What is Rigor?

Dr. Rick N. Bolling
Dr. Rick N. Bolling
Elementary/middle school principal; Ed.D. in Leadership
‘RIGOR’ spelled in block letters surrounded by other block letters.

What is Rigor in Education?

Discussing what rigor in education is not is as important as discussing what rigor is. Rigor is not a lot of assignments or lengthy coursework. Further, rigor is not a lot of homework. Many teachers cite their level of rigor as a reason students do not like them or their classes. This practice comes from making excuses and clearly not understanding rigor. Rigor is not aligned with a lack of rapport with students, a fixed black and white mindset, or a lack of smiles. That is, rigor is not simply being hard.

In reality, rigor is developed through building strong relationships with students, parents, and the community. Students are willing to invest and work harder for teachers they like and who like them. Placing a priority on relationships leads to trust which is needed for increased rigor to be successful. Once strong relationships are developed, teachers can press students to think more deeply and become more creative. Teachers will now be able to move students beyond the need to always be concrete and right.

The classroom environment must be safe and conducive to learning to develop appropriate rigor that is needed to prepare students for the real world. Students need to understand that mistakes will be made, but often more learning occurs through the mistake than arriving at an answer immediately.

Along these lines, rigor means redirecting thinking and asking for more thought when a student asks for help. Teachers who understand rigor do not provide correct answers when a student asks a question or becomes uncomfortable with an assignment. Higher levels of learning often come from discomfort. Some current educational practices and too much focus on grades have lowered expectations in education for many students in America. Parents want As and do not want to see their children uncomfortable or challenged. By building strong relationships with the students and parents, teachers can move boundaries and break through the glass ceiling. When parents trust teachers and know they want the best for their children, student learning can dramatically increase.

Rigor is expecting all students to show growth and perform at high levels. When students are given assignments that are relevant and authentic, rigor is increased. When students see purpose in an assignment, they are willing to invest. Having fewer assignments that cover more standards in a more holistic way increases rigor. Rigor is not related to the amount of time spent on a class each night, but is aligned with thought processes and creative energy. In this case, more is not necessarily better. To increase rigor, have students work on assignments that require creative thinking. Try to avoid rote memorization or objective learning.

How Does Rigor Impact Student Learning?

Rigor is one of the essential ingredients for achieving and sustaining school improvement. I often say the three most crucial pieces that must align for increasing student achievement are a priority on relationships, high expectations coupled with rigor, and the use of data-driven decision making. A positive school culture is a prerequisite for rigor to increase student achievement.

When teachers and students alike are held to a high standard with consistent expectations, both groups will work harder. That is, when someone has high expectations and provides support to achieve, you are more likely to rise to the occasion. Increased rigor needs to be combined with support. Rigorous lessons often need scaffolding to allow students to master chunks along the journey. A student is likely to work to meet or exceed the expectations set forth by a teacher that he or she wants to please.

Tips for Rigorous Instruction

Three strategies that teachers can apply to increase rigor in the classroom are differentiation, project-based learning (PBL), and developing a student choice/voice culture. All three of the strategies consider the individual student and can require higher levels of thought. These three strategies are only a few examples of how to increase rigor.


Differentiation simply means meeting the student where he or she is and working to provide as much growth as possible for each student. It is essential to combine rigor with differentiation. A teacher should adjust assignments according to a student’s present level to avoid frustration, but develop individualized high expectations for each student. Differentiation ends the thought process some teachers develop in which they believe the only way to see struggling students succeed is through lowering expectations with the curriculum for all. With differentiation, advanced students are also held to individualized high expectations.

Project-Based Learning

Authentic and relevant learning projects are a hallmark of increased rigor. Project-based learning (PBL) offers limitless opportunities to increase rigor. A project-based assignment is more open-ended. To develop the final product, students will need to be both creative and innovative. Further, assessments from these learning experiences are more authentic. Learning across the curriculum works wonderfully with PBL.

Student Voice

Student voice and choice in assignments can be a way to provide support while increasing rigor. Students are more likely to think more deeply about topics they want to learn about or on assignments that are planned according to their learning style. Either consider giving students a voice in learning assignments or allow multiple ways to complete a more rigorous assignment.

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