Taming the Rigor “Animal” in Required Operations Research Classes

“It’s going to be a tough class today,” you think as you walk to your Operations Research class for non-Operations Research majors. “This method is more intense than what they are used to.” Most of us have some particular method of handling this type of class. Maybe we try to go slower and provide more examples; perhaps we stress more the importance of the method. But how do we consistently sell rigor to students who are not naturally interested in Operations Research? It’s tempting to see this as a Darwinian struggle between one’s idealistic desire to teach students as much as possible and one’s wish to be well-evaluated and well-regarded by students. Rigor thus becomes a predatory animal that needs to be tamed and managed.

As part of the Teaching Colloquium, we discussed various strategies. Some create additional examples on video and post them for the students. It’s also possible to emphasize value of certain skills via job ads, real-world examples online, or returning alumni who vouch for certain techniques. And sometimes, we teach students a certain skill because of how it will help them build to new skills later on. One could also argue that better selection of pre-requisites, or occasionally re-allocating material between basic and advanced classes, can help.

However, perhaps we have been too quick to see rigor as the biggest threat. We tend to look at harder material as bitter medicine the student must take, sweetening it with real-world examples or relevance. But, if the material is easier, we may feel less pressured to establish its worth. We are well-aware that rigorous material can frustrate students and lead to complaints. We are less-aware that easier material, if un-validated, can seem like busywork that wastes student time. After chatting with my colleagues at the Colloquium, I left wondering if I had been too afraid of Rigor, and not afraid enough of Relevance. It’s worth thinking about.

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