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What Does Rigor Mean?

by Sue Nichols | 1 | 1 Comment

I hear many administrators talking these days about the need for teachers to institute more rigor in their classrooms.   Rigorous classrooms are needed to meet the requirements of the Common Core Standards and to prepare students for the demands of the world after high school.

What does rigor mean?  Does it mean teachers should be piling on more homework, pushing students to work harder, longer hours so they can learn as much content as possible?  Does it mean teachers should be lecturing more so they can cover the vast requirements of the curriculum?  Does it mean teachers should let students “sink or swim,” figuring out on their own how to make sense of the content and communicate that knowledge?

It does not mean any of the above. In Rigor is NOT a Four Letter Word, Barbara Blackburn defines rigor as creating an environment in which:

  1. Each student is expected to learn at high levels.
  2. Each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels.
  3. Each student demonstrates learning at high levels (Blackburn, 2008).

Using this definition, rigor means teachers have high standards and believe their students are capable of achieving their potential.  All students – not only the high performers – are given opportunities to grow. Students are challenged to ask and answer higher level questions, such as those in the analyzing, evaluating, and creating levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  They are motivated in a way that rewards successes, no matter how small.

As students are given challenging work, they need to be supported with scaffolding to enable deep understanding.  There are a variety of ways teachers can scaffold lessons, such as by using top down webs or two column notes, modeling think alouds, and asking guiding questions.  These are a few examples of scaffolds found in Keys to Literacy instructional practices.  Also, teachers should provide opportunities for review and personalized support along the way.

All students need to show they have mastered the material at a high level.  This means that learning happens in classrooms both independently and collaboratively.  After working alone on a question, students build their understanding via small group discussions and then demonstrate learning orally or in writing.  Students will be engaged and accountable for what they have learned.

To increase rigor, there should be a shared understanding about the characteristics of a rigorous classroom where students are expected to use their analytical and problem solving skills, are provided appropriate supports, and demonstrate their understanding at high levels.

For more related resources and links:


Blackburn, B. (2008). Rigor is NOT a Four Letter Word. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Sue Nichols

Sue is the Client Service Director at Keys to Literacy. She is an expert in crafting school and district wide professional development strategies that result in long lasting and sustainable change.

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1 Comment

  1. Cynthia Smith Mabe

    Secondary administrators and teachers need to heed this article! The first paragraph describes what I have seen at several schools with the divide of students performance growing larger. Struggling learners are falling further behind and many even giving up. This would be a fresh view point for rigor for many secondary edcuators.



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