How To Add Rigor To Anything

how-to-add-rigor-to-anything-assessmentHow To Add Rigor To Any Lesson, Unit, Or Assessment

by Terry Heick

Rigor is a fundamental piece of any learning experience.

It is also among the most troublesome due to its subjectivity. What does it mean? What are its characteristics? Rigorous for whom? And more importantly, how can you use to promote understanding?

Barbara Blackburn, author of “Rigor is not a 4-Letter Word,” shared 5 “myths” concerning rigor, and they are indicative of the common misconceptions: that difficult, dry, academic, sink-or-swim learning is inherently rigorous.

Myth #1: Lots of Homework is a Sign of Rigor
Myth #2: Rigor Means Doing More
Myth #3: Rigor is Not For Everyone
Myth #4: Providing Support Means Lessening Rigor
Myth #5: Resources Do Not Equal Rigor

Why Rigor Matters

Rigor matters because it imposes cognitive load on students, forcing them to confront misconceptions, reconsider positions, separate the implicit from the explicit, and other critical thinking practices that distinguish shaky familiarity from true understanding.

As such, it’s different for every student. If students can’t consistently negotiate rigorous tasks, either understanding or thinking habits should be more closely examined. But if work is beyond their Zone of Proximal Development, students are only being setup for disengagement, frustration, and ultimately failure.

rigor-rubric-fi10 Strategies To Add Rigor To Any Lesson, Unit, or Assessment

Several common classroom tasks are inherently rigorous, including reading idea-dense literature, taking notes, and using the writing process itself, but these are rarely engaging, and don’t always fit with a given academic standard or task. But the following 10 strategies can be used to add rigor to almost anything.

1. Necessitate a transfer of understanding

By definition, transfer requires a student to apply knowledge in new and unfamiliar situations, an inherently rigorous process. If you can encourage self-initiated transfer (unprompted or coached), all the better.

2. Require students to synthesize multiple sources

In rigorous tasks, learners will often need to synthesize data, positions, or theories from multiple sources or perspectives. Whether these are literary perspectives, scientific viewpoints, religious ideas, mathematical theories, or any other fundamentally subjective content, when learners have to analyze, internalize, and reconcile multiple perspectives to create a new position or perspective, rigor is a safe bet.

3. Design tasks with multiple steps that build cognitively

Not all tasks that require multiple steps are inherently rigorous (fill out the worksheet, turn it in, read the book, answer the questions, talk to your partner about your answers and turn them in is neither a unique or rigorous approach to learning).

If the tasks build (somewhat parallel to Bloom’s Taxonomy), rigor is more likely. In this approach, a student might define “conflict,” analyze cause-effect of a specific conflict, research the sources of said conflict, then design some kind of short-term solution to one critical cause of said conflict. This approach starts simple, becomes more complex, and is likely to challenge any student no matter how “proficient” their understanding.

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4. Use divergent perspectives

Use authors, philosophers, artists, content experts, or other thinkers who make authentic cases of their own that offer contrasting perspectives. Not only does this encourage argument analysis, credibility, etc., but also models how elusive and illusory “truth is,” a rigorous idea of its own.

5. Use divergent media forms

Rather than two (or more) texts, require students to analyze a conversation, a poem, and a tweet; a YouTube video, an encyclopedia resource, and an interview with an expert. The more (seemingly) awkward and divergent, the more learners are challenged to develop new strategies to find solutions.

6. Break away from content-area convention

Use literature to frame math. Use science to promote political discussions. Extract the philosophy from cartoons. Find poetry in the stars. Use Google Earth to make sociological observations. These approaches force students to revise schema for new situations, a key characteristics of rigor.

7. Require design thinking (often in project-based learning)

Build design thinking into rubrics or scoring criteria, supply exemplars, or model their use, but whatever you do, be sure that elements of design thinking, creativity, and the “tinker culture” aren’t just “encouraged” but required for the student to find success.

8. Require long-term observation or analysis

Another potential use of project-based learning or learning simulations, when students are required to observe long-term, cognitive actions such as identifying patterns, cause-effect analysis, and problem-solution thinking are natural by-products.

9. Study nuance

Nuance is often overlooked, and offers a world of rigor due to the unique thinking habits it requires.

10. Require students to take and defend positions

This can be done first in small groups, then socialized to larger groups (hopefully outside the classroom). A “position” requires a kind of cognitive ownership that is not only indirectly engaging, but also intellectually stimulating and even emotionally demanding, requiring students to think “Why?” as much as “What?,” “When?,” and “Where?”

Rigor is Always Accessible

As Strong, Silver, and Perini explain in “Teaching What Matters,” rigor is a “quality of content, not a measure of the quantity of the content we cover.” Certain content areas may be more inherently rigorous than others (Astrophysics comes to mind), but rigor can be added to anything.

Watch an episode of Spongebob, have students reconcile Patrick’s presumptions about friendship with Whitman’s ideas on the rugged individual, ask students to study the nuance of Spongebob’s body language and speech patterns over the course of several episode to reveal patterns, then require them to socialize their thinking in small groups to present a new theory on interpersonal relationships from America’s inception to today. You’ve used #s 2, 4, 5, and 10.

The above is a purposefully absurd idea, but the premise is clear: Rigor is always accessible.

Image attribution North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and flickr user woodleywonderworks

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  1. John Brown says

    An excellent and concise explanation with practical suggestions.

  2. disqus_HjRs5PHERf says

    Well constructed resource!

  3. Will Minton says

    I like to frame this sort of emphasis on rigor by telling students we must move “Beyond Summary.” I then say that for any and all writing they do there must be a level of analysis. This can be anything from sharing and justifying their opinion (the lowest level) to explaining from another’s perspective, making connections to other texts or subjects, critique an approach, ask questions of the author or questions that can further understanding, etc… For each of the above I find it’s useful to give examples of what that looks like. With persistence students realize that summarizing isn’t good enough and they get used to taking things to the next level.

  4. […] “Several common classroom tasks are inherently rigorous, including reading idea-dense literature, taking notes, and using the writing process itself, but these are rarely engaging, and don’t always fit with a given academic standard or task. But the following 10 strategies can be used to add rigor to almost anything.”  […]

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  14. craig shapiro says

    Excellent article on “Rigor” in the classroom. There are some key elements that I’d add to the mix.

    1. “Why” – Let’s face it, children and the terms of today and in the future have incredible amounts of information their finger tips. It’s not enough to just give them a PBL assignment and say “go at it.”
    Students, especially those who aren’t inherently motivated need to know why their learning is important. This happens by thoughtful dialogue and reflection. Once this happens, then we can really explore avenues for growth.

    2. Rigor looks different for every student. We must consider how are we assessing the class. Is it a rubric that will apply to everyone? Or is it based more on each individual’s progress? These are two different schools of thought and having a clear path on either one is key.

    3. Make it your class! This is a mantra that I use frequently in school. A classroom community that welcomes rigor and sees it as opportunity, not obstacles, has a true chance at a high quality of learning.

    Lastly, before rigor is asked of students, we must build relationships first. It’s common to challenge students early and often, but without connections first, that rigor will not be a lasting experience.

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