What is Instructional Rigor?

What is true instructional rigor? What are classroom-based strategies that are rigorous?

Instructional rigor has become a controversial topic. Educators disagree about the word itself, citing a dictionary definition of harsh or rigid. A friend of mine points out that if you look it up, the word rigor falls between rigamarole and rigor mortis.

True instructional rigor, however, is centered around student learning. 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.

A Rigorous Environment

What would those concepts look like in a classroom? An environment of rigor includes a focus on progress for each student, in addition to meeting a standard of achievement. If your school has an honor roll, consider adding a progress roll, which recognizes the small steps that each student makes in order to reach the larger goal. Success breeds success, so as students make progress, they are encouraged to try for a higher level.

High Expectations

In a rigorous classroom, each student is expected to learn at high levels. Students tend to live up to or down to our views of them. If we expect students to thrive, over time, they will. If we expect them to fail, they will prove us right. Having high expectations of learning is a critical foundation for future success. Often, teachers ask questions that reflect higher-order thinking, then accept low-level answers from students. Or, we can make comments such as “this assignment is difficult, just try your best.” Our questioning and language reflect our expectations of our students.

Instructional RigorStudent Support

Next, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels. I often hear comments such as, “students should just be able to learn this” or “if they can’t do rigorous work, that’s their problem.” True rigor provides support to students as they move to higher levels of learning. Anytime a student is asked to learn a more difficult skill, they will need help. For example, often, a student is able to complete single-step math problems successfully. Then, when they are asked to use several steps to complete a problem, they are lost. It’s at that point a teacher will need to guide students through the process.

Similarly, if students are asked to read non-fiction text, rather than a story, additional directions and instruction are needed. Non-fiction, informational articles require a different level of concentration. Students must analyze specific facts, place those facts in a broader context, and understand specialized vocabulary. For example, the word grounded in a lesson on electricity has a far different meaning than “I was grounded for not cleaning my room”.

Students’ Demonstration of Learning

Finally, each student in a rigorous classroom demonstrates learning at high levels. Environment, expectations, and support should lead to learning. Students should demonstrate they understand concepts at high levels, rather than through a rote memorization of facts. Using project- or problem-based learning, asking students to rewrite false questions on a true-false test, or crafting questions that require an extended response are several strategies for more rigorous assessment.

Final Thoughts

Instructional rigor is a critical part of school improvement. However, there are strategies that can be easily implemented into any classroom at any grade level or content area.