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The Ultimate Guide to Academic Rigor
Author: Deana Senn
Academic Rigor – we all want it in our schools and classrooms.
But what does it really look like, why is it important, and how do we use it to engage all students?
After 30 years of experience working in classrooms and studying education research, it’s become clear to me that academic rigor is one of the most powerful leverage points for improving student achievement and motivation.
And in my classroom coaching, I’ve also seen that academic rigor is one of the most underutilized aspects of instruction. If you’re struggling to consistently provide students with academic rigor, you’re not alone.
In this ultimate guide to academic rigor, I’ll cover everything you need to know.
Academic rigor is one of the most powerful tools to improve student achievement and motivation. Yet, it's also one of the most underutilized. Check out this Ultimate Guide to Academic Rigor by @DeanaSenn via… Click To Tweet
1. What is academic rigor and why is it so important?
In The Power of Student Teams (2019), Michael Toth and David Sousa define academic rigor as:
Having an academic culture in the classroom in which there are high expectations for all students to achieve challenging core curriculum standards – content and skills – through engagement and higher-order thinking with autonomy from the teacher (p. 13).
Let’s break that definition apart and talk about what each of the four chunks means:
1. Rigor is a classroom culture: Wow, that’s big – this means there is no magic assignment, and it’s not about asking the perfect question or taking away the anchor chart during the assignment. Rigor is achievable only if we have expectations and routines that consistently focus on the conditions for rigor. Academic rigor is a culture – not an assignment.
2. There are high expectations for all students to achieve challenging core curriculum standards: I wrote previously in a blog titled What is an Equitable Learning Environment? that equity means: It isn’t enough to say we want all students to be treated fairly. It’s about truly defining what we want students to be able to experience and achieve in an equitable learning environment. When it comes to high expectations, we need to define what we want students to experience and achieve and think out the logistics of what meeting those expectations will look like. What needs to be in place in the classroom? How can we offer support and guidance? We can’t simply pay lip service to high expectations for all students. We need to define what a classroom culture looks like if we have high expectations, then make it a reality.
3. Students will achieve content and skills through engagement and higher-order thinking: This part is what we most often think of as academic rigor. But how do we get students into higher-order thinking? It’s important that as you work on developing a rigorous culture in your classroom, you stay focused on the standard and learning target. Students need opportunities to wrestle with the concepts and skills in the standard multiple times as they learn. (I’ll go into more depth on what makes tasks rigorous later in this blog.)
4. Students need autonomy from the teacher: In many lessons, we see the teacher walk the students or whole class to the answer instead of students discovering the answer themselves. Students need autonomy from the teacher both as they learn and as they demonstrate learning. I often hear from teachers that they walk the students to the answer because students can’t do the work on their own. I would change that statement to say: students can’t take the leap on their own. Students need support as they wrestle with their learning, and that support doesn’t always need to come from the teacher – it can instead come from resources and peer interaction.
Each piece of this academic rigor definition is intertwined. If you leave out any part, academic rigor will be almost impossible to achieve in your classroom.
Engagement and higher-order thinking stand on the high expectations and classroom culture.
Student autonomy isn’t possible without high expectations and has no purpose without engagement and higher-order thinking.
When you have engagement and higher-order thinking with autonomy from the teacher, students hit the sweet spot of productive struggle.
2. Why is it good for students to struggle?
I mentioned that students need autonomy from the teacher as they learn. There are many reasons why it’s good for students to struggle, but the short answer I’ll focus on here is that students need to routinely have productive struggle in order to foster a growth mindset.
Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset (2006), defines growth mindset as feeling your skills and intelligence can be improved with effort and persistence.
Because people with a growth mindset feel they can overcome obstacles and develop new skills, they understand the importance of persistence and determination. Growth mindset has proven to temper the effects of poverty on academic achievement (Claro et al., 2016).
From Dweck’s work, growth mindset training for students was created and researched. However, there are mixed results on the effect of growth mindset training, suggesting that the impact on achievement is due to something other – or more – than the training itself.
Dweck herself says that classroom culture really matters. Growth mindset in the classroom depends on supportive peers who are “challenge-seeking” (Young, 2019). “Challenge-seeking” sounds like a rigorous classroom culture with plenty of productive struggle to me!
Productive struggle and academic rigor play an important part in building growth mindset. How will students know that their skills and intelligence can be improved if they don’t see it happening for themselves – and within themselves – during lessons?
Students need to overcome obstacles and learn new skills through opportunities to demonstrate persistence and determination in order to believe that they are capable of overcoming obstacles and learning new skills. Most of us don’t have confidence in abilities we’ve never or seldom been asked to demonstrate.
For example, I have a growth mindset in the kitchen and am willing to try new skills and adapt as needed only because I cook often. If I seldom cooked, I wouldn’t feel confident trying new recipes and substituting ingredients to overcome obstacles in the kitchen.
The only way for students to have a growth mindset about learning is for them to consistently overcome obstacles and develop new skills in a supportive environment.
3. What do academic rigor and productive struggle look like in the classroom?
Productive struggle is embedded in most of our adult brainstorming sessions. I’m sure you can recall the last time you engaged in problem-solving, tested your thinking, or debated your ideas.
Yet we often have a hard time making the connection between our adult productive struggle and – for example – kindergarten students engaging in productive struggle as they work to identify the beginning, middle, and end of a story.
In the classroom, academic rigor and productive struggle look like:
• Students trying out new ideas and informally debating with each other
• Students connecting their thinking to others’ thinking and expanding their thinking based on others’ ideas
• Students defending their stances with evidence
Imagine what a classroom looks like and sounds like if that is what is going on during learning.
It may be loud – students need time to discuss and explore, and they need resources to reference. This isn’t a classroom with students silently working on a single worksheet on their desk. This classroom also has tasks that are worthy of student debates and struggles. (I’ll discuss rigorous tasks in the next few sections.)What does academic rigor look like? Not worksheets and silence. Academic rigor includes student discussions, debates, and struggles. Students try out new ideas, connect to their peers, and expand their thinking. - @DeanaSenn via… Click To Tweet
4. Why is academic rigor so hard to achieve in lessons?
Academic rigor is so hard to achieve because tasks are often not set up for productive struggle.
For productive struggle to occur, the task needs to be just beyond what a student can do without support; students must learn and grow to achieve the task.
There isn’t really a struggle at all if students can complete the task without learning or discovering something new. If the knowledge and skills are already in the students’ heads, they are not learning – they are simply recalling.
However, if the task feels impossible, students may unproductively struggle, and you may find yourself going from student to student trying to help them all. This is why I often hear teachers say, “I tried to make the task rigorous, but the kids couldn’t do it.”
The Rigor Trap
The problem may not lie in the task. It may lie in the structures and support for the task – what I call the “Rigor Trap,” or the conditions that derail academic rigor and productive struggle.
If students need to learn from outside of their head, and the teacher can’t realistically be expected to run around supporting each individual student to learn and grow during the task, what options are left?
There are two other sources students can leverage to learn and grow during tasks: student-to-student interaction and resources for students to learn from. Here are two questions you can ask yourself to prevent the Rigor Trap:
1. How can students support (not teach) each other?
2. How can students access appropriate resources as they learn in a timely manner?
Systems of Support
There are a few “do’s and don’ts” to keep in mind when designing systems of support:
• DON’T stop at peer collaboration: If we only create systems for student-to-student interaction, we haven’t solved the Rigor Trap because then teams will still only rely on the kid with the answer to supply their learning. This builds resentment and frustration. Instead, we need to simultaneously create routines and empower students to seek information as they work.
• DO provide resources for students to seek information: This does not need to be extensive internet research. It could include simple shifts like anchor charts, manipulatives at every desk, and expectations that students utilize textbooks during task work.
• DO make sure supports and resources are always available: The important thing is that all students have access to systems of support to learn and discover as they complete the task, without the teacher or anyone else being the gatekeeper to this new knowledge. Productive struggle within rigorous tasks is only possible if students have access to resources from which to learn from and student conversations from which to grow – without the teacher needing to grant access each time.
My formula for breaking out of the Rigor Trap:
5. What is a rigorous task?
A task is what the student does to produce evidence of progress toward the learning target.
A task can be as small as a question you ask students to answer with their neighbor or it may be a larger project. The word task does not signify the depth or breadth of the evidence. It simply indicates that there should be evidence of learning.
A rigorous task must include directions to the student on how to engage with their resources and each other as part of producing their evidence of learning to be considered academically rigorous.
When planning a rigorous task, drill down to how the students will demonstrate their knowledge and skills. It isn’t enough to think out the question(s) students will answer.
Teachers should plan out the direct line from standards, to learning targets and success criteria, to task, to student interactions during the task, to resources available, and ultimately to the student evidence the teacher expects to see that demonstrates proficiency.
It isn’t until this level of planning that we become intentional about ensuring that all students have an opportunity to demonstrate individually while learning collectively.
Process for Planning an Academically Rigorous Task
Figure 1. The process for planning out a direct line from standards to student evidence for an academically rigorous task.
Planning an Academically Rigorous Task –
A note about using taxonomy levels to plan
It’s important to understand that the level of taxonomy is not the point of the lesson – the taxonomy level is simply a tool to help get students to the level of rigor they need to reach the standard.
In other words, the final destination of any learning is not necessarily to reach a particular taxonomy level – the end goal is for students to demonstrate the standard in the context of how they will use their knowledge in real life.
Let’s take literacy standards as an example.
Why would we ask a reader to compare and contrast an author’s point of view with their own? Or to distinguish two points of view on the same subject?
This isn’t merely a dry exercise in compare and contrast – it is the foundation of a skill students will use daily for the rest of their lives.
Each time we rent a car, read an editorial, decide which movie to watch, or cast a vote, we are using our literacy skills to compare and contrast. And often, we are also analyzing the author, seller, filmmaker, or politician’s point of view so that we can make the best choice.
As you plan rigorous academic tasks, remember that the heart of the task must be aligned with how we use the knowledge and skills of the standard in everyday life.The end goal of learning is for students to demonstrate the knowledge and skills of the standards in real life. Each time we rent a car, read an editorial or cast a vote, we use literacy skills to compare and contrast. @DeanaSenn via… Click To Tweet
6. How do resources support productive struggle?
(Pictured: Example of student learning supports from the IE Model of Instruction Resource Pack)
I taught for 13 years, and in those years, the students in my class worked in teams and I expected them to collaborate, learn, and support each other. The resulting teamwork was impressive much of the time!
Despite my students collaborating and supporting each other, I couldn’t quite get the teams to truly own the learning and productively struggle without my constant help. I was more the facilitator or coach of the teams than a true consultant to student teams who were driving their own learning.
What I didn’t understand then was the power of resources.
As I mentioned earlier, when teams rely on the kid with the answer to supply their learning, resentment and frustration can build. As the teacher, I was trying to lessen this stress by running around between all the teams providing “just in time” support.
When I work with teachers now, I address this issue by helping them set up structures and expectations with student resources as an integral part of student teaming.
What does it look like when student teams have resources to learn from?
There are some small and large shifts teachers can make to ensure teams have the support they need to learn, but I can’t stress enough the importance of putting the text in the hands of students at every level and subject.
This means that as teams work, they should have in front of them their novel, poem, picture book, textbook, and/or the notes they took or that the teacher provided.
You might also assemble an Expert Pack Text Set which incorporates a variety of texts and other media that provide vocabulary, background knowledge, and scaffolding for students to make sense of their learning (see Achieve the Core’s directions on text sets).
Tasks are not tests; teams must be able to readily access information they need to learn or discover new thinking as they work.
Small shifts for providing more student resources to support academic rigor and productive struggle:
1. Notes/worked problems remain available to students
2. Reminders given to use the anchor charts
3. Relevant textbook pages identified on the board
4. Manipulatives accessible to students who need them
5. Supports provided such as multiplication tables and formula sheets
6. Vocabulary notebook, eDictionary, or hard copy dictionary available
7. Access to a second source of learning such as a YouTube lesson
Shifts requiring greater investment of time:
1. Up-to-date word wall
2. Different example worked problems than the modeled problem
3. An exemplar of the task
4. Reminders such as a notebook of mini-anchor charts for each team
5. Learning aides such as number lines on student desks
6. Success criteria/rubric to clarify expectations
7. How does a teacher get students engaged in academic rigor?
How to help teams use resources to engage in academic rigor
The key characteristic of any of the resources listed in the section above is that students need access to them without asking the teacher for permission.
If you are worried about students misusing this privilege, set rules around the use of resources and expect those rules to be followed. If a student wanders around the room disturbing other students as they are heading to the word wall, address their disturbance or show them their path – don’t deny them the resource.
Allowing students access to resources at any time is likely a new routine in most classrooms, so at first expect that it won’t be natural for students to use their resources instead of the teacher.
Teachers can create ways to remind themselves not to give the student the answer but instead remind students that their first source of support and learning should be a resource. It can be a challenge to break old habits. I’ve seen a teacher carry around a stickie reminding herself not to answer questions, while I’ve seen another teacher include it in her lesson notes so she could end her modeling with a reminder to students about which resources would be most helpful in the day’s lesson.
No matter how big or small the resources are, the key is consistency. Students need to form the habit of using their resources – not only because it is vital to productive struggle and academic rigor, but because it is a lifelong skill we all need.
8. How should a teacher who supports productive struggle handle a mistake in class?
“We cannot predict what students will learn, no matter how we design our teaching.”
As Dylan Wiliam points out, we all know that even the best lesson plans are seldom 100% effective. So, how do you respond when students make mistakes or cannot demonstrate mastery of their learning?
While planning definitely matters, it isn’t the only critical piece of a rigorous classroom. The response to students NOT learning often is the thin line that separates the good lesson from the not as fruitful lesson.
In their book, Classroom Assessments for Student Learning (2020), Jan Chappuis and Rick Stiggins distinguish between assessment instruments and assessment practice.
Assessment instruments include the task, quiz, or whatever tool you are using to assess learning.
Assessment practice is when students and teachers identify if the student has mastered the learning and respond by making decisions based on that knowledge.
Centering conversations around assessment instruments alone limits the conversation because it doesn’t address what to do if students are not learning. Instruments simply focus on how to know if students are learning. It isn’t until we have conversations around assessment practices that we can incorporate a response.
Let’s look at assessment systems from three perspectives to better understand how to handle student mistakes and support academic rigor.
What is the teacher doing as students are working? Have they provided resources and peer interaction so that they are able to move around the room scanning and checking in as students work? What small instructional decisions has the teacher planned for if students make mistakes and need a small bump to move forward?
Does the student know the learning target? Do they see the connection between the task and the learning target? Are there routines in place for students to plan, self-reflect, and adjust as they work?
Are there opportunities and routines for student peers to give each other feedback during the task – not just after the task? Carol Dweck emphasizes the importance of peer culture. Here is an opportunity to foster that and support higher-order thinking with one small collaboration routine.
In figure 2, we can see how multiple opportunities for support and feedback during a lesson can help you (and the students themselves) handle student mistakes productively and continue to foster academic rigor.
Figure 2: A model of the teacher, peer, and student all involved in the assessment practice in an academically rigorous classroom.
As stated earlier, to engage students in academic rigor, we need to define what academic rigor will look like and sound like in our classrooms.
Remember to ask yourself four essential questions:
1. What will be my role as the teacher?
2. What will be the role of the students?
3. What support systems need to be in place to create a culture for growth mindset and productive struggle?
4. What support systems need to be in place to plan rigorous tasks?
In answering these questions, we can realize the power within us to create academic rigor in all classrooms for all students.
- Physical student resource kit for academic rigor with free online teacher PD: IE Model of Instruction
- Tech tool for students to self-monitor progress: Student Evidence Tracker
- Related blog post: 6 Steps for Accelerating Learning After the Pandemic
- Related blog post: Why Student Engagement is Important in a Post-COVID World – and 5 Strategies to Improve It
- Related blog post: What is an Equitable Learning Environment?
- Related blog post: Strong Core Instruction: What it is and How it Can Address Inequity and Achievement Gaps
- Related blog post: 3 Strategies to Leverage Formative Assessment Techniques in Any Learning Environment
- Related blog post: Student-Led Formative Assessment: Why Does it Work?
- Webinar recording: 7 Instructional Strategies for Accelerating Student Learning
- Webinar recording: 3 Strategies for Formative Assessment in Any Learning Environment
Chappuis, J. & Stiggins, R. (2020). Classroom assessments for student learning: Doing it right – using it well (3rd ed). Pearson.
Claro, S., Paunesku, D., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113 (31), 8664-8668. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1608207113
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Publishing Group.
Toth, M. D. & Sousa, D. A. (2019). The power of student teams: Achieving social, emotional, and cognitive learning in every classroom through academic teaming. Instructional Empowerment.
Wiliam, D. (2017). Embedded formative assessment. Solution Tree.
Young, J. R. (2019, August 7). New study shows where ‘growth mindset’ training works (and where it doesn’t). EdSurge. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2019-08-07-new-study-shows-where-growth-mindset-training-works-and-where-it-doesn-t#:~:text=A%20large%20nationwide%20study%20has,result%20in%20higher%20test%20scores
About the Author
Deana Senn, Executive Director, Model of Instruction at Instructional Empowerment, calls upon her 30 years of experience in education to support leaders and teachers in increasing engagement, ensuring equity, and closing achievement gaps through student conversations and rigorous learning. Ms. Senn is an award-winning author, national speaker and conducts research and development for Instructional Empowerment. Having experience that spans the United States and Canada in rural and urban districts, Ms. Senn is passionate about creating innovative solutions for all students, teachers, and leaders.
Our vision for education is to close the achievement gap. Equip all students with the social, emotional, and cognitive skills they need to thrive in the 21st century. Expand equity by giving every child access to rigorous core instruction that empowers learners to free themselves from generational poverty.