Rigor: What Does It Really Mean, and How Do I Find It?

Around my school as around most others these days, there’s an increasing emphasis on the word rigor.  Administrators, teachers, and parents all want their school to be seen as a rigorous one, one that is full of challenge that requires students to dig and think deeply.  We like to use the word in our public relations materials, our course guides, in faculty meetings, and in conversations with parents.  The word pops up again and again in my Twitter feed or online discussion boards.  And why not?  It’s a nice buzz word.  Unfortunately, like most buzz words, we often use the word without a firm understanding of what it really means, without a clear vision for adding or increasing rigor within our classrooms.  Even if we personally understand what we mean when we use the word rigor, we don’t always communicate our understanding to others effectively.

In the last two weeks, I met with both a parent and a teacher on separate occasions.  The topic of rigor came up in both cases.  The parent, while herself on board with increasing the rigor of the school’s curriculum, mentioned that not all parents felt the same way.  Some parents, she told me, worried that the workload was already tough enough for their students. Adding rigor equated in these parents’ minds with adding more work, both in class and at home.  Similarly to this parent, the teacher I met with agreed that she needed and wanted to add rigor to her course, however, she did not seem sure of how to do this.   Both of these conversations made me think more deeply about rigor than ever before, and here are some of my initial thoughts.  Hopefully, they will prove useful to you as you wrestle with this issue yourself.

  • Increasing the rigor of an assignment, course, or entire school curriculum is NOT the equivalent of adding more work or more standards.  Rather increasing rigor involves taking the current assignments or standards and making them more challenging both through the way we instruct our students  and the way we assess student learning.  Doing more of the same problems or asking more of the same kinds of questions does not increase the level of rigor.
  • This leads me to the second point.  If you truly want to increase the rigor of any given assignment or course, begin by looking at the questions you are asking.  The rigor is in the questions one asks more than in the assignments or standards.  Quite honestly, this is Bloom’s Taxonomy 101, whether you are using the traditional or revised taxonomy.  If you are a teacher who is unsure of what it means to add rigor to your course, I would suggest getting and keeping a question flip chart as a starting point.  It’s a simple but handy reference to use when creating an activity or asking questions during a class.
  • Understand that the standards in the curriculum do not say anything about how you should instruct students to meet that standard.  Your instruction and student learning can be a mile wide but only an inch deep if you only cover the very surface of a standard, if you only ask students to practice recall or memorize a procedure.  In many cases, to increase rigor, it’s not the curriculum (i.e. the standards) that needs changing but the instruction of those standards.  My official job title is “Director of Curriculum and Instruction,” (although the principals of the lower, middle, and upper schools also have just as large, if not a larger, part to play when it comes to instruction since they are instructional leaders).  We define curriculum as what is taught, whereas instruction is how we teach what is taught.  Do you see the difference?  The rigor, more often than not, is embedded within the instruction, within the “how.”  For example, the standards (the what, the curriculum) in AP European History that concern the French Revolution won’t change all that much over time, but the instruction (the how) may change if I want to increase or decrease the rigor of my course.


  1. Pingback: Rigor: Part II | Wiser Today and Still Learning

  2. Pingback: The Realities of Rigor | Wiser Today and Still Learning

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