A widely accepted definition of academic course rigor is elusive within higher education. Although many conceptualizations of course rigor have been identified, both empirically and anecdotally, the need to operationally define and investigate course rigor is necessary given contemporary attacks on the quality of higher education. This article, part 1 of a two-part study, describes the three-phase process by which academic course and instructor rigor and corresponding rigor questions were defined and validated. Results revealed that five rigor components are critical to a definition of course rigor: critical thinking; challenge; mastering complex material; time and labor intensity; and production of credible work. These components were used to create questions distributed in 264 courses (2,557 students). The final phase of part 1 used factor analysis to confirm a strong one-factor solution, confirming the operational definition and corresponding rigor questions were acceptable to empirically evaluate course and instructor rigor.

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