Harsh inflexibility. A condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable. Strict precision. That’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of “rigor.”

No wonder academic rigor is misunderstood. Some educators mistakenly take academic rigor to mean more and harder. So they pile on homework or teach material that is far beyond the students’ grade level or what they are prepared for without giving students the tools they need to meet those academic challenges.

But that’s not academic rigor. Instead, when done correctly, academic rigor is an invaluable teaching approach that helps children learn to think deeply, make meaning for themselves, and become aware of their own learning process. As a result, students gain a life skill that can lead both to academic success and a lifelong love of learning.

Turning students into lifelong learners

“Rigor is where kids are doing the heavy lifting,” explains Jill Lliteras, former principal of Prairie Ridge Elementary School in Firestone, CO. By heavy lifting, she means engaging in deep thinking.

Think of rigorous learning as having three stages. First, kids learn something new. Second, they make connections between the new information and things they already know by, say, grouping, comparing and contrasting, or testing the information. In the process, they may enhance, grow, or change how they now understand prior information. This step, in teacher talk, “helps kids make the learning their own.” The third step takes it a bit further: kids take what they’ve learned and the connections they’ve made about a concept and think — or write or talk — through their thought process. For instance, a student might explain that they tried a math problem one way, but then when they tried to draw the problem, they saw it differently.

“When kids can do that,” Lliteras explains, “that’s powerful.” And that’s rigor.

What rigor looks like in the classroom

Principal Lliteras, who has become an expert in helping elementary schools implement rigor across grade levels and subject areas, describes a successfully rigorous kindergarten classroom lesson. The class reads the popular children’s book, The Mitten together, and together they work through understanding the characters and plot. Then each child is asked to think through a different ending to the story. The kids draw their ideas for their new endings and then record themselves on classroom iPads telling their new story ending. They may even discuss why their new ending fits the story.

It’s a lot to ask of kindergartners, but the class does it step by step, together. Even at this young age, kids can think about what they learned and apply it to a new situation: in this case, a new ending.

“One of the things that I love about rigor is that it puts the thought process front and center,” says Robyn Jackson, author of How to Plan Rigorous Instruction and other media about rigor. “Part of our testing culture has put the answer before the thought process. We’re so used to just getting to the right answer.”

With rigor, Jackson says, teachers ask students of all ages to think deeply and carefully about their thought process to arrive at the answer to any question. This can be done with any lesson in a developmentally appropriate way in any grade, Jackson says.

“As students mature, you show them how to do it in a more nuanced way,” she explains. Tweens can use their developing critical thinking skills to compare and contrast characters, settings, and plots in novels or to take different approaches to a math problem. Then they can talk about their thought process with the teacher and their peers. Teens can discuss a historical event or a scientific idea and weigh different perspectives and points of views — and then talk about their thought process with others. Experts say that it’s reflecting on their thought process and listening to others explain their thought processes that enhances kids’ understanding of the topic.

“We’re not going to spoon-feed your child,” Jackson explains. “We’re going to help your child learn how to make meaning for themselves.”

Evaluating homework for rigor

Is your child’s homework rigorous? Hours of homework or tasks that your child struggles with but ultimately can’t accomplish does not meet the bill. Instead, rigorous homework should both serve a clear purpose and present an attainable challenge.

For example, sometimes homework is used to practice a skill, such as doing a math worksheet to practice multiplication tables, or to learn new facts, such as looking up new words in the dictionary and writing the definition. This kind of homework may have its uses but it’s not considered rigorous — even if it’s a whole pile of math worksheets and 500 really sophisticated vocabulary words. On the other hand, homework that challenges students to think by integrating information or skills, such as reading a passage and writing answers to questions or writing original sentences that show the meaning of the word they just looked up gets closer to an idea of rigor.

“If you’re seeing skill practice one night, great. If you see it night after night, that’s not good,” Jackson says, “The second night you want to see that skill used to go deeper.”

Some teachers use homework to both review skills and think about what and how they’re learning — aka flex that rigor muscle. You may see 20 practice problems on a math worksheet, for example. If your child is doing practice problems and then asked to think about how they do these problems, or what they’ve learned, or what they still struggle with — that’s asking kids to think metacognitively about their own thinking. That helps kids think and make meaning for themselves about their own learning and accuracy, Jackson says.

“There are times where one skill practice is helpful,” Jackson says, “but you need to see the build up.”

A great approach for you to add rigor to your child’s learning (even if your child’s teacher doesn’t) is talking to your child about what they’re learning. If you talk to your child and they can do a new skill or apply new information in one context but not in another, they’re not learning that academic agility that they need, Jackson says.

Another approach is to ask your child what happened once they turned their homework in.

“If I’m talking to my student [about their homework], I want to hear that they talked about it [in class]. If they shrug and say they turned it in and got 5 points, then that’s just performing,” Jackson explains. “And that is never acceptable.”

Ask yourself: ‘Do I see my child thinking or just following instructions?’ If they’re just following instructions, they’re not making meaning for themself, and that’s a problem.

3 myths about rigor

  1. Rigor means more work.

    No. Rigor is not about the volume of work, It’s about how students work. The goal is to engage kids in productive struggle, which entails thinking through age-appropriate challenges and solving problems on their own (but with support, such as working with peers and getting feedback from the teacher). Through productive struggle, students gain new insights that they worked hard for. If a lesson is not asking your child to grapple with information and do thinking for themselves, then it’s not rigorous.

  2. Rigor means harder work.

    Well, yes and no. Consider gardening as a hobby. Moving soil is hard. It’s physically strenuous. But the rigorous part is doing the research and determining what to plant, where, and when. How to companion plant, how to feed your family, Jackson says. Sometimes work is hard because it’s outside a child’s level or ability. Or because the child doesn’t have the knowledge base. If it’s hard because it’s putting unreasonable obstacles in front of the children and not supporting the knowledge acquisition and the thinking, then it’s not rigorous.

  3. Rigor means working ahead of grade or development level.

    No. Rigor isn’t giving a child work they’re not ready for, Jackson says. What’s the benefit of doing fifth grade work in third grade? “I don’t want to hear how ‘advanced’ the work is,” Jackson says, “I want to hear how intellectually challenging it is.” Rather than jumping ahead in skills, parents should look for ways that teachers are asking kids to take their grade-level skills deeper. The goal is for kids to fully understand and feel confident about using what they know in different contexts for different purposes.

What you want for your children, Jackson says, are situations where your child is challenged because the problem they’re working on is both complex and inspires them to think deeply and creatively. It makes them think. And then, ideally, think about how they think.

Bottom line: If it’s not asking kids to do thinking for themselves, it’s not rigor.

Key takeaways

For parents:

  • When you see your child doing homework, try to determine what type of homework it is. A worksheet with a bunch of drill-like questions where kids plug in the answers is fine, but you also want to see spaces where your child is asked to make meaning from the information for themself. Is your child being told what to do or being asked to consider and grapple with information? Are students asked to add their own ideas? Is your child asked to think about their thinking, learning, or progress?
  • Worried your child isn’t getting rigorous work? You can add that to your conversations with your children by having creative conversations that challenge your child to think beyond the right answer. After a movie, explore what could have been a different ending, talk about what historical period you would like to travel to and why, or try to come up with inventions to solve everyday problems.

For educators and administrators:

  • When it comes to academic rigor, there are two big experts: Barbara R. Blackburn and Robyn Jackson. Each has written books (and more) about rigor. Start by reading Blackburn’s definition — “Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels” and more in her “Beginner’s Guide to Rigor”. Compare that to Robyn Jackson’s definition, which has four elements: 1) Give instruction that requires students to make meaning for themselves; 2) Ask students to impose structure on information; 3) Ask students to integrate the new skills they learn into bigger processes; 4) Ask students to take what they’ve learned and apply it to new contexts and in new and unpredictable situations.
  • Read How to Plan Rigorous Instruction by Robyn Jackson and watch this video.
  • Read the article What is Academic Rigor and What Do We Do with It? on TeachHub.com.
  • Read the article Academic Rigor: You’re doing it wrong and here’s why in The Edvocate.

For administrators:

  • Check out Mindsteps, Robyn Jackson’s organization that helps school administrators learn about and implement rigor in the classroom and throughout the school.

This article is part of our Transforming High School series, a collection of stories, videos, and podcasts exploring the practices that prepare students for success in college and beyond.

 

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Updated: August 29, 2021