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The term “rigor,” when used in an educational context, is often misinterpreted and/or misunderstood. Some believe rigor means more homework, impossible assignments, or being rigid about what students learn and how they learn it. But that really isn’t what rigor in the classroom is truly about. I like the definition provided by Brian Sztabnik in his article “A New Definition of Rigor”: “Rigor is the result of work that challenges students’ thinking in new and interesting ways. It occurs when they are encouraged toward a sophisticated understanding of fundamental ideas and are driven by curiosity to discover what they don’t know.”
True rigor results in students who “come alive” in the classroom – students who are motivated, who “own” their education, who think critically and creatively. If our goal as educators is to ensure students are ready for what lies ahead of them in the future, we need to ensure there is rigor in the classroom. So how do we do that? We teachers need to be engaged, have high expectations for students, and support student ownership of their learning. Let’s explore how we get there:
In research experiments conducted over several years, Harvard professor Robert Rosenthal discovered something he calls the Pygmalion effect: “When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.” (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985).
What we do as educators and the beliefs we hold about the students we teach have a profound effect. Our students come to us from varied backgrounds, with differing strengths and abilities and with beliefs about themselves and their ability to learn. Our job is to encourage and draw out the best in our students, to believe in their ability to achieve, and to act accordingly. Yes, some students struggle, have learning exceptionalities, or may be learning English as a second language, but all are capable of meeting high expectations. Through our actions and behaviors, we communicate the expectations we have for our students.
Here are a few ways to communicate high expectations for all students in your classroom.
We have an expectation that students should be engaged in their learning. That same expectation applies to teachers in the classroom. Educators need to be engaged in and enthusiastic about what they are teaching. While it isn’t always easy, teacher engagement is worth the effort. Here are a few ways to build that engagement:
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” It is important that we actively involve students in their education. Students who have a sense of ownership of their learning are more invested in their academic success. They are more likely to monitor their own learning, be engaged, ask questions, and seek additional help when needed.
As educators, there are several ways to promote student ownership of their education, including:
The primary focus in a rigorous classroom is on engaging students in a way that promotes critical and creative thinking and shifts ownership of learning to the student. The end goal is to enable students to move into the future with confidence and with the skills that will help them to succeed in life. Students need to be challenged and to engage in productive struggle, working in partnership with teachers who believe in and support them.
If you are interested in reading more about rigor, here are some interesting sources:
Day, Christopher (2004). A Passion for Teaching. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
Fried, Robert. (2001). The Passionate Teacher. Boston: Beacon Press.
NCSU (2014). “Developing Student Ownership and Responsibility in High Schools.” Retrieved from
Rosenthal, R., and E. Y. Babad (1985). “Pygmalion in the gymnasium.” Educational Leadership 43 (1): 36–39.
Sztabnik, Brian (2015). “A New Definition of Rigor.” Edutopia. Retrieved from
Zhang, Qin (2014). “Instructor’s Corner #3: Teaching with Enthusiasm: Engaging Students, Sparking
Curiosity, and Jumpstarting Motivation.” National Communication Association. Retrieved from https://www.natcom.org/communication-currents/instructors-corner-3-teaching-enthusiasm-engaging-students-sparking-curiosity.
Written by: Wendi Anderson, Senior ELA Instructional Designer at CenterPoint Education Solutions