thought grade inflation had decreased during their time at the College, 37 percent also said that they thought it had stayed the same. This is consistent with Snyder’s assessment of the academic experience at Dartmouth, at least in the economics department.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on that,” Snyder said. “That it was rigorous before and rigorous after.”

The consistency of the rigor of classes at Dartmouth is relentless; it’s one reason that excessive stress is such a big problem for so many students here. Director of the Student Wellness Center, Caitlin Barthelmes, dissected the relationship between academic pressure and mental health on a college campus.

“I think there’s definitely a bidirectional relationship between mental health, stress and all the other things happening in our lives,” Barthelmes said. “We know that academics can certainly be a primary source of stress for our students. They’re here to learn, and a lot of their time is spent in the classroom and working on classwork, so it makes sense that this super component of people’s lives may hold more weight and therefore may actually contribute to more stress in their lives.”

Part of the stressfulness of academic life at Dartmouth stems from its speed. When there are only 10 weeks in a term, each term can feel like a pressure cooker for students. Sophia Domingo ’20 spoke to the rapid nature of the quarter system.

“Everything is so fast-paced at Dartmouth,” Domingo said. “So it’s hard to stay on top of your classes, and still get sleep, and stay healthy, and have a social life and not be a hermit.”

According to the survey, 96 percent of Dartmouth students said that they agreed with the statement that the College is academically challenging. Again, this number is probably unsurprising to most of us. But as Barthelmes explained, that number means more than what we might think when we first see it.

“I was talking about this bidirectional relationship,” Barthelmes elaborated. “And the reverse is also true. We know that students report that the things most negatively impacting their academic performance include stress, anxiety, depression, sleep problems and also concerns for friends and family members.”

With classes that result in excessive stress and lack of sleep that subsequently results in reduced academic performance, it is clear that mental health is a problem at Dartmouth. Fortunately, the College has a variety of resources available to students who seek help. Barthelmes elaborated on some of these resources.

“Services may look anything like a one-on-one appointment like a wellness check-in, or a BASICS session where we can talk about reducing drinking or making changes around other kinds of dimensions,” Barthelmes said. “We have things like workshops around mindfulness, yoga sessions, and then we also work with our campus colleagues around some of those different policies and practices that can influence students’ wellness.”

Beyond the scope of the Student Wellness Center, Dartmouth also offers counseling services through Dick’s House.

In contrast to the variety of resources funded by the College, mental health in the culture of student-life at Dartmouth is much less prevalent. Jenna Salvay ’20, who recently attended the Ivy League Mental Health Conference at Princeton University, addressed the disparity in student-led mental health awareness groups at the College.

“This might be an exaggeration, but I remember Yale being like, ‘Yeah we have like twelve students groups,’ and all of them had at least three,” Salvay said. “It was kind of weird for us to go up there, and when we were presenting what we had at Dartmouth we were like, ‘Well, we don’t have any of that.’ And I could just see the other schools being like, ‘Hmm, that’s kind of weird,’ but that’s why we went to the Conference in the first place.”

Barthelmes also acknowledged the lack of openness at Dartmouth in terms of conversations between students concerning mental health.

“We know that from some of the data we’ve collected from the Dartmouth Health Survey that many of our students do feel like there’s not free and open discussion around emotional and mental health,” Barthelmes said. “I think that’s something that both students and staff and faculty and all of our community members are hoping to change in the near future.”

Salvay is part of a group of students that is trying to change the way people approach mental health at Dartmouth. They have recently organized a student organization specifically oriented towards addressing mental health, with goals like placing a mental health and wellness chair within each major student organization at Dartmouth in order to increase advocacy, as well as working with the DALI Lab to create a new student app to give students easier and quicker access to mental health resources.

“It’s called ‘Unmasked,’ and it’s an anonymous peer support listening app,” Salvay explained. “It lets students connect with other professional resources. Basically student listeners who are trained will reply to students, and we’ll have set hours when people can go on, and if we’re not online they’ll be able to turn to other resources.”

Progress like this is encouraging, but Salvay acknowledged that the College has a long way to go before the campus climate is accommodating to those facing mental health issues.

“I feel like it’s something that could continue to be worked on,” Salvay said. “I feel like here, it’s kind of that weird thing where people are like, ‘Yeah I have so much work, I’m so stressed.’ But when it gets really real, like, ‘No, I’m actually really sad,’ or like, ‘I really don’t feel that good,’ then it’s like people don’t talk about that kind of thing. And it makes you feel overwhelmed, but it also makes you feel like you’re the only one experiencing it.”

Dartmouth is certainly not the only college facing these issues, as Barthelmes emphasized.

“If you look at national data, across the board, college students are seeing increases in mental illnesses, mental health disorders and things like depression and anxiety,” Barthelmes said. “So we’re not alone in this, and I think it’s honestly a public health problem that colleges across the nation and the world are really paying attention to and trying to apply best practices for how do we help our students.”

In addition to Dartmouth students, the survey was also available to other students in the Ivy League. Out of the1,009 respondents, 97 percent said that they found their university to be academically challenging. When asked whether respondents prioritized social life or academics more, 57 percent of respondents opted for academics, and 11 percent chose social life. Only 32 percent prioritized both equally.

Dartmouth is not alone in its struggle to create an open and supportive conversation about whether or not the way students choose to spend their time is healthy. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do better, nor that we shouldn’t expect more.

The text of MDF published on the Office of the President’s website says we should be “24/7/365 learners,” but I disagree. I think we should be learners when we can, which is most of the time. But I also think we should be adventurers, Good Samaritans and healthy human beings. I think we should be friends to each other. And if that means taking minutes, hours or even days out of our lives to do something as simple as sit on a couch and talk to each other about how we’re feeling, then I think that’s what we should do. Even if that means setting aside that textbook or that problem set, we should do it for the simple reason of needing to rest our brains and focus on a different kind of mental activity.